Every year, the annual Gnawi music festival in the windy Atlantic city of Essaouira attracts thousands of visitors from Morocco and abroad. At the weekend (June 20-23), musicians and audiences celebrated the sixteenth edition of the festival.
Morocco’s Gnawa are heirs to a musical and spiritual tradition brought north across the Sahara centuries ago by black slaves. In recent years, they have been enjoying new fame as their hypnotic rhythms hook listeners across the world.
The Gnawa brotherhoods have long scraped a living on the margins of Moroccan society by offering to restore health or good fortune through séances of trance and incantation.
“In the past, this music was limited to the people who knew it and danced to its rhythms. It was appreciated only by those who knew its secrets. They were organizing small concerts known as Gnawi nights. These concerts were taking place inside homes on religious occasions such as the month of Shaaban or during moussems or festivals but today, this music has become something completely different,” Gnawi master Mahmoud Guinea explained.
The Gnawa symbolize the rich cultural mix of a country at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and the Arab world. And Gnawa music fuses well with other styles, such as blues and jazz whose roots also lie in sub-Saharan Africa.
Andre Azoulay chairs the organization behind the festival. He says American jazz singers recognized the links between Gnawa music and soul and blues a long time ago.
“The great American jazz singers realized long before us that this music is the root of soul and blues music. For many of us who are not amnesiac, we know that. And we said that maybe we Moroccans could do as well as the Americans. That is why the festival was set up.”
Every year the festival invites musicians from other parts of the world to play alongside the masters of Moroccan Gnawi music.
On Friday night, Mahmoud Guinea who comes from a Gnawi family based in Essaouira played alongside Omar Sosa and his quintet from Cuba. Tens of thousands of people watched the concert and some of them went into a trance.
“It is simple. We are some of the same model: Africa. So this is the father, I am the student. So I follow the father and everything happened with love, with heart, with soul, with emotion,” Omar Sosa said.
The next challenge for the festival organizers is to try and preserve what has so far been an oral tradition. Festival director Neila Tazi explained that the festival has begun to record Gnawa music and transcribe its lyrics. She hopes that the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation UNESCO will support the project.
“For us, UNESCO is a dream because Gnawi music is an oral tradition that is passed on from generation to generation. And it is essential to preserve this music. It should be transcribed and we should preserve its lyrics. We initiated an anthology of this music three years ago. It is being produced now and it will consist of recordings of the music and the Arabic lyrics that will be translated into French. We will have a compilation of ten CDs and also a book of 140 pages.”
Critics say the Gnawi’s new fame has severed the music from its spiritual roots, turning it into disposable folklore.
They say the split began when hippies visiting Essaouira in the late 1960s asked a famous Gnawi, Abderrahman Paca, to organize a ‘lila’ ritual at their seaside villa. It widened when the Essaouira festival appeared in 1997, mixing Gnawa with music that had no obvious spiritual function.
But supporters say the festival has restored the Gnawi’s standing and saved their musical tradition from extinction.