Gnawa music

Gnawa music

Gnawa music is a mixture of African, Berber, and Arabic religious songs and rhythms. It combines music and acrobatic dancing. The music is both a prayer and a celebration of life. Though many of the influences that formed this music can be traced to sub-Saharan Africa, and specifically, the Western Sahel, its practice is concentrated in north Africa, mainly Morocco and Algeria. (See Gnawa for more details)


In a Gnawa song, one phrase or a few lines are repeated over and over throughout a particular song though the song may last a long time. In fact, a song may last several hours non-stop. The norm, though, is that what seems to the unintiniated to be one long song is actually a series of chants, which has to do with describing the various spirits (in arabic mlouk (sing. melk)), so what seems to be a 20 minute piece may be a whole series of pieces, a suite for Sidi Moussa, Sidi Hamou, Sidi Mimoun or the others. But because they are suited for adepts in a state of trance, they go on and on, and have the effect, that they provoke trance from different angles.

The melodic language of the stringed instrument is closely related to their vocal music and to their speech patterns, as is the case in much African music. It is a language that emphasizes on the tonic and fifth, with quavering pitch-play, especially pitch-flattening, around the third, the fifth, and sometimes the seventh. This is the language of the blues. سGnawa have venerable stringed-instrument traditions involving both bowed lutes like the "gogo" and plucked lutes like the gimbri (Ar. چنبري; also called "hajhuj", Ar. هجهوج or "sentir" Ar. سنتير), a three-stringed bass instrument. The Gnawa also use large drums called "tbel" (Ar. طبل ) and krakebs large iron castanets; Ar. قراقب) in their ritual music. The Gnawa hajhuj has strong historical and musical links to West African lutes like the Hausa "halam", a direct ancestor of the banjo.

Gnawa "hajhuj" players use a technique which 19th century American minstrel banjo instruction manuals identify as "brushless drop-thumb frailing". The "brushless" part means the fingers do not brush several strings at once to make chords. Instead, the thumb drops repeatedly in a hypnotically rhythmic pattern against the freely-vibrating bass string producing a throbbing drone, while the first two or three fingers of the same (right) hand pick out, often percussive patterns in a drum-like, almost telegraphic manner.


Gnawas perform a complex liturgy, called "lila" or "derdeba". The ceremony recreates the first sacrifice and the genesis of the universe by the evocation of the seven main manifestations of the divine demiurgic activity. It calls the seven saints and supernatural entities ("mluk", Arabic: ملوك) represented by seven colors, as a prismatic decomposition of the original light/energy. The "derdeba" is jointly animated by a "maâlem" (master musician) at the head of his troop and by "moqadma" or "shuwafa" (clairvoyante) who is in charge of the accessories and clothing necessary to the ritual.

During the ceremony, the clairvoyante determines the accessories and clothing as it becomes ritually necessary. Meanwhile, the "maâlem", using the "guembri" and by burning incense, calls the saints and the supernatural entities to present themselves in order to take possession of the followers, who devote themselves to ecstatic dancing.

Inside the brotherhood, each group ("zriba"; Arabic: زريبة) gets together with an initiatory "moqadma" (Arabic: مقدمة), the priestess that leads the ecstatic dance called the "jedba" (Arabic: جذبة), and with the "maâlem", who is accompanied by several players of "krakebs".

Preceded by an animal sacrifice that assures the presence of the spirits, the all-night ritual begins with an opening that consecrates the space, the "aâda" ("habit" or traditional norm; Arabic: عادة), during which the musicians perform a swirling acrobatic dance, playing the "krakebs".

The "mluk" (sing. "melk") are abstract entities that gather a number of similar "jinn" (genie spirits). The participants enter a trance state ("jedba") in which they may perform spectacular dances. By means of these dances, participants negotiate their relationships with the "mluk" either placating them if they have been offended or strengthening an existing relationship. The "mluk" are evoked by seven musical patterns, seven melodic and rhythmic cells, who set up the seven suites that form the repertoire of dance and music of the Gnawa ritual. During these seven suites, seven different types of incense are burned and the dancers are covered by veils of seven different colours.

Each one of the seven families of "mluk" is populated by many "characters" identifiable by the music and by the footsteps of the dance. Each melk is accompanied by its specific colour, incense, rhythm and dance. These entities, treated like "presences" (called "hadra", Arabic: حضرة) that the consciousness meets in ecstatic space and time, are related to mental complexes, human characters, and behaviors. The aim of the ritual is to reintegrate and to balance the main powers of the human body, made by the same energy that supports the perceptible phenomena and divine creative activity. Later, the "guembri" opens the "treq" ("path," Arabic: طريق), the strictly encoded sequence of the ritual repertoire of music, dances, colors and incenses, that guide in the ecstatic trip across the realms of the seven mluk, until the renaissance in the common world, at the first lights of dawn.

Almost all Moroccan brotherhoods, such as the Issawa or the Hamadsha, relate their spiritual authority to a saint. The ceremonies begin by reciting that saint's written works or spiritual prescriptions ("hizb", Arabic: حزب) in Arabic. In this way, they assert their role as the spiritual descendants of the founder, giving themselves the authority to perform the ritual. Gnawa, whose ancestors were neither literate nor native speakers of Arabic, begin the "lila" by bringing back, through song and dance their origins, the experiences of their slave ancestors, and ultimately redemption.

Gnawa music today

During the last few decades, Gnawa music has been modernizing and thus becoming more profane. However, there are still many "lilas" organized privately, which conserves the sacred, spiritual status of the music.

Within the framework of the Gnaoua World Music Festival of Essaouira ("Gnaoua and Musics of the World"), the Gnawa play in a profane context with slight religious or therapeutic dimensions. Instead, in this musical expression of their cultural art, they share stages with other musicians coming from the four corners of the world.

As a result, Gnawa music has taken a new direction by fusing its core spiritual music with similar genres like jazz, blues, reggae, and hip-hop. Every summer for four days in June, the Festival welcomes famous musicians that come to participate, exchange and mix their own music with Gnawa music, creating one of the largest public festivals in Morocco as well as one of the best jam sessions on the planet. Since its debut in 1998, the free concerts have drawn a festival audience that has grown from 20,000 visitors to over 200,000 in 2006 including 10,000 visitors from around the world.

Past participants have included Randy Weston, Adam Rudolph, The Wailers, Pharoah Sanders, Keziah Jones, Omar Sosa, Doudou N'Diaye Rose, and the Italian trumpet player Paolo Fresu.

There are also projects like "The Sudani Project," a jazz/gnawa dialogue in collaboration between saxophonist/composer Patrick Brennan, Gnawi maâlem Najib Sudani, and drummer/percussionist/vocalist Nirankar Khalsa. Brennan has pointed out that the metal "qraqeb" and gut bass strings of the "guembri" parallel the cymbal and bass in jazz sound.

In the 1990s young musicians from various backgrounds and nationalities started to form modern Gnawa bands. Gnawa Diffusion from France and Gnawa Impulse from Germany are two examples. These groups offer a rich mix of musical and cultural backgrounds, fusing their individual influences into a collective sound. They have woven elements of rap, reggae, jazz and rai into a vibrant musical patchwork.

These projects incorporating Gnawa and Western musicians are essentially Gnawa fusions.

List of Gnawa maâlems

*Mahmoud Guinia "(the King)" or Gania (actual spelling in passport) - He played with the likes of Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Santana, to name but two. Contrary to popular myth, guitarist Jimi Hendrix did not spend a few months in his house to take some lessons. He is the son of the late Maâllem Boubker Gnaia, and his two brothers Abdelah and Mokhtar are also distinguished maâllemin (masters). The Gania Family does also include Zaida Gania, who is a very popular medium and clairvoyant at the nights of trance (leelas) as well as the head of a group of female gnawas, The Haddarate of Essaouira.

*Brahim Belkane "(The traditional)"- He played with Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant, Adam Rudolph, Randy Weston, and Jimmy Page. He says that "there are many colours on earth: red, green, blue, yellow. You have to find these when you play, to be bright like the sun."

* Hamid El Kasri- He is these days living in Rabat, but his origins are in the northern town Ksar El Kbir, thus the nickname Kasri (i.e. the one from Ksar). He is one of the biggest stars on stage and is particularly renowned in Morocco for his great voice. In his youth Maâllem Hamid was much associated with the gnawa scene in Tangier and masters like Abdelwahab "Stitou".

*H'mida Boussou "(The grand master)"- As a child H'mida immersed himself in Gnawi culture as taught him by the Maâlem Ahmed Oueld Dijja, and became a Maâlem himself at the age of 16. He also worked with Maâlem Sam from 1962 to 1968. Maalem H'mida Boussou died 17th February 2007, but his son, Maalem Hassan Boussou continues the gnaoua tradition and played a concert in homage to his late father at the 10th Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival in June 2007.

*Chérif Regragui "(The communicator)"- He became a Maâlem by the age of 18. He worked with Tayeb Saddiki in theatre and he was behind the group Taghada.

*Mahjoub Khalmous - His skills took him to many festivals in Europe. In 1993 he formed his own group and became a Maâlem. He has worked for several years with Professor Bertrand Hell, head of the anthropology department at Besançon University in France.

*Allal Soudani "(The dreamer)"- His grandparents M'Barkou and Barkatou were brought from Sudan as slaves. "When I play I no longer feel my body, I empty myself. And when I reach the state of trance I become nothing more than a leaf on a tree blowing at the mercy of the wind" he says describing his trance moments.

*Abdellah El Gourd - He learned Gnawa as a young man, while working as a radio engineer in his hometown of Tangier. He has collaborated with jazz musicians Randy Weston and Archie Shepp and blues musician Johnny Copeland. With Weston, he co-produced "The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco," which received a 1996 Grammy Award nomination for Best World Music Album.

*Hamid el Kasri - He began his apprenticeship at the age of 7. He has the gift of being able to fuse the music of the north with that of the south: "gharbaoui" from Rabat, "marsaoui" from Essaouira and "soussi" or Berber from the south of Morocco.

*Omar Hayat "(The showman)"- Taught by Mahmoud Guinea and the late Maâllem Ahmed. He created his own group in 1991. His style is particularly influenced by reggae, although one should not be mistaken: Omar Hayat plays true gnawa and is a great source of inspiration for the young gnaoui in Essaouira . He participated recently at the festival of Avignon and has also been working and touring with the german circus Afrika! Afrika!.

*Abelkebir Merchane - He is from an Arab family, none of whom are gnawa. His style is a mixture of "marsaoui" (Essaouira) and "Marrakchi" (Marrakech). He is also known as Cheb. He was taught by Maâllem Layaachi Baqbou and he possibly has the greatest voice in moroccan gnawa today. His son Hicham is also a gnawa master.

*Abdeslam Alikkane and Tyour gnawa - He is a Berber from the region of Agadir. He learnt how to play the krakebs at the age of 9. He is particularly interested in the healing aspect of gnawa. He has performed at many international festivals, playing with Peter Gabriel, Gilberto Gil (currently Brazil's minister of Culture) and Ray Lema [] .

*Abderrahman Paca - He is one of the founding members of the group Nass El Ghiwane. In 1966 he briefly joined the "Living Theatre" then two years later met the legendary Jimi Hendrix.

*Mohamed Kouyou - In 1984 he played at the opening of the Moroccan Pavilion at Disney World. He also plays in essaouira's gnawa festival

*Mokhtar Gania - Son of the great Maâlem Boubker. He is the younger brother of the legendary Mahmoud. He has played at the great Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2003 sharing the stage with Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble, Gigi, Sussan Deyhim and others. He is currently considered one of the hottest gimbri players around.

*Mohamed Daoui - He teaches the younger generation of future maâlems for which his reputation has stretched far and wide.

*Abdelkader Benthami - He owes his education to some of the greatest Maâlems such as Zouitni. He lives in Casablanca, and showed his strength on albums like Bill Laswells Night Spirit Masters. His sons are both masters, and the youngest, Abderrahim, debuted in 2007 at Festival d'Essaouira.

*Si Mohamed Ould Lebbat - At the age of 18 he began to play with Maâlem Sam, whom he accompanied to festivals in France.

*Ahmed Bakbou - He has worked with some of the great Maâlems - Ba Ahmed Saasaa, El Hachimi Ould Mama, Homan Ould el Ataar, Si Mohamed Ould el Fernatchi. He is the first son of Maâllem Layaachi Baqbou, and he is known as "the talking gimbri", and even though he sings, he is often playing the gimbri with close friends like Abdelkebir Merchane or his brothers Moustapha and Aziz singing.

*Essaïd Bourki - He has his origins in the south of Morocco. He performed with his group in Belgium in 1990. He is considered the secret master of Essaouira.

*Abdellah Guinea "(The Marley)"- He became a Maâlem at the age of 16. His nickname is due to his dreadlocks and fondness of reggae. He is the middle son of Maâllem Boubker Gania. Today Abdelah is by many considered one of the greatest maâllemin in Essaouira.

*Mohamed Chaouki - Formerly a horse trainer once worked in the stud farms of Rabat. At the age of 19 he became a maâlem. He formed a group with his brother, sons and nephews with whom he has performed in Europe 18 times.

*Saïd Boulhimas - He is the youngest Gnawi to play at the 7th edition (2004) of the gnawa festival. Saïd was taught by Abdelah Gania and is almost considered the son of the maâllem. He won the Festival de Jeunes Talents (Festival of young talents) in 2006 and is also part of the french/moroccan Band Of Gnawa with Louis Bertignac and Loy Erlich.

*Hassan Hakmoun - By age four, he performed alongside snake charmers and fire-breathers on Marrakech streets. His mother is known throughout the city as a mystic healer. He worked with Peter Gabriel. He is currently based in New York.

ee also

*Gnaoua World Music Festival
*Mahmoud Guinia
*Music of Morocco
*Andalusian classical music
*Fann at-Tanbura

External links

* [ Many resources about gnawa at this site]
* [ Essaouira at]
* [ gnawa at the Catholic University of America, D.C.]
* [ gnawa at]
* [ Dar Gnawa Website]
* [ (Maâllem Mokhtar Gania)]


* [ Gnawa Stories: Mystical Musician Healers from Morocco]
* [ gnawa at the Moroccan ministry of Communication website]
* []
* [ gnawa by Chouki El Hamel at Duke University December 1, 2000]
* [ article about Gnawa from the "Centre de collecte et de recherche Arab-art" (the description above comes from this side)]

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