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Traditional Music of Morocco Series (Episode 2 of 7): Gnawa

posted on: Oct 20, 2021

A Gnawa musician playing the guembri, a traditional instrument used in Gnawa music. Photo: Wikipedia

By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer


The country of Morocco is one of many cultures, beautiful architecture, amazing cities, and it also has its own unique musical and dance genres that are borne out of numerous traditions. These traditions stem from many influences including the cultures of the Amazigh, Arabs, Berbers, Gnawa, Islamic syncretism, Sufism, and Europeans, and so many more. Morocco has the world-famous traditions of Chaabi/Fusion, Gnawa music, Arab Andalusian Classical, and so many other genres. This seven-part series will explore the cultural, geographic, and historical backgrounds of these amazing genres and readers will get to experience some samples of each musical style as well.

In this second installment, we will be traveling to the city of Essaouira to explore the stirring sounds, heady rhythms, and musical influences that make up the famous traditions of the Gnawa (or Gnaoua) people. But first, we must learn about the origins of this amazing musical style as well.

Geographic Origins:

A map of Morocco showing Essaouira, the home of Gnawa music on the western Atlantic coast near Marrakech and Agadir. Photo: Destination 360

The geographic origins of Gnawa music are very important because the genre mixes many different cultures, regions, and even belief systems within the style. So, where did the stirring rhythms of Gnawa music begin? The Gnawa style is so special and different from any other kind of Moroccan music partly due to its origins in Islamic syncretism and the way it melds other genres including “the blues, folk traditions, jazz, and even illustrating the painful stories of slavery in West Africa, as well as life in Morocco.”

It is thought that perhaps the word, ‘Gnawa’ comes from the name of the country of “Guinea which was known for being involved in the slave trade in the eleventh century.” According to Al-Jazeera, “Gnawa music is found mostly in ethnic African communities in the Moroccan cities of Marrakech and Essaouira which [were, unfortunately] tied to the historical slave trade, so one will typically find Gnawa bands in those two locales.”

Historical and Cultural Origins of Gnawa:

Gnawa musicians in traditional dress with their metal castanets marching through the streets in Essaouira. Photo: Rove.ME

It is a genre that truly transcends many different cultures especially since it has its beginnings in West African traditional beliefs which eventually combined with Islam due to slavery, thus creating syncretism. Syncretism is defined as “the blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation of unrelated traditions into a religious tradition. It is, however, different than polytheism which means to believe in multiple deities or gods.”

So, what makes up the music and dance style that calls itself, Gnawa? Well, there are plenty of things that go into creating the style including that it is considered to be a “Sufi brotherhood music combined with lyrics with general religious content that invokes ancestors and spirits.” The cultural production of Gnawa (or Gnaoua) music has become so integral to Moroccan history that Essaouira, a major city in the country hosts the “Gnaoua Festival, a yearly celebration of the genre where these groups play over a period of four days, which is usually held in June.” Finally, in 2019, the “Gnawa musical culture was added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

A Gnawa musician performing on one of their traditional instruments. Photo: Bandcamp Daily

So, now we return to how is the Gnawa music and dance performed? Well, typically most of the music is performed in Essaouira, and during the period before Ramadan (usually in mid-May, but it can be at other times, too), the Gnawa bands come out in full force and play for hours on end or for an entire night in the city. There is also a specific ceremony that goes with the Gnawa style because they believe that the music helps to ward off evil spirits.

During the month of May (or at least this is when I saw a Gnawa ritual in Morocco), many people gather in a huge square for the Gnawa ritual. Before the ritual begins, a goat is sacrificed to be sure that the spirits are present. Then, very repetitive music is played with metal castanets called qraqeb, a gimbri which is a three-stringed instrument, and the tbel which are very large drums. Now, the ceremony gets underway when a member of the community is thought to have become possessed by an evil spirit, so the music makes that person go into a trance which looks like a cross between dancing, writhing motion, and head-bopping until the individual finally sits or lays on the ground, and they come out of the trance. Furthermore, this trance is sometimes facilitated by a scarf being placed over someone’s head. These ceremonies are facilitated by masters who lead them and help the “possessed” individual out of the trance. The ceremony ends when the “possessed” people come out of the trance and the music stops.

Samples of Gnawa: A Traditional Music and Dance Style of Morocco:

A Gnawa band playing the stirring rhythms of this glorious musical genre. Photo: North Africa Post

So, it is now time to experience the wondrous genre of Gnawa music, it is one to surely get you on your feet as the rhythms are lively, stirring, and beautiful! Enjoy the samples below!

The Gnawa band: Innov Gnawa performing their song, “Toura Toura.” Video: Remix–Culture YouTube Channel

Maalem Mahmoud Gania, one of the most famous Gnawa musicians of all time — Colours of the Night album. Video: Station Double Zer0 YouTube Channel

“Transes Gnaoua (Gnawa Trances),” a 1998 documentary by Eliane Azoulay. Video: Sequence SDP YouTube Channel. *Please note: this documentary is in French, and there are no English subtitles.


The many beautiful musical styles of Morocco. Photo: Simply-Morocco

Gnawa is such a beautiful musical, dance, cultural, and religious style because it is lively, looks and its rhythms are rousing. Gnawa also has a lot of cultural and geographic history behind it because of its origins in West Africa and Northern Africa, particularly in Morocco. The Gnawa musical style is also linked with Sufi Islam as well. These traditional musical styles elicit feelings of passion, and the reason listeners get these senses is that these sounds and rhythms are the amazing cultural expressions of humanity worldwide. It is the author’s hope that everyone got the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the enthralling style of Gnawa, and perhaps, that you were able to tap your feet to the fun and rumbling sounds of traditional Moroccan music and dance! 

This is the second episode in a series of seven about some of the traditional music and (oftentimes) dance styles in Morocco. This series explores the cultural, historical, and geographic backgrounds of the musical and dance styles themselves and the group of people who brought these traditions to the forefront in Morocco. Keep an eye out for the next article featuring the intriguing sounds of Ahidus music!

To read the first episode which features the music and dance style of Reggada, please click here!

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