Gnawa is Moroccan blues, orchestrated by groups of indigenous people reminiscent of the Blues that has its roots in the songs of black American slaves, which became widespread in the southern United States in the late nineteenth century. 

Chouki El Hamel Duke University December 1, 2000. (Must not be cited without prior written consent of the author.)


“The single most important element of Moroccan popular culture is its music… the whole history and mythology of the people are covered by songs”. 

[1] Paul Bowles, Sus cabezas son verdes y sus manos son azules, Nueva York: Random House, 1963.

Musically, Morocco is heterogeneous, and this heterogeneity reflects the variety of Moroccan culture. From secular urban professionals and religious singers to rural singers and nomads. From historical and traditional music to modern and raï. We find the classic Andalusian style, a reflection of the historical relationship between Morocco and Spain. We find Sephardic music and other popular songs from the historic Jewish communities of Essaouira and Fez. We also find Gnawa; music originally derived from West Africa that demonstrates the influence of migrations and cultural exchanges across the Sahara.

The Gnawa term has two important meanings. It is used to define both a religious/spiritual[1] order of a traditionally Moroccan black Muslim group and a musical style related to this order. The term encompasses all members of the Gnawa: the master musicians, those who play the Karkaba (metal castanets), the disciples and the female fortune tellers/therapists.

History of the Gnawa

More than 900 years ago, during the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century, slavery, compulsory military service, and trade brought people from West Africa (present-day Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal) to the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). . Since large groups of enslaved people were believed to have come from ancient Ghana (a kingdom north of Mali) in the 11th and 13th centuries, these enslaved groups were called Gnawa. The descendants of these enslaved groups are today's Gnawa, the most colorful Muslim ethnic group in Morocco. Although they have preserved many of the customs, rituals and beliefs of their ancestors, their music is the most preserved feature.

After their conversion to Islam, probably still in their home country, they adopted Bilal[2] as their ancestor and patron saint, Bilal was the first black person to convert to Islam and to become a companion of the Prophet Muhammad and the first muezzin (prayer caller) in the history of Islam. It is important to point out and mention the question of the identity of the Black Gnawa in Morocco. Aware of their difference and their blackness, they chose Bilal, a black man, as their agnate. Bilal was a special man. He was born into slavery and is originally from Ethiopia. He converted to Islam while still in captivity and was tortured for it by his teacher Umayya b. Khalaf. When Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, a very close friend of Prophet Muhammad, learned of Bilal's value, he bought him and released him in the name of Islam. Bilal became the personal servant/assistant of the Prophet. 

Esta relación especial con el Profeta le dio a Bilal una Baraka especial (una bendición divina). Lo que realmente están diciendo los Gnawa al construir su identidad islámica es que son personas privilegiadas entre los musulmanes que se han convertido al Islam incluso antes de Quraysh, la tribu a la que pertenecía Mahoma, a través de su antepasado espiritual Bilal, y que poseen su Baraka. Están diciendo que se les debe respetar o que se les devuelva el respeto porque se han cometido muchas injusticias contra ellos. No sorprende encontrar el nombre de Bilal en muchas canciones Gnawa.[3] 

The music and lyrics of the songs of the Gnawa

The Gnawa originally used their music and dance to heal the pain of their captivity. Gnawa's lyrics contain many references to the hardships of exile and slavery. In some songs we find words that express the trauma of being displaced and the deep pain of losing their homes. This is well illustrated in the following song:

The nobles of this country
brought us
brought us to serve them
brought us to bow down to them
They brought us Oh, there is no God but God
We believe in the justice of God. [4]

In another song:

The Sudan, and! Sudan
Sudan, the land of my people
I was enslaved, sold,
my loved ones were taken from me [5].

Los Gnawa eran grupos de indígenas que tocaban blues en Marruecos

There are also songs that deal with the assimilation of the Gnawa into their new surroundings, where they sing and dance to ease the pain just as black Americans did when they sang as a way of coping with their plight. In this sense, Gnawa is very similar to Blues which has its roots in American black slave songs, which became widespread in the southern United States in the late 19th century. There are also patterns that are similar with many black spiritual groups in Africa, such as the Bori in Nigeria and the Stambouli in Tunisia, the Sambani in Libya, the Bilali in Algeria, and outside of Africa, such as the Voodoo, a religion practiced in the countries of the Caribbean mixed with Roman Catholic ritual elements and traditional Dahomey rituals.

The contemporary social condition of the Gnawa and the inequality in their social and economic status in Morocco are clearly shown in the following song:

Oh! God our lord,
My uncle Mbara is a miserable man
My uncle Mbara is a poor man
Our lady eats meat
Our master eats meat
My uncle Mbara gnaws the bone
Our lady wears elegant shoes
Our master wears beautiful shoes
My uncle Mbara wears sandals
My master goes to the movies
My uncle Mbara entertains at the market.
Oh! God is our guide
This is the situation of the poor
Oh poor uncle Mbara.[6]

The importance of religion in the Gnawa

In the religious and musical sphere, the Gnawa people found legitimacy for their distinctive cultural character and have created an integrated category in society, but they still have exclusionary practices. The practices and representations of these spiritual groups related to slavery, when placed without the black community is questioned and sometimes unwelcome, thus raising questions about the limits of their syncretism. The images conveyed in her songs build a coherent representation of displacement, disposition, deprivation, and nostalgia.

The Gnawa experience outlined in this essay is very similar to all forced diasporas. Through their ceremonies, songs, and gatherings, these people restored an imaginary or "imagined" community to match an interrupted past. The Gnawa are a fascinating story of how they invented their identity to deal with a broken cultural continuity. How or where they found resources of resistance and identity with which they console and confront the fragmented and pathological ways in which their experience has been reconstructed within the new society. Aware of their identity, the Gnawa have very well negotiated their forced presence in Morocco. Unlike the conventional question, "Who are we?" in black America, the Gnawa ask, "Who have we become?" A model of creolization and integration.

During the last fifty years in North Africa, Gnawa music, like Blues in America, has spread and attracted practitioners from other ethnic groups, in this case Berbers and Arabs. Although most of today's Gnawa musicians are Metisse and speak Arabic and Berber, some West African religious words and phrases survive although their meaning has been lost. 

But Gnawa music is mainly found where black people live in relatively large numbers; large enough to form a distinctive community like that of Marrakech and Essaouira. These two cities are historically known to have slave markets connected to the trans-Saharan slave trade.[7] Gnawa music has spawned a popular style of pop music for pure entertainment, such as Jil-Jilala or Nass al-Ghiwane. These two bands were the most listened to in Morocco in the 70s and 80s. But, curiously, Gnawa music, like jazz in the United States, is not recognized as national music. The national Moroccan music is Andalusian music, which has developed in “Muslim” Spain and arrived in Morocco with the expulsion of the Moors in 1502.

The Gnawa people have created a differentiated space in Moroccan society. They play a social and spiritual role, in addition to performing shows. Gnawa music is spiritual music that is significantly used for therapy. They claim to possess abilities to cure madness and free people from evil influences. They believe that God is too powerful for two-way communication and direct manifestation that can only be achieved through spiritual manifestations in our world.

The ceremonies of the Gnawa

They perform trance ceremonies called derdeba (possession rite) which usually take place at night which is why it is also called al-layla (meaning night in Arabic). The Gnawa believe that many misfortunes that befall people are not just accidental or unavoidable, but can be caused by evil spirits. That is why some people from all walks of life under the affliction of some acute illness, infertility or depression come to seek the intercession of Gnawa. Sometimes some people would seek her intercession in order to preserve good fortune.

El arte incontestable de la época, demuestra en una pintura las ceremonias de trance, de origen religioso, que en la época del blues de Marruecos tenían lugar en la noche árabe bajo los nombres de derdeba o al-layla, donde se cantaban gnawa.

These acts took place all night. The orchestra was made up of many musicians: m'allem (lead musician or teacher) sings guenbri (a three-stringed bass) and other members of the group play drums and karkaba (brass chestnuts). In general, everyone dances, too. Music and dance are one thing for Gnawa.

In general, the place of celebration is inside the house/sanctuary/center of a Gnawa family/group, Moroccan blues takes essence in the most intimate places. Most of the time, the first part of the ceremony is mundane, like a warm-up exercise. It is divided into a total of seven sections, represented by seven saints or ancestral spirits. Each section is also associated with a particular color (white, blue, red, green, black, yellow, and a mix of colors) and each color symbolizes a particular role in nature and beyond. The ceremony is performed through well-established rituals, such as the sacrifice of a sheep or a goat, cloths of different colors, eating dates, drinking milk flavored with rose water, and burning incense. But the Music, the song, the "call and response" and the dance that are fundamental in the ceremony are the most visible feature. Some participants go into a trance where a spirit can associate with them and express through the dancer's mouth their desire for the appropriate melody and preferred color. Al-Layla will continue until the goal is achieved and the trance is over and the participant has been cleansed of their afflictions.

In such ceremonies, the Gnawa stand out as "a social construction" in the Moroccan society to which they were acculturated over the centuries after they first arrived as forced immigrants and dissolve into "a spiritual construction" stripped of social and worldly identities and worldly affairs.

The new modern millennium of the Gnawa

A good example of the modern new millennium Gnawa is Nass Marrakech. An important member of the group Abdeljalil, for example, has toured with Don Cherry, and several other members of Nass Marrakech have worked with the Casablanca School of Jazz. On “Sabil ‘a ‘Salaam”, Nass Marrakech blends traditional music with new songs that connect with contemporary themes and audiences. “Ana, Anta” (“You, me”) talks about equal human rights and people. “Salaam Aleikum” addresses the need for peace and harmony in the world. Traditional songs include "Yo Mala," a song reportedly in existence for over 900 years and performed in the ancient Bambara language. Nass Marrakech combines West African drums (djembes) with mandolin, Indian tabla, guenbri and karkaba to create a distinctive musical landscape.

Music is a form of communication. It communicates through a special language that transcends ethnicities, nationalities, religions and political borders. The music of Nass Marrakech is an example of this.


[1] See the interesting study by Viviana Pâques, Religion des esclaves: recherches sur la confrérie marocaine des Gnawa,
Bergamo [Italy]: Moretti & Vitali, 1991.
[2] For more information on this historical figure see The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Leyden, EJ Brill, art. Bilal.
[3] Viviana Pâques in “The Gnawa of Morocco: The Derdeba Ceremony”, in The Nomadic alternative: modes and models of interaction in the deserts and African-Asian steppes, ed. Wolfgang Weissleder, The Hague: Mouton, 1978, describes the Ganwa as “sons of Sidna Bilal” as masters of possession rituals. She gives an interesting analysis of the symbolic elements of the Gnawa spiritual order.
[4] Abdul Karim al-Asiri's own emphasis translation, `Alam at-tuqus wa 'l-alwan dakhil al-layla al-ghnawiyya, Essaouira:éditions es-Safriwi, 1999, 33.
[5] Translation with my own emphasis, ibid., 18.
[6] Ibid., 17-18.
[7] See Mohammed Ennaji, Soldats, Domestiques et Concubines. L'esclavage au Maroc au XIXe siècle, Casablanca: Editions Eddif, 1994.