Gnawa ~ Mystical Musicians of Morocco

Written by Chloe Bolton

Gnawa musicians

What is Gnawa?

The term Gnawa (or Gnaoua) has three distinct meanings.

It refers to an ethnic minority within Morocco, whose ancestors can be traced back to slaves transported from sub-saharan Africa, primarily from the areas of present day Mali, Burkina Fasso, and Senegal to the Maghreb, between the 15th and 16th centuries. These black slaves served as soldiers for the ruling dynasties of Morocco. With time, the enslaved were freed by manumission, escape, and other circumstances, and formed various communities.

One community that formed within the ethnic minority is a relatively small group, the Gnawa brotherhood, which brings us to the second definition of Gnawa. This group is a mystic sect of traditionally back Muslim musical healers who practice ritual ceremonies of spirit possession. Of all of the mystic sects in Morocco, the Gnawa are the least understood. Many traditional Muslims think of them as magicians and accuse them of practicing black magic.

Gnawa is also the name of the musical style related to the brotherhood, which is spiritual music intended for healing by inducing trance. Gnawa music plays an integral role in the ritual ceremony, known as Lila Derdeba.

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Deviations from the “Traditional” Ngoni


When one thinks of instruments ‘inspired’ by the ngoni, the banjo or the guitar is usually the first to come to mind. However, many Malian artists have been able to alter and ‘defy’ the traditional connotations that are associated with the ngoni.

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Famous Ngoni Players

The ngoni (or xalam) is said to be the most ancient of the jeli instruments: in an fRoots interview, Bassekou Kouyate, Mali’s most famous ngoni-playing jeli, states, “It is the first instrument of the griots, so ultimately the ngoni is the source of all griot melodies…

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The ngoni is a type of plucked lute played by the Mande people of West Africa. According to Eric Charry in Mande Music, this instrument is culturally restricted to the realm of the jeli musician and is believed to be the oldest of all griot melody instruments.

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The Kora and Jazz in America – Two Album Reviews

As with many instruments associated with “World Music”, the 21-string harp known as the Kora has had a relatively successful career infusing traditionally Western musics with a (for better or worse) “exotic” sound.  The Kora in particular has struck a chord with jazz musicians who have used it to enhance the sound of their ensemble.  Generally the musicians that promote this type of sonic exploration would locate themselves on the fringes of genre definition, and so it would come as no surprise to jazz listeners that two of the more adventurous musicians in jazz, Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra, have both featured the kora on records and in live performances.  In my first example, the Kora is played by a professional African Kora player, and in the second, an African American jazz musician associated with the avant-garde/experimental movement.  Each player has his own way of utilizing the instrument and musical contexts in which he is located.

Village Life

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Notable Malian kora musicians, past and present

Batrou Sekou Kouyate is shown below.

Photo credit: Oliver Gresset

Most kora musicians are concentrated in Mali, Guinea, Senegal, and The Gambia. The vast majority of kora musicians come from Jeli families, hereditary musicians that can trace their lineage back to the Sunjata epic of the 13th century, when the Mande empire was established in West Africa. Today’s most famous kora musicians, such as Toumani Diabate and Mamadou Diabate are indeed the sons of an older generation of kora musicians.

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