For almost the entire year, Essaouira, on the coast of central Morocco, is just a small port city, its main connection to music being the story – firmly believed by locals – that Jimi Hendrix wrote here the world famous Castles made of sand during his visit in the summer of 1969. However, since 1997, once a year this place becomes the capital of a musical and dancing tradition peculiar to Morocco: that of the Gnawa.
The Gnawa (a word meaning ‘black’) are the descendants of some west African people who, by migrations or enslavement, came to Morocco at least since the 11th century and were employed as soldiers or manual labourers.
Once slavery disappeared, their descendants were able to create their own communities, including the religious brotherhoods in which their musical tradition was born and which earned them the nickname of ‘God’s slaves’. The faith of the Gnawa combines Islam with some elements of the traditional African beliefs, in particular that in spirits and other immaterial beings that can be used for both good and evil purposes. The ancestors – seen as intermediaries between humanity and the one God – and the spirits are invoked in ceremonies which involve the use of drums, cymbals and other percussions as well as a dance arising from ritual possession.
Such practices have been regarded with suspicion by the followers of the mainstream Islamic faith, despite the Gnawa tried to earn a legitimation by claiming a descent from Bilal the Ethiopian, a companion of Muhammad and the first muezzin ever. Being a minority from both an ethnic and a cultural point of view, the “slaves of god” were marginalized, but they never gave up their traditions , including music. For many of them, dancing and playing instruments like the so called guimbré (a string instrument best known in West Africa as ngoni) became a way to earn a living. Their sound was the result of multiple hydrations: Gnawa songs, in fact, rely on many traditions: Bambara, Fulani, Tamazigh: these were the same rhythms which were rediscovered in the Seventies and influenced several music stars of the time. Among those who are at least said to have drawn inspiration from the Gnawa compositions are the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Robert Plant, Sting, Cat Stevens and, obviously, Jimi Hendrix.
However, it was only in the late Nineties that the Gnawa had their international recognition from an artistic point of view, when the Gnawa and World Music festival was officially launched in Essaouira. This event also marked a turning point for the whole community, as Abdeslam Alikane, arts director of the festival, explained to the press. “Formerly one only spoke of ritual, a community of the poor, but today this music is considered to be a source of wealth”, he said. In the same spirit, Hamid el Kasri, another mâalem (as the Gnawa artists are called), stated that “the festival has allowed the Gnawa to better express their music from an artistic, scientific and spiritual standpoint”. Since the very beginning, the festival kept faith with his name, attracting renowned artists from every part of the world, one of the reasons why it was also dubbed ‘The African Woodstock’ .
Throughout the years the most renowned mâalems have been joined by some of the most important active artists of Western Africa (Mali’s baba Sissoko and Oumou Sangaré, Nigeria’s Nneka and Ayo), Cuba (Omar Sosa), the United States (Maceo Parker, Marcus Miller) and various parts of Asia. The result was, if not the creation of a new genre, the blending of many traditions (local music, jazz, blues), which, nevertheless have some common elements. All these sounds, in fact, can trace their roots back to the great tradition of black African music: this is the common starting point of all the artists performing at Essaouira, who in tur contribute in enriching the Gnawa tradition and in keeping it vital even after many centuries.