Back to Morocco, where the traditional music of gnawa, or gnaoua, provides a fascinating representation of the different ethnic and religious groups that have shaped it. Having just missed the annual Festival Gnaoua d'Essaouira, we were lucky to catch some glimpses of gnawa at the Festival des Musiques Sacrées du Monde at Fes, as well as at the Djeema el Fna in Marrakech (see earlier post).
As a religious order, the Gnawa are descendants of Sub-Saharan slaves brought to Northern Africa during the Islamic expansion - perhaps going back to Sultan Ahmed el-Mansur's conquest of the Songhai empire (approximately modern Mali) in the sixteenth century. While the Gnawa adopted Islam, and were influenced by the Sufi mystical tradition, they also continued to practice African shamanistic healing ceremonies involving trance-inducing music, singing and dancing. These all-night sessions called Lila - which are still practiced today - are said to have resemblances to voodoo ceremonies.
Hence, gnawa music is a deeply religious mix of African, Sufi and Berber traditions, but most of all it is music of the desert. Minimalistic and repetitive, these hypnotic incantations conjure images of the lonesome expanse and the harsh beauty of the Sahara.
Interestingly, the Essaouira Festival brings in blues, jazz and reggae musicians to further mix gnawa into a true (for lack of a better term) world music, with influences from literally all corners of the globe.
Ibiblio has a great multimedia site called Gnawa Stories with audio and video samples.
(The painting by Mohamed Tabal, a Gnawa painter, is titled 'Hamida Boussou', after the legendary gnawa maâlem.)