From the darkest part of North African slave history, Gnawa culture is a celebration of the diverse and unique identities of Morocco. In North Africa, the practice of slavery removed citizens of predominantly West African descent. This produced a group of lost people, trapped by the confines of slavery who were given the collective identity of Gnawa.
Gnawa culture is a fusion of Islamic Sufism and African animist traditions. The unique entanglement of cultures is reflected in their practices which include: song, music, dance and costume. The lila is a traditional ceremony based on their melk (genie spirits). There are 7 of these supernatural entities which are aligned to certain colors and scents. During lila rituals, participants are put into a trance through music, in particular, the guembri in order to connect with their melk.
The slave trade in Morocco continued into the early years of the 20th century. After the abolition of slavery, the culture, practices and distinct identities of the Gnawa people remained, though they became taboo, a remnant of ‘primitive’ ‘lower class’ culture. Gnawa music represented only a dark stain of Morocco’s colorful history. However, the blending of Eastern and Western history and tradition with contemporary culture made Gnawan slave culture more palatable for modern consumers. With the growing international interest which Gnawa World Music Festival helps facilitate, Gnawa music has been pushed to the forefront of Moroccan contemporary society and popular culture.
Gnawa World Music Festival today is held annually in Essaouira, Morocco. Today it represents a melting pot of rich North African history and culture in a globalized world. Gnawa World Music Festival treats up to 50,000 liberated souls from all over the globe to a mélange of genres over a period of four days. Gnawa music integrates hard hitting drum beats, the guembri and ritualistic chanting. Sht Younes, a Moroccan man, Gnawa enthusiast and musician perched himself in a local bus headed to Essaouira for 8 hours and found himself in something reminiscent to the lila trance.
For me, Essaouria has always been a spiritual city. I was born there and despite being hours away, my heart never left. The colors, the floating aromas and the intersection of culture and nature encapsulate your body and mind. The city feels as though it is caught in a time warp between the castle-like stone walls, the traditional boats which decorate the port and the manicured gardens, art galleries, and boutiques.
Here, you are greeted by an endearing ocean breeze that fills your lungs with a sweet and salty aroma. The city is filled with the hypnotic sounds of the guembri which float through narrow passages and empty streets. Essaouria is a peaceful city, decorated with thousands of expectant faces from each corner of the world detached from the absolutism of daily life.
The festival was crowded. Anticipation hung in the crowd like a stench. Bodies were oppressed by silence. They itched for the anticipated, untethered beat.
With the strumming of the guembri, we were released. The hollow sound of the drums and harmonious chanting relieved the crowd. We were invigorated by the sounds, the truth, the history behind what we were listening to. We camped in a quiet place in the midst of lush, leafy nature and experienced four days of bliss. For four days, my heart fluttered. I drummed, I danced, and I listened. The toil, the turmoil, the pressures of daily life lost in a trance. Then I got back on the bus.
I think of them. Those encumbered by futile labor, those with masters and those who lived in fear. The lost souls who created a genre, a religion, and a way of life. Their collective identity formed through a collective struggle which transcends the depth of persecution in this life and many others and I thank them.