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Gnawa are considered distant cousins to

those of us from the United States.

Moroccan scholar Chouki El Hamel said so well,

"Gnawa music is analogous to the blues"

(Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race and Islam).

Who are Gnawa?

Many have lived in and traveled throughout Africa,

nations where Black Moroccans and Americans originate today:

Cameroon, Chad, the Gambia, Guinea (why Maallem Mahmoud Gania can also

be found as Guinea), Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone.

Indigenous communities are the main ones.

Some foreigners were friends. Others were scouts for caliphates,

sultanates and trans-Saharan slave trade routes.

Bab Agnaou, Marrakech, leads to an Almohad Dynasty (12th century)-era casbah.
This gate shares the root word for Gnaoua, and may derive
from the Sus Region's Tamazight word ignawen.
Bab el-Kuḥel/Kuḥl
(black) was its historical name.
Evidently Marrakech was a frequent stop for the trans-Saharan trade.

Islam may have been a common denominator between the Muslim masters

and oppressed Black African population, but the latter could still be recaptured

even after "freedom" (Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race and Islam).

Sound familiar?

What is Gnawa music?

Gnawa still show their Bambara, Fula, Hausa,

Wodaabe and Yoruba past proudly

in over a hundred chants and songs,

acrobatic dance during night

ceremonies, lilas! Multiple songs are named

after the communities that once

lived far from the Maghreb (Black Morocco).

They are also about various Muslim prophets,

saints and spirits like Bouderbala

(multi-colored), Chorafa (white/green) such as Lalla Fatima and Sidi

Mohammed, or Sidi Mousa (dark blue).

Maalem Mustapha Sam -  Basha Hammou/Hammouda
Download Mufaja'at Elmoussem

This recording is by three master musicians: Mustapha

"Sam" Essghir, acclaimed Abbas Baska and Abdenbi Binizi.

It's found on Moroccan Tape Stash's invaluable website,

dedicated to rare music and spiritually vibrant recordings.

Africans throughout their journey held onto their lives but spirits' names changed.

What are Gnawa's aspects?

 An intimate relationship with ‘others’, a bridge

between worlds, is found across Africa.

Al-mlouk or jnun (pl. djinn) are invoked and respond to

offerings, tonal changes, their preferred colors.

Read more: Moroccan Gnawa and Transglobal Trance

(Pennsylvania Museum)

The multitude of songs follow changing rhythms

with castanets or karkaba, and goatskin drums

which you can call tbel or ganga.

Yoruba have gangan, similar talking drums!

It always begins with Al-Aada, a drum-heavy

composition to warm up each Gnawa troupe.

This chart explores the different scales and signatures in Gnawa songs.

(Music of the Gnawa of Morocco: Evolving Spaces and Times, pg. 135)

Maallems are called master musicians

because the seven spirits are

summoned through their powerful

three-stringed hajhouj lutes, no frets.

They're chosen by peers and the

mysterious other-world, not their

own vote (Radio Hchicha).

This is the centerpiece of Gnawa ceremony.

Randy Weston's interview with The Smithsonian National Museum of History is special.

"Sometimes it’s called a santir.

It’s a three-stringed instrument.

With the instrument they had contact with the creator.

They call spirits with these instruments,

they play games with these instruments,

they do things with instruments that we cannot do in the West." (Art Works)

Diasporic Parallels

If you have heard American Black spiritual songs,

Gullah ring shouts of South

Carolina, you wouldn't be surprised at the

similarity between Lowcountry residents

(southeastern U.S.) and this family gathering

in Essaouira (Gullah Homecoming).

Gullah people share ethnic ancestry from the Bambara, Fula, Mandinke.

Some could still remember basic arithmetic in

Fula dialects, long after slavery or the Passage (Yale)!

So culturally isolated, Black enclaves within oppressive systems are a global experience.

African-Americans have been accepted by our

diasporic siblings across the Atlantic Ocean.

"The same thing happened with

the Gnawa people in Morocco.

We’re like brothers and sisters but the difference is this, the

traditional music of Africa describes Africa itself."

(Art Works, cont.)

Randy Weston's cultural connections,

discoveries, still impact us today.

He chose as a 20th-century griot to honor

traditional African music at its roots,

and create with the generations who still retained older sounds (biography).

The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians pays

homage so intimately, since

maallems passed soon after their recording, that it is hard

not to re-play 28 years later.

Randy Weston and Maalem Abdellah El Gourd

Activist, author and scholar Mildred Pitts Walters went to

a lila at Maalem El Gourd's Tangier home.

Weston invited her as a guest. She witnessed Gnawa

and Black America's parallels immediately.

"I recalled the ring games, and circle dances of my childhood;

the music and dance in the Pentecostal Church;

the dancing to drum beats

in Haiti, in Nigeria, in the Gambia

and Senegal, and I knew that

the mysteries of that music were

connected to what I had just

heard and seen there, in Morocco."

(The Splendid Master Gnawa)

Other Gnawa/Gnawis, Blackness and Changing Times

Other popular Gnawis, who play traditional style,

are fellow Essaouira musicians

Nass el Ghiwane.

This is where we find another clue to Gnawa's origin story

(The Gnawa Lions).

Abderrahmane Kirouche later used the name Paco

but abd- itself is an Arabic prefix or term for 'enslaved'.

 Gnawis from Maallems Abdelkebir Merchane, Abdelkader

Amlil and Abdendi el Gadari to Abdesslam Alikane and

Abderrahmane Paco likely don't keep their names as revolutionary.

This is simply who they are or were!

But the discomforting reminder,

such a lasting sentiment,

factors into why Gnawa heritage matters.

Times have changed, and women are no longer discouraged.

Check out the third Gnawa session:

Maalmas, Moqademmas and Gnawiyas.

Asmaa Hamzaoui is a Moroccan maallemah

with incredible talent. Her father,

the esteemed Rachid Hamzaoui, taught Asmaa everything he knew (The National).

"He was not concerned too much

that we were women.

He took great pride and joy in seeing us excel in Gnawa."

She has formed a great collective

with Bnat Timbouktou.

Algerian maallemah Hasna el Becharia

did not have easy acceptance (RFI),

but her resilient fire shines brightly in music and a long line of masters.

Gnawa, the Afro-Diaspora and Ancestral Memories in Sound

Gnawa is a diary of double consciousness: bonds to Lalla

Mimouna, Lalla Aicha in Saharan desert, and Moses in Egypt.

Innov Gnawa's Samir LanGus describes

this essential genre similarly.

"With the actual state of things in this world today,

we feel that traditional

music like Gnawa is essential and vital for the health and well-being

of such a rapidly changing world."


Maalem Mahmoud Gania - Fulani ya Baba ya Sidi
(Moroccan Tape Stash)

Gnaoua Culture  Gnawa (UMD Music & Anthropology)  Morocco's Saints & Spirits: Gnawa & The Black Diaspora  Tumblr  TOP OF PAGE