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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A Brief History on the Jembe and its Entry into the United States

The particulars surrounding the birth of the jembe are still contested by ethnomusicologists with an interest in the instrument and its cultural associations. Professor Eric Charry in his text, ‘Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa”, suggest that the history of the instrument may be traced by tracing the history of a specific class of artisans, the blacksmiths (Numus). The association between the jembe and the Numus is based on the fact that the blacksmiths (Numus) are the ones entrusted with working intimately with the elements and materials needed to make the jembe.

Read moreA Brief History on the Jembe and its Entry into the United States