Who are the Gnawa?
Known and appreciated by tourists visiting the famous Place Jemaa el Fna in Marrakesh as well as festival-goers of Essaouira, the very ancient past of the Gnaoui brotherhood is often ignored.
It is known that most of the Gnawa originate from the former Empire of Western Sudan, including Senegal, Mali, Niger and Guinea. But the etymology of the word gnaoua or gnawi is not yet clearly established.
For Maurice Delafosse there would exist a phonetic similarity with the Berber ”akal-n-iguinaouen” which means land of blacks.
According to him, this term would have given birth to Guinea, then Gnawa, even if no historical data reliably supports this thesis.
Contrary to popular belief, not all Gnanwas are descendants of slaves converted to Islam. While most of them are of black African and sub-Saharan origin, others are Arab or Berber.
Of diverse colours and ethnicities, of composite social origins, they all constitute together this very ancient brotherhood.
Some people upset these preconceived ideas:
“Contemporary researchers admit that it is difficult today to identify the origin of the Gnawsi from their name, especially since they are not all black, Arab or Muslim. Thus, in Morocco and more precisely in Essaouira, there are Berber Gnawas and Jewish Gnawas because of the presence of Berber and Jewish communities in this city”.
Slavery and Black Guard
Natives of this old sub-Saharan empire, the first Gnawas were brought, it is thought, in the sixteenth century by Sultan Ahmed el Mansour, 3rd Saadian sultan nicknamed El Dehbi, the Golden, in reference to a glorious campaign conducted on Timbuktu from where he brought back a significant quantity of gold.
He also took 12,000 slaves from Bilal el Sudan, the land of the blacks. This workforce worked in the sugar cane plantations of the Berber country Haha near Essaouira and made strain in this region.
Some were enlisted in the army and formed what became the Sultan’s Black Guard. Their descendants were the first generation of Gnawas, they were named Gangas after the drums they used then.
In the 17th century, it was during the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl that the second wave of slaves arrived, many of whom also joined the royal guard under the name of “Abid Al Boukhari”. They were so nicknamed, for it was on the hadiths contained in the book entitled El Boukhari that they pledged allegiance.
The death of Moulay Ismaïl in 1727 led to the dissolution of these sub-Saharan troops, some of whom later participated in the erection of the walls of Essaouira, then Mogador.
During the decades that followed, their descendants spread to several Moroccan cities or regions: Fez, Meknes, Casablanca, Tangier or Rabat, but also in Algeria and Tunisia.
However it is in the Moroccan South, in Essaouira or Marrakesh that they made themselves known and that their places of pilgrimage are concentrated.
Most venerated maraboutique sanctuaries of the brotherhood :
Sidi Abdellah Ben Hsayn and Moulay Brahim, near Marrakesh and Sidi Chamharouch in the Toubkal massif.
However it is in Essaouira, the city where they began to settle, that the gnawas built their spiritual cradle: the zaouïa Sidna Bilal.
Zouïa Sidna Bilal
Installed in a peripheral district of the kasbah of Essaouira, the gnawas claimed to be Sidna Bilal. Born a slave and companion of the Prophet, he was the first muezzin in Muslim history to call to prayer.
More than a holy place of recollection and welcome, it has become the spiritual centre of the brotherhood. Protected by the ramparts of La Scala, it is located in the western quarter of the medina in Beni Mentar. Unique place for the brotherhood, it is one of the oldest Moroccan zaouïas.
Gnawa culture through music
Diwan in Algeria, Stambali in Tunisia and Libya, the Gnaoua brotherhood has seduced and developed over the centuries, delivering us a music mixed with African and Arab-Berber rhythms strong in trance and wandering.
For decades many musical styles have integrated the Gnawa rhythms in their registers whether in Morocco or elsewhere. Moroccan rap, Arab-Berber music with notably Nass el Ghiwan, jazz-gnawa fusion, reggae, blues; in France Gnawa Diffusion, the National Orchestra of Barbès, many were largely inspired by it.
It is noted that the first known audio recording of Gnawa music on cassette was made in 1975.
At the beginning of June, in Essaouira, the most important event of the Ganwa musical culture in Morocco takes place every year: the “Gnaoua Festival and World Music”.
Always mixed, this festival has left a place for spiritual brotherhoods. A unique opportunity to listen to the great male gnawas and issouas.
A therapeutic ritual
According to old Gnawa scholars, their rites and music are related to voodoo, Cuban healthria or Brazilian Candomblé. These practices from sub-Saharan Africa have been able to transform themselves to last and not lose their originality.
Like voodoo, which became Christianized in the Caribbean, the Gnawas adopted Islam to ensure the continuity of their sacred rites.
The trance ritual or Lila ritual
This nocturnal rite is called Lila and is practiced either in a private home or in a zaouïa. Citadine, it takes place at night.
Syncretism of ancient sub-Saharan animist cults and Islam, the Koran mentioning the existence of spirits, the gnawa ritual aims at the liberation of souls possessed by these spirits, the gnaoui being located in a world intermediate between that of the jnoun and that, real, of men.
Thanks to the virtues of a trance, the Lila is both a rite of possession and a therapeutic rite; it is composed of a master musician called the maâlem, dancing musicians, and the moqaddema: the guardian of the sanctuary.
The ceremony takes place in three phases: the Aâda, the Oulad Bambra and the M’louk:
The Aâda is a colourful procession accompanied by t’bels (drums) and rattlesnakes (krakeb). Wandering, they call incantatorily for a therapeutic and spiritual healing using a song called “l’aafou ya moulana” (deliver us, Lord). In the procession the moqaddema and the arifa carry a brazier of incense spraying the assistance of orange blossom.
The Oulad Bambra is the profane part of the Lila. Preparation for the ceremony, the atmosphere is serene. The songs evoke the Prophet, the ancestors and the nostalgia of the old Sudan before slavery. The musicians dance in front of the maâlem, moving back and forth clapping their hands. Then in a circle, everyone demonstrates their qualities as dancers and acrobats.
The M’louk is the sacred part of the Lila. The geniuses of the seven colors are invoked there. Fumigations of jaoui (incense) are widely used to sanctify the guembri of maâlem and soothe geniuses.
During this ritual the maâlem is addressed to the various groups of songs associated with a colour and a spirit until discovering which one will make the patient enter a trance.
The guembri is the central instrument of the rite, it is he who contributes to the trance by sending an invitation to the Saints and the M’louk. Each of the seven colours corresponds to a particular musical rhythm and incense fumigation.
It is this journey mobilizing all the senses and strict respect for worship that will allow the invocation of geniuses.
During the invocation of his jinn, the possessed will be irresistibly drawn to the dance area, he will be covered by the moqaddema of a scarf in the color of genius. The throbbing rhythm of the rattlesnakes will lead him into a healthy trance.