The cry of the seagulls swells. The gulls are ever-present – they swarm in off the Atlantic when the water is rough; they clamour around the fishermen as they land and gut their catch. Tonight, however, a different flock has flown across the seas to Essaouira. World music fans, dreadlocked nouveau hippies and the shabab (youth) of the Moroccan cities and diaspora have come to the coast to participate in a centuries old tradition from the desert – the music and rituals of the Gnawa (Gnaoua).
Beneath the silhouette of the seagulls against the sunset, the Gnawa band arrives on stage in a dazzling patchwork of silk robes and shell-decorated headgear, complete with tassels, looking as much like a troupe of Chinese acrobats as a bunch of African musical mystics. And the Asian parallels don’t stop there. As the maalem (master) plucks the gimbri (a three-stringed skin-covered lute), he kicks off the deep bass beats and his Gnaouis perform incredible acrobatic feats – leaping in the air and clapping under their knees; crouching and then springing like something out of a kung fu movie; all the while building the clanging krakeb (metal castanets) into a crescendo. Without the gimbri, you could close your eyes and imagine a Chinese dragon dance, not the traditions of world-weary desert traders in camel caravans….
The Gnawa draw their musical, mystical and dance traditions from tribes of the Sahara and West Africa and theirs is a story of survival. Over time, the Gnawa became part of the Moroccan Sufi tradition and in modern Morocco their music and traditions are an integral part of the national cultural heritage and are celebrated every June at the Gnaoua World Music Festival in Essaouira.
Those familiar with African shamanistic ritual or Sufism will recognize elements of the Gnawa ceremonies which are recreated in the smaller concerts at the Festival which replicate the intimate atmosphere of the lila (a small-scale gathering for healing through music and ritual). The maalem sits on the floor surrounded by the gnaouis. The hypnotic beat of the gimbri; the fervent “clackety-clack” of the increasingly rapid krakeb; the audience picking out elements of the rhythm in their hand clapping; the chanting of the call and response singing, evoke in many spectators an intense fervor, and in others a trance-like state. The lila rituals are believed to call up ancestral saints who can drive out evil and cure ills. The atmosphere is a long way from the hustle of the medina and even further from mainstream Islam. This does nothing to reduce its appeal and at the concert I attended of Maalem Abdelatif El Makhzoumi in the beautiful vaulted and cupola-ed Dar Souiri I could see people of many ages, cultures and both genders appreciating the spectacle in their own way.
Back on the open air stage, each member of Maalem Mohamed Kouyou’s troupe performs his own solo, stepping forward out of the line like a breakdancer’s ancestor to show off his skill and simulate the trance induced by the music. As they do, the spectators pick up different parts of the music – with their hands, their feet, their shoulders, hips or hair. (Head whipping is big in Gnawa circles). As I try to do the same, I realise the rhythm I was following with my feet, the one strummed out on the gimbri like a deep, deep bass guitar, has gone. The beat is now in the percussion and the maalem is playing out a melody which I can’t follow and I need to resort to clapping with the krakeb. The maalem sings out a line – the Gnaouis and the entire crowd chant back the response.
This music has pre-Islamic roots and came from as far afield as present day Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Burkino Faso and Mali, but it is in the blood of the Essaouira locals, even those who spend the rest of the year listening to the R&B of the US, the pop of France and the merengue of Latin America. For one weekend only, we are all Gnaouis: we feel the desert blues of the Gnaouis’ history and the hardship of their modern-day survival, but we can also share in the colour, joy and celebration of a tradition which has survived since Ancient times.
© Lynn Sheppard