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Gnawa music

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Title: Gnawa music  
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Subject: Arabic music, Music of Morocco, Raï, List of Moroccan people, Gnawa Diffusion
Collection: Algerian Styles of Music, Moroccan Styles of Music, North African Music, Sufi Music
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Gnawa music

Gnawa musicians performing in a street in Morocco

Gnawa music is a rich repertoire of ancient African Islamic spiritual religious songs and rhythms. Its well preserved heritage combines ritual poetry with traditional music and dancing. The music is performed at 'Lila's', entire communal nights of celebration, dedicated to prayer and healing, guided by the Gnawa Maalem and his group of musicians and dancers. Though many of the influences that formed this music can be traced to sub-Saharan West-Africa, its traditional practice is concentrated in Morocco and the Béchar Province in South-western Algeria.

The word 'Gnawa', plur. of Gnawi, is taken to be derived from the Hausa-Fulani word "Kanawa" for the residents of Kano, the capital of the Hausa-Fulani Emirate, which was a close ally of Morocco for centuries, religiously, economically, and in matters of defense. (Opinion of Essaouira Gnawa Maalems, Maalem Sadiq, Abdallah Guinia, and many others). Moroccan language often replaces "K" with "G", which is how the Kanawa, or Hausa people, were called Gnawa in Morocco. The Gnawa's history is closely related to the famous Moroccan royal "Black Guard", which became today the Royal Guard of Morocco.

A short browsing of the Moroccan and Hausa contexts will suffice to show the connections between both cultures, religiously -as both are Malikite Moslems, with many Moroccan spiritual schools active in Hausaland- and artistically, with Gnawa music being the prime example of Hausa-sounding and typical Hausa articulation of music within Morocco, its local language, and traditions.

Gnawa music is one of the major musical currents in Morocco. Moroccans overwhelmingly love Gnawa music and Gnawas 'Maalems' are highly respected, and enjoy an aura of musical stardom.


  • Music 1
  • Rituals 2
  • Gnawa music today 3
  • List of Gnawa maâlems 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


In a Gnawa song, one phrase or a few lines are repeated over and over, so the song may last a long time. In fact, a song may last several hours non-stop. However, what seems to the uninitiated to be one long song is actually a series of chants, to do with describing the various spirits (in Arabic mlouk (sing. melk)), so what seems to be a 20-minute piece may be a whole series of pieces - a suite for Sidi Moussa, Sidi Hamou, Sidi Mimoun or the others. But because they are suited for adepts in a state of trance, they go on and on, and have the effect of provoking trance from different angles.

The melodic language of the stringed instrument is closely related to their vocal music and to their speech patterns, as is the case in much African music. It is a language that emphasizes on the tonic and fifth, with quavering pitch-play, especially pitch-flattening, around the third, the fifth, and sometimes the seventh. This is the language of the blues.

krakebs or Qraqab

Gnawa music is characterized by instrumentation. The large heavy iron castanets known as qraqab (or krakebs large iron castanets; Ar. قراقب) and a three -string lute known commonly as a hajhuj (or gimbri) are central to Gnawa music.[1] The rhythms of the Gnawa, like their instrumentations are distinctive. Particularly Gnawa is characterized by interplay between triple and duple meters. The "big bass drums" mentioned by Schuyler are not typically featured in a more traditional setting.[2]

Gnawa have venerable stringed-instrument traditions involving both bowed lutes like the gogo and plucked lutes like the gimbri (Ar. چنبري; also called hajhuj, Ar. هجهوج or "sentir" Ar. سنتير), a three-stringed bass instrument. The Gnawa also use large drums called tbel (Ar. طبل ) in their ritual music. The Gnawa hajhuj has strong historical and musical links to West African lutes like the Hausa halam, a direct ancestor of the banjo.

Gnawa hajhuj players use a technique which 19th century American minstrel banjo instruction manuals identify as "brushless drop-thumb frailing". The "brushless" part means the fingers do not brush several strings at once to make chords. Instead, the thumb drops repeatedly in a hypnotically rhythmic pattern against the freely-vibrating bass string producing a throbbing drone, while the first two or three fingers of the same (right) hand pick out, percussive patterns in a drum-like, almost telegraphic manner.


Gnawas perform a complex liturgy, called lila or derdeba. The ceremony recreates the first sacrifice and the genesis of the universe by the evocation of the seven main manifestations of the divine demiurgic activity. It calls the seven saints and supernatural entities (mluk, Arabic: ملوك) represented by seven colors, as a prismatic decomposition of the original light/energy. The derdeba is jointly animated by a maâlem (master musician) at the head of his troop and by moqadma or shuwafa (clairvoyante) who is in charge of the accessories and clothing necessary to the ritual.

During the ceremony, the clairvoyante determines the accessories and clothing as it becomes ritually necessary. Meanwhile, the maâlem, using the guembri and by burning incense, calls the saints and the supernatural entities to present themselves in order to take possession of the followers, who devote themselves to ecstatic dancing.

Inside the brotherhood, each group (zriba; Arabic: زريبة) gets together with an initiatory moqadma (Arabic: مقدمة), the priestess that leads the ecstatic dance called the jedba (Arabic: جذبة), and with the maâlem, who is accompanied by several players of krakebs.

Preceded by an animal sacrifice that assures the presence of the spirits, the all-night ritual begins with an opening that consecrates the space, the aâda ("habit" or traditional norm; Arabic: عادة), during which the musicians perform a swirling acrobatic dance, playing the krakebs.

The mluk (sing. melk) are abstract entities that gather a number of similar jinn (genie spirits). The participants enter a trance state (jedba) in which they may perform spectacular dances. By means of these dances, participants negotiate their relationships with the mluk either placating them if they have been offended or strengthening an existing relationship. The mluk are evoked by seven musical patterns, seven melodic and rhythmic cells, who set up the seven suites that form the repertoire of dance and music of the Gnawa ritual. During these seven suites, seven different types of incense are burned and the dancers are covered by veils of seven different colours.

Each of the seven families of mluk is populated by many "characters" identifiable by the music and by the footsteps of the dance. Each melk is accompanied by its specific colour, incense, rhythm and dance. These entities, treated like "presences" (called hadra, Arabic: حضرة) that the consciousness meets in ecstatic space and time, are related to mental complexes, human characters, and behaviors. The aim of the ritual is to reintegrate and to balance the main powers of the human body, made by the same energy that supports the perceptible phenomena and divine creative activity.

Later, the guembri opens the treq ("path," Arabic: طريق), the strictly encoded sequence of the ritual repertoire of music, dances, colors and incenses, that guide in the ecstatic trip across the realms of the seven mluk, until the renaissance in the common world, at the first lights of dawn.

Almost all Moroccan brotherhoods, such as the Issawa or the Hamadsha, relate their spiritual authority to a saint. The ceremonies begin by reciting that saint's written works or spiritual prescriptions (hizb, Arabic: حزب) in Arabic. In this way, they assert their role as spiritual descendants of the founder, giving themselves the authority to perform the ritual. Gnawa, whose ancestors were neither literate nor native speakers of Arabic, begin the lila by recalling through song and dance their origins, the experiences of their slave ancestors, and ultimately redemption.

Gnawa music today

During the last few decades, Gnawa music has been modernizing and thus becoming more profane. However, there are still many lilas organized privately, which conserves the music's sacred, spiritual status.

Within the framework of the Gnaoua World Music Festival of Essaouira ("Gnaoua and Musics of the World"), the Gnawa play in a profane context with slight religious or therapeutic dimensions. Instead, in this musical expression of their cultural art, they share stages with other musicians coming from the four corners of the world.

As a result, Gnawa music has taken a new direction by fusing its core spiritual music with similar genres like jazz, blues, reggae, and hip-hop. Every summer for four days in June, the Festival welcomes famous musicians that come to participate, exchange and mix their own music with Gnawa music, creating one of the largest public festivals in Morocco as well as one of the best jam sessions on the planet. Since its debut in 1998, the free concerts have drawn a festival audience that has grown from 20,000 visitors to over 200,000 in 2006 including 10,000 visitors from around the world.

Past participants have included Randy Weston, Adam Rudolph, The Wailers, Pharoah Sanders, Keziah Jones, Omar Sosa, Doudou N'Diaye Rose, and the Italian trumpet player Paolo Fresu.

There are also projects such as "The Sudani Project", a jazz/gnawa dialogue in collaboration between saxophonist/composer Patrick Brennan, Gnawi maâlem Najib Sudani, and drummer/percussionist/vocalist Nirankar Khalsa. Brennan has pointed out that the metal qraqeb and gut bass strings of the guembri parallel the cymbal and bass in jazz sound.

In the 1990s young musicians from various backgrounds and nationalities started to form modern Gnawa bands. Gnawa Impulse from Germany is an example. These groups offer a rich mix of musical and cultural backgrounds, fusing their individual influences into a collective sound. They have woven elements of rap, reggae, jazz and rai into a vibrant musical patchwork.

These projects incorporating Gnawa and Western musicians are essentially Gnawa fusions.

List of Gnawa maâlems

A 19th century Gnawa musician
  • Mahmoud Guinia ("the King") or Gania (as spelled in passport) - He played with the likes of Pharaoh Sanders and Carlos Santana, to name but two. Contrary to popular myth, guitarist Jimi Hendrix did not spend a few months in his house to take some lessons. He is the son of the late Maâllem Boubker Gania, and his two brothers Abdelah and Mokhtar are also distinguished maâllemin (masters). The Gania family also includes Zaida Gania, a very popular medium and clairvoyant at the nights of trance (leelas) as well as the head of a group of female gnawas, The Haddarate of Essaouira.
  • Hasna el Becharia - Born and resident in the town of Béchar in southern Algeria, she is a well-known Gnawa musician, having released the albums Djazair Johara and Smaa Smaa.
  • Brahim Belkane ("The traditionalist") - He has played with Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant, Adam Rudolph, Randy Weston, and Jimmy Page. He says: "There are many colours on earth: red, green, blue, yellow. You have to find these when you play, to be bright like the sun."
  • Hamid El Kasri - He now lives in Rabat but his origins are in the northern town Ksar El Kbir, thus the nickname Kasri (i.e. the one from Ksar). He is one of the biggest stars on stage and is particularly renowned in Morocco for his great voice. In his youth Maâllem Hamid was much associated with the gnawa scene in Tangier and masters such as Abdelwahab "Stitou". He began his apprenticeship at the age of seven. He has the gift of being able to fuse the music of the north with that of the south: gharbaoui from Rabat, marsaoui from Essaouira and soussi or Berber from the south of Morocco.
  • H'mida Boussou ("The grand master") - As a child H'mida immersed himself in Gnawi culture as taught to him by the Maâlem Ahmed Oueld Dijja, and became a Maâlem himself at the age of 16. He also worked with Maâlem Sam from 1962 to 1968. Maalem H'mida Boussou died on 17 February 2007, but his son, Maalem Hassan Boussou continues the gnaoua tradition and played a concert in homage to his late father at the 10th Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival in June 2007.
  • Chérif Regragui ("The communicator") - He became a Maâlem by the age of 18. He worked with Tayeb Saddiki in theatre andhe was behind the group Taghada.
  • Mahjoub Khalmous - His skills took him to many festivals in Europe. In 1993 he formed his own group and became a Maâlem. He has worked for several years with Professor Bertrand Hell, head of the anthropology department at Besançon University in France.
  • Allal Soudani ("The dreamer")- His grandparents M'Barkou and Barkatou were brought from Sudan as slaves. "When I play I no longer feel my body, I empty myself. And when I reach the state of trance I become nothing more than a leaf on a tree blowing at the mercy of the wind," he says, describing his trance moments.
  • Abdellah El Gourd - He learned Gnawa music as a young man, while working as a radio engineer in his hometown of Tangier. He has collaborated with jazz musicians Randy Weston and Archie Shepp and blues musician Johnny Copeland. With Weston, he co-produced The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco, which received a 1996 Grammy Award nomination for Best World Music Album.
  • Omar Hayat ("The showman") - He was taught by Mahmoud Guinea and the late Maâllem Ahmed. He formed his own group in 1991. His style is particularly influenced by reggae, but Omar Hayat nonetheless plays true gnawa and is a great source of inspiration for the young gnaoui in Essaouira. He participated recently at the festival of Avignon and has also been working and touring with the German circus Afrika! Afrika!.
  • Abelkebir Merchane (also known as Cheb) - He is from an Arab family, none of whom are gnawa. His style is a mixture of marsaoui (Essaouira) and Marrakchi (Marrakech). He was taught by Maâllem Layaachi Baqbou and he possibly has the greatest voice in Moroccan gnawa today. His son Hicham is also a gnawa master.
  • Mokhtar Gania - Son of the great Maâlem Boubker. He is the younger brother of the legendary Mahmoud. He has played at the great Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2003 sharing the stage with Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble, Gigi, Sussan Deyhim and others. He is currently considered one of the hottest gimbri players around.
  • Mohamed Daoui - He teaches the younger generation of future maâlems, for which he has a widespread reputation.
  • Abdelkader Benthami - He owes his education to some of the greatest Maâlems, such as Zouitni. He lives in Casablanca, and showed his strength on albums such as Bill Laswell's Night Spirit Masters. His sons are both masters, and the youngest, Abderrahim, debuted in 2007 at the Festival d'Essaouira.
  • Ahmed Bakbou - He has worked with some of the great Maâlems: Ba Ahmed Saasaa, El Hachimi Ould Mama, Homan Ould el Ataar, Si Mohamed Ould el Fernatchi. He is the first son of Maâllem Layaachi Baqbou, and he is known as "the talking gimbri", and even though he sings, he often plays the gimbri with close friends such as Abdelkebir Merchane or his brothers Moustapha and Aziz singing.
  • Essaïd Bourki - His origins are in the south of Morocco. He performed with his group in Belgium in 1990. He is considered the secret master of Essaouira.
  • Abdellah Guinea ("The Marley")- He became a Maâlem at the age of 16. His nickname is due to his dreadlocks and fondness of reggae. He is the middle son of Maâllem Boubker Gania. Today Abdelah is by many considered one of the greatest maâllemin in Essaouira.
  • Mohamed Chaouki - Formerly a horse trainer once worked in the stud farms of Rabat. At the age of 19 he became a maâlem. He formed a group with his brother, sons and nephews with whom he has performed in Europe 18 times.
  • Saïd Boulhimas - He is the youngest Gnawi to play at the 7th (2004) gnawa festival. Saïd was taught by Abdelah Gania and is almost considered the son of the maâllem. He won the Festival de Jeunes Talents (Festival of young talents) in 2006 and is also part of the French/Moroccan Band Of Gnawa with Louis Bertignac and Loy Erlich.
  • Fath-Allah Cherquaoui (Fath-Allah Laghrizmi) - One of the youngest Masters of Gnawa music, Fath-ALLAH was born in 1984 into a well-known family in Marrakech, Morocco. His eyes were opened to the ceremonies of Gnawa music by his grandmother, lmqadma lhouaouia. As a Moqadma or Shuwafa (clairvoyant), she would organize the Gnawa ceremony, or derdeba, two or three times a year with a renowned Master named Lmansoum. Thus, the entire family, including young children, developed a deep appreciation and interest in this genre of spiritual music. By the age of 19, his elder cousin, Maallem Lahouaoui, became a Master and began to play in the ceremonies for their grandmother. At seven years old, Fath-Allah was able to sing nearly all of the ritual repertoire, and play the qraqeb (iron castanets). By the age of eleven, he decided to build his own version of the instrument known as the gembry, using a glow bin, a broom handle, and an electric cable for strings. Five years later, he and his younger brother purchased their first gembry, and he began learning and practicing finger placement, as well as how to distinguish the correct tones. Although his father advised him to spend more time on his schoolwork, and cautioned him against the dangers and hardships of the music industry, Fath-Allah remained dedicated to teaching himself the instruments and music of Gnawa. After some time, he was invited to join his cousin Maallem Lahouaoui’s band, playing the castanets, dancing and singing. But he dreamed of playing the gembry in a real derdeba. His chance finally came on a night when his cousin asked him to stand in for him and finish playing what was left of the ceremonial songs. It was the first time Fath-Allah had ever played in front of a crowd, and during an actual Gnawa ceremony. The audience was amazed at how the youngest member of the band could so easily replace the Master, and actually play as well as he and many other Masters. This was the beginning of the Maallem Fath-Allah. His favourite Masters include: Maallem Lahouaoui, Maallem Mustapha Baqbou, Maallem Hmida Boussou and Maallem Abd Elkader Amili.


  1. ^ Schuyler, 2008
  2. ^ Schaefer, 2005


  • Gnawa Stories: Mystical Musician Healers from Morocco
  • gnawa at the Moroccan ministry of Communication website
  • gnawa by Chouki El Hamel at Duke University December 1, 2000
  • article about Gnawa from the "Centre de collecte et de recherche Arab-art" (the description above comes from this side)

External links

  • Essaouira at
  • gnawa at the Catholic University of America, D.C.
  • "The Gnawa and Their Lila: An Afro-Maghrebi Ritual Tradition" by Timothy D. Fuson
  • Dar Gnawa Website
  • A website dedicated to Gnawa Music (fr)
  • Music of Morocco: The Paul Bowles Recordings-Contains recordings, images and photos of Gnawa music recorded in 1959
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