Gnawa, Moroccan Blues: A Historical Background
Chouki El Hamel Duke University December 1, 2000.
(Not to be cited without prior written consent of the author.)
“The most important single element of Morocco's folk culture is its music ... the entire history and mythology of the people is clothed in song.” Paul Bowles
 Paul Bowles, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, New York: Random House, 1963.
Musically, Morocco is heterogeneous, and this heterogeneity reflects the variety of Moroccan culture. From secular urban professionals and religious singers to rural and nomadic singers. From historic and traditional to modern to Raï music. We find the classical Andalusian style, reflecting Morocco's historic relationship with Spain. We find Sephardic music and other folksongs from the historic Jewish communities in Essaouira and Fez. We also find Gnawa; the music originally derived from West Africa that demonstrates the influence of migrations and cultural interchanges across the Sahara.
Gnawa is a term that has two important meanings. It is used to define both a religious/spiritual order of a traditionally Moroccan Black Muslim group and a music style connected to this order. The term encompasses all members of the Gnawa: the master musicians to the players of the Karkaba (metallic castanets) to the disciples and women soothsayers/therapists.
Over 900 years ago, during the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century, slavery, conscription and trade brought people from West Africa (present-day Mali, Burkina Fasso and Senegal area) to the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia). Since it was believed that large groups of enslaved people came from Ancient Ghana (a kingdom north of Mali) in the 11th and the 13th centuries, these enslaved groups were called Gnawa. The descendents of these enslaved groups are the present-day Gnawa, Morocco's most colorful Muslim ethnic group. While they have retained many of the customs, rituals and beliefs of their ancestors, their music is the most preserved trait.
After their conversion to Islam probably still in their country of origin they adopted Bilal as their ancestor and saint patron, Bilal was the first black person to convert to Islam and to become a companion of the Prophet Muhammad and the first muezzin (caller to prayer) in the history of Islam. It is important to note and mention the question of identity of Black Gnawa in Morocco. Aware of their difference and their blackness they chose Bilal a black man as agnate. Bilal was a special man. He was born into slavery and originally from Ethiopia. He converted to Islam while still in captivity and he was tortured for that by his master Umayya b. Khalaf. When Abu Bakr as-Siddiq a very close friend to the Prophet Muhammad heard about the valor of Bilal he bought him and set him free in the name of Islam. Bilal became the personal servant/assistant of the Prophet. This special relationship with the Prophet acquired Bilal a special Baraka (a divine blessing). What the Gnawa are really saying by constructing their Islamic identity is that they are privileged people among Muslims that they have converted to Islam even before Quraysh, the tribe to whom Muhammad belonged, through their spiritual ancestor Bilal, and that they possess his Baraka. They are saying that they should be respected or their respect should be restored because many injustices have been committed against them. It is not surprising to find the name of Bilal in many Gnawa songs.
The Gnawa originally used their music and dance to heal the pain of their captivity. Gnawa lyrics contain many references to the privations of exile and slavery. In some songs we find words that express the trauma of being displaced and the deep hurt of loosing their homes. This is well illustrated in the following song:
They brought from the Sudan
The nobles of this country brought us
They brought us to serve them
They brought us to bow to them
They brought us Oh there is no God but God
We believe in God's justice.
In another song:
The Sudan, oh! Sudan
The Sudan, the land of my people
I was enslaved, I was sold,
I was taken away from my loved ones.
There are also songs dealing with the Gnawa's assimilation in their new environment where they sing and dance to ease the pain just as Black Americans did when they sang as a way to deal with their plight. In this regard, Gnawa is very similar to the Blues that is rooted in Black American slave songs, which were widespread in the southern United States by the late 19th century. There are also patterns that are similar with many spiritual black groups in Africa such as the Bori in Nigeria and the Stambouli in Tunisia, the Sambani in Libya, the Bilali in Algeria and outside Africa such the Voodoo, a religion practiced in Caribbean countries mixed from Roman Catholic ritual elements and traditional rituals from Dahomey. These similarities in the artistic and scriptural representations seem to reflect a shared experience of many African diasporic groups.
The Gnawa's contemporary social condition and the inequality in their social and economic status in Morocco are clearly displayed in the following song:
Oh! God our lord,
My uncle Mbara is a miserable man
My uncle Mbara is a poor man
Our lady eats meat
Our master eats meat
My uncle Mbara gnaws at the bone
Our lady wears elegant shoes
Our master wears beautiful shoes
My uncle Mbara wears sandals
My master goes to the cinema
My uncle Mbara entertains in the market.
Oh! God is our guide
This is the predicament of the deprived
Oh poor uncle Mbara.
In the religious and musical domain, the Gnawa people found legitimacy for their cultural distinctiveness and have created a category integrated in the society but still have exclusionary practices. The practices and representations of these spiritual groups related to slavery, when placed without the black community is questioned and sometimes unwelcome therefore this raises questions about the limits for its syncretism. The images conveyed in their songs construct a coherent representation of the displacement, disposition, deprivation and nostalgia. The Gnawa experience sketched in this essay is very similar to all enforced diasporas. Through their ceremonies, their songs and gatherings these people made restitution of an imaginary or an "imagined community" to match with an interrupted past. The Gnawa are a fascinating story of how they invented their identity to set up against a broken cultural continuity. How or where they found resources of resistance and identity with which they comfort and confront the fragmented and the pathological ways in which their experience has been reconstructed within the new society. Aware of their identity, the Gnawa have very well negotiated their forced presence in Morocco. Unlike the conventional question, "Who are we?" in Black America, the Gnawa ask, "Who have we become." A model of creolization and integration.
Over the past fifty years in north Africa, Gnawa music, like the Blues in America, has spread and attracted practitioners from other ethnic groups, in this case Berber and Arab. Although most present-day Gnawa musicians are metisse and speak Arabic and Berber, some West African religious words and phrases do survive even though their meaning is lost. But Gnawa music is found mainly where black people live in a relatively large number; large enough to form a distinctive community like the one in Marrakech and in Essaouira. These two cities are known historically to have slave markets connected to the trans-Saharan slave trade. Gnawa music has engendred a popular style of pop music for mere entertainment such as Jil-Jilala or Nass al-Ghiwane. These two bands were the most listened to in Morocco in the 70s and 80s. But Gnawa music interestingly just like jazz in America is not recognized as a national music. The national Moroccan music is the Andalusian music, which has developed, in “Muslim” Spain and came to Morocco with the expulsion of the Moors in 1502.
Gnawa people have created a distinct space in Moroccan society. They play a social and spiritual role as well as perform entertainment. Gnawa music is spiritual music that is significantly used for therapy. They claim possessing skills to cure insanity and free people from malign influences. They believe that God is too powerful for bi-lateral communication and direct manifestation that He can only be reached through spiritual manifestations in our world.
They perform trance ceremonies called derdeba (possession rite) which generally takes place at nighttime for this reason it is also called al-layla (meaning the night in Arabic). The Gnawa believe that many misfortunes that happen to people are not just accidental or inevitable but they could be caused by evil spirits. That’s why some people from all walks of life under the affliction from some acute illness, infertility, or depression come to seek Gnawa’s intercession. Sometimes some people would seek their intercession for the purpose to preserve the good fortune.
The ceremony is performed all night long. The orchestra constitutes of many musicians: the m'allem (lead musician or maestro) plays the guenbri (a three-stringed bass lute) and other members of the group play drums and karkaba (metallic castanets). Generally they all dance as well. Music and dance are one thing to the Gnawa.
Usually the ceremony takes places inside the house/shrine/center of a Gnawa family/group. Most of the time, the first part of ceremony is mundane it is an exercise for warming up. The ceremony usually includes seven sections, which is represented by seven saints or ancestral spirits. Each section is also associated with a particular color (white, blue, red, green, black, yellow, and a mix of colors) and each color symbolizes a particular function in nature and beyond. The ceremony is performed through a well established rituals, such as a sacrifice of sheep or a goat, cloths of different colors, eating dates, drinking milk aromatized with rose water, and the burning of incense. But Music, chant, “call and response” and dance which are fundamental in the ceremony are the most visible trait. Some participants go into a trance where a spirit may associate with them and express through the dancer's mouth its wish for the appropriate tune and the preferred color. Al-Layla will continue until the goal is achieved and the trance is over and the participant has been cleansed form his afflictions.
In such ceremonies, the Gnawa stand out of themselves as “a social construction” in the Moroccan society to which they were acculturated throughout centuries after they first came as enforced migrants and dissolve themselves into “a spiritual construction” stripped from social and mundane identities and worldly affairs.
A good example of the new millennium modern Gnawa is Nass Marrakech. An important member of the group Abdeljalil, for example, has toured with Don Cherry, and various other members of Nass Marrakech have worked with the Casablanca School of Jazz. On "Sabil 'a 'Salaam," Nass Marrakech blends traditional music with new songs that connect with contemporary themes and audiences. "Ana, Anta" ("You, me") speaks about equality of human and persons rights. "Salaam Aleikum" addresses the need for peace and harmony in the world. Traditional songs include "Yo Mala," a song which is reported to have existed for over 900 years and is performed in the old Bambara language. Nass Marrakech blend West African drums (djembes) with mandolin, Indian tabla, guenbri and the karkaba to create a distinctive musical landscape.Music is a form of communication. It communicates through a special language that transcends ethnicities, nationalities, religions and political boundaries. The music of Nass Marrakech is such an example.
 See the interesting study done by Viviana Pâques, Religion des esclaves: recherches sur la confrérie marocaine des Gnawa, Bergamo [Italy]: Moretti & Vitali, 1991.
 For more information about this historic figure see the The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Leyden, E. J. Brill, art. Bilal.
 Viviana Pâques in "The Gnawa of Morocco: The Derdeba Ceremony," in The Nomadic alternative: modes and models of interaction in the African-Asian deserts and steppes, ed. Wolfgang Weissleder, The Hague: Mouton, 1978, she describes the Ganwa as "sons of Sidna Bilal" as masters of possession rituals. She gives an interesting analysis of the symbolic elements of the Gnawa spiritual order.
 Translation with my own emphasis from Abdul Karim al-Asiri, `Alam at-tuqus wa ‘l-alwan dakhil al-layla al-ghnawiyya, Essaouira: éditions es-Safriwi, 1999, 33.
 Translation with my own emphasis, ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 17-18.
 See Mohammed Ennaji, Soldats, Domestiques et Concubines. L’esclavage au Maroc au XIXe siècle, Casablanca: Editions Eddif, 1994.