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.

Gnawa Music

Gnawa musicinas are divided into two groups: the Master and the troop. The Maalem, or master musician, plays the guembri (spelled a myraid of ways and aslo known as a sintir or hajhouj), a three stinged bass lute tuned to an octave and a fifth. According to wikipedia, Gnawa music played on the guembri “emphasizes on the tonic and fifth, with quavering pitch-play, especially pitch-flattening, around the third, the fifth, and sometimes the seventh.” The melody and rhythms played on the guembri are similar to the vocal music and speech patterns of the Gnawa people. Guembri player uses the thumb of the right hand to rhythmically play the lowest string, creating a hypnotic pulsating drone, while the index and middle finger (and sometimes ring finger) play pentatonic minor melodies on the two other strings. The playing technique is illustrated in this youtube video “Gimbri 101

Most of the troop play  krakebs, large iron castanets, and a few play the tbel, a large deep drum. The fat rythms of the krakeb is essential for inducing trance; think about techno or western trance music of today, which generally features fast pulsating bass rhythms. Here are three videos illustrating three different rhythms used in Gnawa music, played on the krakeb: rhythm 1, rhythm 2, rhythm 3

Chanting is used in a call and response manner. The Malaam invokes the spirits and saints by calling their names many times, repeating lines of praise, and soliciting their help. Of the Gnawa’s 243 songs used in the Lila Derdeba, there are no narrative lines, only invocations to the saints and spirits of the Gnawa. However, during the entertainment section which preceeds the Lila, the Gnawa sing other sogs which recount their personal history and experience of slavery.

Gnawa Ritual & Spirit Possession

*click on links to see videos/hear music*

The Gnawa originally used their music and dance to heal the wounds of slavery. Today Lila Derdebas are held to cure and protect from mental illness, scorpion bites, and malicious spirits. In Moroccan belief spirits cannot be exorcised. They believe, rather, that the spirits inhabit the possessed. Until the possessed submits to the possessor, the spirit will cause many problems in the possessed lifetime, thus it is very important to have ritual ceremonies in order to appease the spirits. Many Gnawa devotees, who are called “Muhibs”, which translates to “lover of trance”, come back again and again after their initial psychological ailment has been alleviated, for they must continue to surrender to the spirits and appease them. It is possible for the spirits to bring the possessed great power, however the possessed must first learn how to master the spirits, which is one reason why devotees continually attend the Lila Derdebas.

The healing ceremonies are administered and led by the master musician, the Maalem, and the high priestess, the Moqu’demma, who are often married to each other. These two figures are at the top of the Gnawa hierarchy. Beneath them are the musicians who accompany the Maalem, and the apprentices of the Gnawa healing tradition, who will inherit the knowledge of the Gnawa brotherhood, and preserve the tradition. At the base of the hierarchy are the devotees and clients in need of healing.

The Maalem is the master musician. He preserves the musical tradition of the Gnawa, and often teaches Gnawa musicians in his own school. In the Lila Derdeba, he plays the guembri, a three stringed bass lute, and leads the call and response of the mystical hymns. The Maalem is the mediator between the spirits and the possessed.

Gnawa culture has a strong matriarchal inclination, and so the role of the Moqu’demma is of utmost importance. Whereas the Maalem is the master musician, the Moqu’demma is the master healer. She receives sick clients and identifies their ailment by intuiting which spirit has possessed them. She then determines the necessary procedure to cure the patient, which can include medicinal herbs, a sacrifice to appease the spirits, or a Lila Derdeba. The Moqu’demma is then in charge of organizing the Lila Derdeba, for either her clients or for her own sake. She hires the Maalem (if she is not married to one), supervises the acquisition of the sacrificial animal, and supplies the ritual accouterments such as incense, rose water, candles, costumes for the musicians, colored scarves, food, etc. During the ceremony she tells the Maalem which spirit to call upon, or as the Gnawa say, which Mlouk to play.

As for the musicians who accompany the Maalem, they begin learning to play the Gnawa instruments very young, and during their adolescence a Maalem generally accepts them as students. Under the teaching of the Maalem, the students learn the ritual dances and learn to play all of the instruments, but their main instrument is the Krakeb, a pair of metal castanets.

The ritual ceremony, called Lila Derdeba, has traditions that draw from Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam, African shamanism, and Animism. Although Gnawa culture has been greatly influenced by Sufism, one rather large difference remains. While Sufis believe in direct contact and communication with God, the Gnawa believe God is too powerful to experience Him directly, rather He can only be reached through spiritual manifestations in our world. These spiritual manifestations refer to the supernatural or saints that have lived on earth in the past.

The patron saint of the Gnawa is Sidi Bilal, a former slave, who became the first Muezzin (person who sings the call to prayer) chosen by the Prophet Mohammed. Sidi Bilal was also said to be the first black follower of Mohammed, and one of his most loyal and trusted devotees. The Gnawa consider themselves devout Muslims, but often recieve criticism about their practices, which to many Muslims are considered Haraam, or forbidden. Having Sidi Bilal as thier patron saint reinforces thier Muslim identity. Some of the other saints the Gnawa call to include Abdulqudr Jilani, Sidi Musa, Lalla Aisha and Si Buhali.

The Lila Derdeba, is an all night celebration. Traditionally these ceremonies could last up to three nights, but with the commodification of Gnawa culture, the ceremonies are becoming shorter and shorter.

The ceremony has several phases. Before the actual Lila derdeba comes an animal sacrifice, in the name of Allah and his prophet Mohammed, in honor of the Mlouk. This happens at least once a year, particularly during the month preceding Ramadan. Following the sacrifice (if one is held) comes the street procession, called the Aada. The men beat their drums loudly and dance in front of the ritual objects to clear the area of negative energies, making way for the spirits, and calling to the community members to gather round the Lila. Next comes the entertainment section. During this part the Gnawa dance and sing songs about their history. This serves as a bridge to the sacred part of the ceremony.

Finally, the actual Lila Derdeba is held, in which the spirit possession and healing occurs. The Lila itself is a long complicated ritual in seven parts, one for each Mlouk. Mlouk refer to powerful spiritual entities that reign over the lesser spirits called Djinns. According to the Gnawa every person resonates with a certain Mlouk, and each spirit, or family of spirits, has a color, an incense, and a food or drink. For each of the seven sections the Gnawa wear color appropriate costumes, burn the associated incense, serve the corresponding food, and play the particular melody associated with the Mlouk.

In my research I have come across many accounts of how western terminology simply cannot encapsulate the feeling of communal heightened awareness and emotion of the trance state that occurs during the Lila. We can throw around the word “trance”, but such an experience is so foreign to most Westerners that it really has no substantiated meaning, and in addition we do not have words in our vocabulary to even properly describe the feeling of trance. What can be said is that during the Lila participants, when communicating with their Mlouk, experience a gamut of extremely heightened emotional states; people scream, cry, laugh hysterically, experience bliss, eros, terror, and many other extreme emotions. Whilein a trance, and somewhat afterward, participants have the feeling of being “somewhere else”, another dimension of sorts, transcending both time and space.

The ceremony traditionally goes through each of the seven sections. Although the order of the Mlouk varies from place to place, the Lila often begins with the White suites (representing male) and ends with the Yellow suites (representing female, or rebirth).

The White Mlouk is AbdelKadder Jilani, an 11th century saint. He is said to be the “sultan of saints”, the “standard bearer of the Way”. He opens the door to the spiritual world.

The multi-colored suite invokes Bourdebela, a Master Mystic beggar. This Mlouk is thought to be part of the cohort of the whites.

The Blue suites are in honor of Sidi Mousa (Moses), the Lord of the Sea (dark blue), and Sidi Sma, the Lord of the Sky (light blue).During this section the trancer dances with a bowl of water with mint leaves on their head.

The Mlouk of the Red suite is Sidi Hammou, the master of the slaughterhouses. This Mlouk is wild and fearsome. In this section the trancers dance with daggers, sometime cutting themselves while in possession.

The Green suite is in honor of the descendants of the prophet. The Maalem begins by invoking the Prophet and then various local saints known to be his decendants.

The Black Mlouk are the Djinns of the forest, Sidi Mimoun and Lala Mimouna (male and female), and are the most dangerous and wild of all. During possession adepts can morph into animals, eat raw flesh, and sometimes even attack the audience.

Finally the Yellow suite is dedicated to all of the female spirits, whose Mlouk is Lala Mira. During this section sweets and perfume are given to the trancers, and adepts are known to feverishly devour the candies.

Commodification of Gnawa Culture

In the past, Gnawa culture and music were a relatively unknown outside of Morocco. The Gnawa musical tradition was kept secret by the Maalems, and played only in sacred contexts at Lila Derdebas. As Western interest increased, beginning in the 1970s, with artists such as Randy Weston, Peter Gabriel, Santana, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant collaborating with Gnawa musicians, Gnawa music leaked onto the streets of Morocco, outside of the spiritual context, both live and recorded. Today Gnawa musicians play in the streets for tourists, attend world music festivals across the globe, collaborate with Western artists, and have their work all over the internet.

Gnawa music is intrinsically part of the ritual ceremony for physiological and psychological healing. However, with the rising popularity of Gnawa music, the traditional aspect is fading as the music becomes commodified and taken out of its spiritual ritual context. As Gnawa music becomes more of a spectacle, it looses its grounding as a healing tradition. For example, in the past a seeker of Gnawa knowledge had to earn acceptance by a Maalem, and had to complete the years of training necessary to become an adept Gnawa musician. Today, on the other hand, you can just type in “learn guembri” on Youtube, and there you go, a beginner’s guembri lesson with a Maalem, without any knowledge of the esoteric side of the music, which is what makes the music so powerful and beautiful.

Gnawa music still happeneds within the context of Lila Derdebas, however even these have become subject to commodification and loss of tradition. Whereas in the past Lila Derdebas lasted up to three nights, today the ceremony often lasts only a few hours. Mlouks are being dropped altogether from the ceremony, both because of time issues as well as the fact that most of today’s Maalems are not skilled enough to control the more dangerous spirits, such as the Red and Black Mlouk. Commercialization of Lilas has also shaped the ceremony. For example, Aisha Quandisha, who was not traditionally part of the repertoire, is now being invoked due to the audience’s demand. The Maalem invoke her but do not fully understand her, and are often fearful of her spirit. In addition, each section of the Lila is being shortened, and many of the older Gnawa complain that not enough time is given for the spirits to fully manifest themselves, and thus the healing power of the spirits does not act as powerfully.

Today there is as ort of generational gap between the older Maalems and younger Gnawa. The older Gnawa are known for being more secretive and mysterious, as a way to preserve their arcane knowledge and tradition, while the younger Gnawa are moving from the Lila Derdeba to recording studios. The older Maalems are very upset about this profane use of Gnawa music.

Although the image and sound of the Gnawa are being sold on the World Music market, there is an understanding amongst more spiritual Gnawa, especially the Moqu’demmas, who cannot market their gifts, that there is more to Gnawa than men covered in cowry shells with guembris and krakebs. There is a certain Tagnawit, or Gnawa-ness, that comes with a deeper knowledge of the ritual history and meaning. You can see this Tagnawit in the eyes of the deeply spiritual Maalems and Moqu’demmas, and this spirit is what will preserve the true identity of the Gnawa as mystical musical healers.

Maalem Abdelkader Oulad Hawsa

Muziek uit Marokko

Maalem Mahmoud Guenia

Les Pigeons du Sable

Malem Mustafa Bakbou

Hamid Kasri plays Gnawa fusion

Gnawa Mostapha Bakbour plays at Star Academy (French equivalent of American Idol)

Works Cited:

Kapchan, Deborah. Traveling Spirit Masters: Morrocan Gnawa Trance and Music In the Global Marketplace. Middletwon, CT: Wesleyan Universty Press, 2007.

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