If you come to Morocco or Africa in general, it is likely that you have seen a Gnawa musician. Whether in the square of Marrakech or in the coastal town of Essaouira where the biggest Gnawa festival takes place every year, Gnawa musicians perform their music with a hypnotizing rhythm that will make it hard for you to sit still!
Their colorful garments and hats covered with shells, castanets and drums, and their lute with three strings, called “guembri”, provide a type of music that we not only listen to but also feel.
The history of Gnawa.
The Gnawa or Gnaoua were slaves from West Africa brought to Morocco in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although the Gnawa who perform ceremonies today are not slaves, there is a metonymic relation between the state of being possessed by a spirit and the historical state of being possessed by an owner. The Moroccan Gnawa are fully integrated into society today but still retain their cultural distinctiveness.
Many of these enslaved people are believed to have come from Old Ghana (the Kingdom north of Mali) between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. There is also a historical evidence that they were brought from the market of Djenne in Mali, and that Gnawi is a deformation of djennawi. Gnawa has historically meant black people.
In Morocco, not all dark-skinned people were slaves. Some are native to southern regions such as the Draa valley and were never enslaved.
When the Gnawa adopted Islam as a religion, they did not abandon their animist traditions. They combined Islam with pre-Islamic African traditions, adopted Bilal (who was the first black person to convert to Islam) and first did the call to prayer to their ancestor and saint patron.
Every year after the harvest, special ceremonies are held in different parts of Morocco where the Gnawi men wear white to symbolize purity. Women are not allowed in these ceremonies because they may be menstruating which is considered impure. The ceremonies include playing drums, clapping, castanets, guembri, and dance, all designed to protect human beings from evil spirits or to recover from illness or misfortune.
Nowadays, Gnawa earn their living from music, like in Khamlia village (Merzouga) where you can listen, take pictures and participate in dancing. Since 1997, the Moroccan government established the Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essaouira at the end of June every year. At the festival, many famous jazz, blues, and reggae singers collaborate with the Gwana and create beautiful music, a great time to be visiting Morocco and experience the enchanting rhythm of Gnawa music!
For more music and dance in Morocco, have a look at our Highlights of Morocco trip that takes you through Morocco with a focus on its rich musical culture and traditions!