The Gnawa music in Morocco has huge history.  Photo: AFP

By Emilie Pons

Full of seagulls, the smell of sardines, the sound of wind and waves, fog and sun, white mosques with spectacular rectangular minarets, the city of Essaouira is charming.

In its blue and white streets filled with dozing cats, you can hear castanets and men singing, sometimes plaintive, sometimes joyful. These songs tell a story of migration and pain.

They are the songs of the maâlems, or "masters" in Arabic. You can be a master of a whole range of skills: master carpenter, master cook, master tanner. But in Essaouira, on the west coast of Morocco, there are many Gnawa or Gnaoua masters.

Most are men, but some are also women. In fact, these women are responsible for organising all the private ceremonies, or "lila", which are at the origin of Gnaoua culture.

The Gnawa music festival is an annual event. Photo: TRT Afrika

"This music... it's Mali, it's the traditional bass guitar," explains Alvie Betimo, from the group Les Amazones d'Afrique, who performed this year at the 24th edition of the Gnaoua music festival in Essaouira last week.

There is also a theory that the Gnawa music originally came from Kano in northern Nigeria, which is also in West Africa like Mali.

True acrobats

"You have to realise, too, that it's often played for spiritual ceremonies: it's mysterious, it's spiritual. There's a whole thing around it. It's not just music like that. And when you see people dancing, you feel there's something going on," Alvie tells TRT Afrika

Indeed, the Gnaoua gives all its importance to the body and trance. During a concert, it is common to observe certain musicians jumping into the air, just like some of the musicians of the group Les Tambours du Burundi at the opening concert of the just concluded festival in Essaouira.

Like true acrobats, Les Tambours du Burundi not only jumped, but also pirouetted through the air.

For Gnawa musician Samir LanGus, originally from in the Moroccan city of Aït Melloul but now based in New York, Gnaoua musicians who jump during a concert or ceremony show that they are no longer slaves, that they are free.

The Gnawa music originated from West Africa. Photo: AFP

"Gnawas [come] from slavery," explains Beninese singer Fafa Ruffino, who was also on stage for the festival, with her group Les Amazones d'Afrique.

Religious influence

"These are people who have been deported. They've tried to keep themselves together psychologically by keeping this music, which is the music of their ancestors. This music comes from somewhere - the Gnawas come from somewhere. That somewhere hasn't been wiped off the map; so that music, the origin is there, the source is there," Ruffino tells TRT Afrika. By 'there', Ruffino means West Africa Africa.

Gnaoua culture is a blend of pre-Islamic sub-Saharan and Sufi cultures. This gave rise to Afro-Islamic rituals, explains American musicologist Witulski in his 2018 book Gnawa Lions: Authenticity and Opportunity in Moroccan Ritual Music.

Witulski also compares the Gnaoua to Santeria in Cuba and voodoo in Haiti, even though these are "Afro-Catholic" rather than "Afro-Islamic" religious practices.

The ancestral music of the Gnaouas resonates throughout the country, and even beyond. The Gnaoua is winning over audiences in Brazil and the United States, with artists such as Samir LanGus, who has just performed in Miami with a samba band. Mr LanGus also played in Jerusalem last year.

The colours

As Moroccan political scientist and film-maker Hisham Aïdi put it during the conference (the Human Rights Forum) that also took place over two days during the Essaouira festival, there are Gnaoua schools in Poland and Japan.

Gnawa music festival in Morocco has become a global event. Photo: TRT Afrika

Gnawa, more than any other musical style, is Morocco's musical ambassador abroad. After all, it has been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible heritage of humanity.

Gnawa culture appeals to all the senses. "There are so many elements to master before becoming a maâlem," explains LanGus.

Gnaoua culture also uses colours such as white, yellow, green, mauve, blue and red. The musicians wear clothes in these colours, and each colour has one or more meanings.

Each colour is assigned a minimum of twelve songs, but some songs are not associated with a particular colour. "That's the rule for being a Gnaoua master," explains Samir LanGus.

Global influence

"You have to know what to play, where to play it, and you have to know how to move from one song to the next. And if you go to Rabat, the order is not the same - or Marrakech."

The festival of the Gnawa music attracts numerous artists. Photo: AFP

Gnawa music, a blend of influences from many African locations, also blends with many different musical styles. In 1994, the late American saxophonist Pharoah Sanders recorded the album "La Trance de Sept Couleurs" with the late Maâlem Mahmoud Gania.

American bassist Bill Laswell also recorded "Tagnawwit: Holy Black Gnaoua Trance" with Maâlem Mokhtar Gania, himself from Essaouira and Mahmoud's brother. Trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Adam Rudolph also performed with leading Gnawa artists.

The 24th edition of the Essaouira Gnaoua Music Festival was a reminder of the importance of these collaborations, with a number of fusion concerts.

The Gnawa culture is best heard in a close social setting, and several of the festival's concerts were also held inside beautiful old mansions, or 'dar', in the heart of the town.

TRT Afrika