The Gnaoua World Music Festival is well known worldwide as a celebration of gnaoua music and culture in Essaouira, Morocco. However, once the tourists and world music fans had returned home, it was an unexpected pleasure this winter to discover the Zawiya Hamdouchia in a back street of the Essaouira medina where religious adherents were practicing ancient ceremonies and celebrating their religion through music with equal fervous but much less of the pomp and colour of the Festival.
A Zawiya is a religious and cultural centre, normally featuring a domed roof and including a mosque, rooms for religious instruction and learning and often accommodation for adherents. Unlike mainstream islam, whose adherents commune with Allah directly through prayer and religious practice, gnaouis and followers of other Sufi sects communicate with their God via the means of music, trance and dance.
Unlike is usually the case in Morocco’s mainstream mosques, on this occasion I and other non-Muslims were able to visit the Zawiya and observe rituals which looked like they hadn’t changed for decades – if not centuries. Surrounded by men in traditional jellabas and playing the repetitive percussive beats of ancient Africa, I felt transported back through the ages. It was only the presence of the odd man in jeans and a jumper that served to remind me I was in 21stcentury Morocco.
The adherents were absorbed in their rituals and seemed un-self conscious in their religious practice, to the extent that we spectators were able to take photographs and enjoy their music in our own ways.
© Lynn Sheppard (words and pictures)