Words by Jeffrey Callen, Ph. D. Photo by Nusrat Durrani.
The driving rhythm of the qraqebs (large metal hand cymbals) quickly envelop the listener, creating a sonic wall that simultaneously supports and obscures the bass pattern provided by the hajhouj (bass lute). In a healing context — and this is healing music — the afflicted individual must find his way to a particular melody provided by the hajhouj in order to enter into a dialogue with the spirit that is perplexing him or her. Sung invocations, particular colors and incense hasten the summoning of the spirit and the falling of the afflicted individual into the trance state where the healing takes place. A lila (all-night healing ceremony) is a multi-sensual event but it is the music that drives it, orchestrates its highs and lows, and signals the entry of the different spirits. This is the music of the Gnawa of Morocco and you can hear — and feel — the kinship with musical/healing practices, such as Santeria (Cuba) and Candomble (Brazil), that while born in the Americas, have clear West African roots. You can also feel the kinship with other tributaries of the West African musical river—rock, blues, jazz, reggae and numerous other pop musics—that were born in the Americas but have since spread throughout the world.
The essential occupation of Gnawa music (and the Gnawa themselves) is to heal the afflictions of the body and the soul. They have done this since they first came to Morocco from West Africa as unwilling travelers on slave ships and caravans. They shared the religion (Islam) of their new hosts, but brought a particularly West African form of religious/musical/healing practice with them. It can be seen in their clothing, musical instruments and dance moves, but most of all, it can be heard and felt in the sounds of their music. The experience of Gnawa music is intense, immediate, often overwhelming; enveloped in a sonic cloud, the listener is lifted above the tedium of everyday life. That is how its healing works and that is how the healing in rock ‘n roll, blues and jazz works—the music carries you away but you find yourself more here, more rooted in the now than ever. And that is why Western musicians have sought out collaborations with Gnawa musicians since the 1960s and why Moroccan rock, pop and “fusion” musicians have turned to Gnawa music as Moroccan “roots” music.
The history and mythology of Western musicians seeking out Gnawa musicians goes back to the 1960s. In 1967, jazz pianist Randy Weston, exploring the African roots of jazz, came to Morocco and was captivated by the music of the Gnawa. Weston began a musical relationship with a Gnawa mâalem (master) in Tangier that continued for decades. Two years later, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones came to Morocco looking for Gnawa musicians to record. Along the way, he discovered the Sufi musicians of Jajouka and produced the seminal world music recording, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka. In the same year (1969), a two-week visit to the southern coastal city of Essaouira, a center of Gnawa music, by rock legend Jimi Hendrix spawned a mythology of rock/Gnawa collaborations that lives on today. In the 1970s, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin actively explored Moroccan music and were fascinated by the parallels they saw between the blues and Gnawa music. Their album No Quarter features recordings they made with Gnawa musicians in Marrakech. Numerous other rock and jazz musicians have come to Morocco seeking collaborations with Gnawa musicians as well. Homegrown gnawa fusions have also helped shape the development of Moroccan musical life. The most influential were the recordings of Saha Koyo, during the 1990s. With the collaboration between Gnawa Mâalem Hamid Kasri and Moroccan jazz keyboard player Issam Issam, Gnawa music and jazz meet each other on equal ground—something rarely achieved in Gnawa collaborations with Western musicians.
Gnawa music and gnawa “fusions” have since become a fixture of Moroccan musical life, largely through the influencer of the Gnawa Festival of Essaouira (est’d in 1998), which now swells the population of a small coastal city to nearly a half million people for four days each June. Moving from the shadows of Moroccan life into the limelight, this “spirit-moving” music since is no longer generally perceived as a “superstitious” practice of a marginalized group, but as “heritage” or “art.” And for alternative musicians, it is roots music, a source they can tap into to raise the spirits. The Gnawa themselves have attempted to reap the benefits of the popularity of their music, but their calling remains to create musical experiences that soothe the afflictions of the body and soul.
Want to see and read more? Check out MTV Iggy’s special report on Morocco’s music scene, here.
Jeffrey Callen is a storyteller living in San Francisco. Along the way to receiving his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, he learned the bracketing of reactions, the deep hanging out, the willingness to be surprised that are the sine qua non of the ethnographic method. An ethnographic approach is integral to all his work as a writer, researcher and consultant. His writing on music and popular culture regularly appears in scholarly publications and popular outlets, such as PopMatters, The Wall Street Journal (wsj.com), SF Weekly, East Bay Express, The Beat and Afropop Worldwide.