Form and Structure of Gnawa Music
Gnawa music is traditionally performed in a trance ceremony, called a lila, which is designed to cure spiritual and physical sickness. The lila takes place in a private home, begins after sunset and lasts all night. The lila has three parts: the al-‘ada, or warm-up, the kuyu or Awlad Bambara, when the Prophet Mohammed is invoked, and the ftuh ar-rahba, which is the central ritual, when the seven spirits (mlek) are represented, each by a different section.
"Gnawa music is traditional in the sense that it was produced for internal use for and by the members; there are no known composers or dates of inception. Pieces are passed on orally through ritual ceremonies and a collective responsibility for preservation. Virtually all the same pieces exist throughout Morocco, with some exceptions such as regional specialties or items belonging to particular m‘allem-s (or families), to which others are not privy. Two main types of repertoire exist and may be categorized by function (i.e., pre-possession or entertainment, and possession), or by thematic referential content (i.e., ontological past and supernatural entities)." -Maisie Sum, "Music of the Gnawa of Morocco: Evolving Spaces and Times"
The mlek are invoked in a specific order, and each mlek has an accompanying color association. Therefore, for each section, the Gnawa play the mlek's corresponding music, light the corresponding incense and dress in the corresponding colors. The seven colors are white, light blue, dark blue, red, green, black and yellow. Sections of the music are not immediately distinguishable, because the musicians move seamlessly from one to another. Each section is a series of short verses and choruses, usually with an element of antiphony (call and response.) Each section also contains a period of instrumental dance, where the tempo increases and the qraqab gets louder.
There are five timbers in traditional Gnawa music, produced by the three most traditional instruments (excluding the tbla): the low bass of the gimbri, the percussive rhythms produced by tapping the body of the gimbri, the jingling of the metal piece attached to the gimbri, the continuous rhythms of the qraqab, the solo voice of the m'allem, and the responding chorus of the qarqabiya.
The gimbri is the melodic and instrumental center of the music, as it is the only melodic instrument. During rituals, it is the first instrument to receive offerings, and is often brought before other instruments to the site of the ritual. It is kept upright when not being played, and it is nourished with incense weekly.
"The most coveted place is exactly in front of the guembri. The instrument is the master of the game. It is the guembri that attracts the mlouk [mlek] in the dance space and drives trance. The qraqab maintain a regular strident sound but it is the plucking of the bass notes and the changing melody that effectively signify the call of the motto of the Blacks and that invariably attracts the dancers." - Anthropologist Zineb Majdouli
Most Gnawa music is pentatonic, although it can also occasionally be tetratonic, hexatonic, or heptatonic. Gnawa music is often polyrhythmic, with one rhythmic motive established by the gimbri, and the other by the qraqab. This results in a 3:2 hemiola, which is a comment element in trance music around the world, although it is obscured by the quick tempo of the music.
The traditional form of the lila has been altered in recent years for public performances. The public performances forsook much of their spiritual and religious value, in order to accommodate a secular audience. The tbla drums are also more common in these public, secular performances.
"The lila was transformed into what is called a fraja (a show, a spectacle) in Gnawa terminology, a term that distinguishes the sacred from the profane for Gnawa who perform for foreign audiences. Still billed as ‘lila,’ the shows no longer invoke the entire pantheon of spirits (each with their own color, music and incense). A public sacrifice is not enacted and the ‘lila’ lasts only a few hours. The music, in other words, has been separated from its ritual function incrementally—at least as it is performed for foreigners and Moroccan tourists." -Professor Deborah Kapchan