History and Origins of Gnawa Music
Gnawa music originates from the Gnawa ethnic group, who were brought to Morocco from sub-Saharan Africa beginning around the 11th century. They were trafficked as slaves, and probably originated from Mali, Senegal, Chad, and Nigeria. The term Gnawa was therefore first used as a color designation, to mean "the black people." There was originally no one common culture between these different groups when they arrived in Morocco. The Gnawa people also included a group of indigenous black Berbers from the south of Morocco.
The enslaved Gnawa people were used in Morocco mostly as soldiers. By 1200 A.D., there were over 30,000 black soldiers in Morocco, and the practice of using black slaves to maintain power had become institutionalized. In the late 16th century, Moulay Ismail gave orders to conscript all black people, free and enslaved, into the army.
"Through their ceremonies, their songs and gatherings, these people made restitution not of an “imagined community” but a real one to reconcile a fragmented past. The Gnawa provide a fascinating story of how they re/constructed their identity against a broken cultural continuity." - Dr. Chouki El Hamel, Professor of History at Arizona State University
Over the centuries, the Gnawa people were gradually freed, whether through running away or their masters granting them freedom. They gradually formed their own communities within Morocco, where they were able to develop their own traditions. During the French protectorate in Morocco, the last vestiges of slavery disappeared, although no legislation was ever introduced to halt the practice.
The Gnawa people practice a mystic, spiritual version of Islam, combining Islam with sub-Saharan West African traditions. They claimed Bilal, the first black man to convert to Islam, the personal servant of the Prophet Mohammed, and the first muezzin (caller to prayer), as their patron saint. Their link to Bilal also served to legitimize their connection to Islam.
The Gnawa believe that contact with Allah cannot be achieved directly, but must instead be directed through spirits. Their music is accompanied by dancing and sacrifices, designed to place the participants of the ceremony in a trance, where they can communicate directly with the spirits that inhabit them. Gnawa music is also linked to their history of slavery and liberation, which is retold through their music.
"The Gnawa have, over many generations, productively negotiated their forced presence in Morocco to create acceptance and group solidarity. Unlike the conventional question in Black America, “Who are we?,” the Gnawa ask, “Who have we become?” Similar to the model of “creolization” – the integration of freed black slaves into the French cultural landscape of the American state of Louisiana , the Gnawa have created a model of their own creolization and integration into the Moroccan social landscape. " - Dr. Chouki El Hamel, Professor of History at Arizona State University
Because of the Gnawa's interaction with the spiritual realm, they were for many centuries a marginalized and often discredited religious group within Morocco. However, Gnawa music has gradually become more popular. In recent years, Gnawa performances have become more valued by the elite of Morocco in the privacy of their homes.
Gnawa music has become more secularized in recent years. Gnawa performers have turned to tourist and outdoor performances, as well as collaboration with blues and jazz artists from the United States. Gnawa music has evolved from a spiritual practice to a secular art, but in doing so it has found its niche within popular Moroccan culture.
"As the racially-marked other in Morocco with a clear African genealogy, the Gnawa attract the attention of European, American and African-American musicians who have been coming to Morocco for decades in search of "authentic" African music. Indeed, the Gnawa have become very popular on the world music market, collaborating with American and African-American jazz musicians, French recording artists and participating in festivals all over Europe, also touring occasionally in the United States." - Deborah Kapchan, Associate Professor of Anthropology at New York University.