Monday, April 14, 2008


In almost every sense imaginable, Morocco is a mixture of cultures. For centuries, this country has absorbed the musical flavors of countless of external influences. In short, the many dimensions of Moroccan music can be traced back to Berber, Arab, Andalusian and West African origins. The parallels between Morocco and New York City are unavoidable: both places represent the pinnacle of multiculturalism.

Two weekends ago, Amine and I went to a party (more accurately, a small gathering) in Skhirat, a beach town just south of Rabat. The evening was hosted by a self-proclaimed music fanatic, Bashir. For the party, Bashir hired two Gnaoua musicians to perform; I had never seen a live Gnaoua performance before. It was my first real taste of the West African influence on Moroccan culture.

What exactly is Gnaoua music, you ask. Before I continue with my experiences at Bashir’s house, I will do my very best to define Gnaoua music.

Anthropologically speaking, the term “Gnaoua” (pronounced ga-na-wah) directly refers to the Sub-Saharan communities that either were enslaved and brought to, or naturally emigrated to, Morocco, most likely around the 16th Century. Originally, Gnaoua music was a West African pagan concept; that is to say, it was music performed at various rituals and healing ceremonies.

For the music performance, two instruments were used: the karkaba, a pair of small metal cymbals played with the hands, which is almost like a clave. The genbri, a three stringed bass guitar, was also played. The genbri is made from calf skin and the wood of a fig tree. The music of the genbir is supposed to evoke the spirit of the tree – a very pagan concept, indeed. The music is laden with improvised rhythms; many handclaps are scattered throughout each piece without a following a definitive time signature or meter.

The lyrics of the songs, sung in Arabic, pertain to the unlimited power and benevolence of God, and also tell stories of the Prophet Mohammed. When I asked if any of the lyrics were taken directly from the Qu’ran, I received an emphatic, “Absolutely not,” as my answer. “That would be sacrilege,” I was told.

Many centuries ago, Gnaoua was sung in West African languages and the contents of the lyrics pertained to themes of West African religions. Needless to say, Morocco has had a profound influence on the evolution of Gnaoua music.

In the bluntest sense, the purpose of Gnaoua music is what is called “hadra” – for the individual to become aware of the presence of the Lord. Within the tenets of Islam, God is everywhere at all times; yet, as mere mortals, we often fail to recognize omnipresent nature of the Divine. Through the vibrations of the music, we are able to focus on the tangibility of God. The music provides a medium for this consecrated connection: this, of course, is a very powerful feeling. Hence, many of the performers often fall into a deep trance.

The songs build on top of themselves; as in, as the music progresses, the beat moves faster and faster. The songs themselves can last anywhere from several minutes to several hours: most certainly, the repetition creates a hypnotic essence to it.

Most certainly, the ultimate goal of performing Gnaoua music is to create a mystical union between the musician and God. Not surprisingly, many of Gnaoua musicians are devout Sufis – Sufism is the mystical sect of Islam. The staple of Sufism affirms that every individual is capable of having a personal relationship with God.

To become a true gnaoua musician, there is a rigorous training process: the master and disciple maintain a very close relationship. According to Bashir, among gnaoua musicians, there is a “very codified way of being.”

I was lucky enough to witness a performance by an authentic maalem, master of Gnaoua. Tonight’s performance featured Adbel Kader, the maalem, and Said, the disciple, called a “cuyo.” Because of the vast amount of tourism throughout Morocco, there are many individuals that claim to be a maalem – yet, in all truth, the number of maalem is very few, as the commercialization of Gnaoua music has undermined its spiritual nature. Bashir asserted that among Gnaoua musicians there is an inherent hesitation to advertise their religious tradition.

The candle lit room at Bashir’s house provided an intimate setting to showcase the performers. Acrobatic dances accompany the music: a tremendous amount of energy is required to perform Gnaoua. That being said, for tonight’s performance, there was minimal dancing, as the environment was not exactly conducive for it.

Although Gnaoua is a very serious music, this evening’s performance was rather light-hearted. Towards the end of the evening, an up-and-coming twenty-year-old Moroccan blues guitarist performed with the two Gnaoua musicians. Interestingly enough, musicologists have traced American Blues music back to Gnaoua. Of the past quarter century, several notable Western musicians, including Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and Bill Laswell, have experimented with Gnaoua, to create a new fusion music.

Gnaoua music reflects its West African roots; yet, is still an Islamic enterprise.
On the surface, the marriage of a West African tradition and Islam may seem to be counterintuitive, as some West African religious were polytheistic; but nonetheless, these two concepts come together fluidly. That is to say, the common goal of developing a sense of piety and raising awareness of the Divine is reached. The music itself serves as a religious invocation: in the purest sense, Gnaoua strives to create awareness for the Almighty, through the trance of the music.

In all truth, I know very little about Gnaoua music– it is a very complicated art indeed. Every June in Essaouria, in south Morocco, the Gnaoua World Music Festival is held: I look forward to attending the festival to learn more about this mystical music.

Here are some pictures; more videos to come!

A blurry but happy Bashir in the background

The musicians; I chose not to use flash, so they would not be disturbed...

Earlier in the day, cruising the beach on ATVs with Amine and Bashir

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