Moroccan Gnawa musicians present ancient songs to modern audiences | 60 minutes

For centuries, Gnawa music was performed only in secret ceremonies by enslaved black Africans kidnapped from the deserts of West Africa and brought to Morocco in the Middle Ages. Gnawa—a local word for black people—was both an oral history and an antidote to suffering.

But the story doesn’t end there. Gnawa continued his journey across the Atlantic from the slave ports of Africa and landed in America, where he helped shape the blues.

“When you come here and hear Gnawa,” said American actor Bob Wisdom, “you feel the same thing we feel with the old blues.”

The blues connection

Wisdom, who was in the Moroccan port city of Essaouira for the annual Gnawa World Music Festival, said you could trace the old blues back to black communities in Mali, Senegal and Gambia, many of whom ended up in Morocco.

Wisdom describes Gnawa music as a “portal to the past”.

Bill Whittaker and Bob Wisdom

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“It reminds us of identity, who we are in a broader sense. You know, the Africanness in our blood,” Wisdom said.

American percussionist Sulaiman Hakim said that early American blues and Gnawa share many similarities in their musical history. He said the evangelical call and response so central to Gnawa is the same one he heard growing up in Los Angeles.

“Automatically, when I first heard Gnawas, I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds like music from home,'” Hakim said. “And the way they start turning their heads is just like the dances they did in the ’30s and ’40s when you’d see Duke Ellington, Count Basie and everybody dancing.”

The lyrics of Gnawa songs resonate as much in 11th-century Morocco as they do in the plantations of the Deep South, Hakim said.

Castanets – or krakebs – are the heartbeat of Gnawa. Oral history passed down through the generations says that the krakebs were forged from the shackles of slaves. It’s impossible to know for sure, but many musicians admire Gnawa for using music to heal a painful past.

The Healing Power of Gnawa

There is a more mystical side to Gnawa that is also becoming more popular: traditional ceremonies called lilas. They are elaborate dusk-to-dawn rituals in which the master Gnawa musician, known as a maalem, acts as a musical medium, calling upon the spirits to help cure various ailments.

Lilas use the repetitive rhythms of the gimbri—a three-stringed cousin of the bass—and castanets to send listeners into a trance. Wisdom, a super fan of Gnawa music, said the syncopated clatter of the castanets draws you in.

Ghimbri

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The actor said that he fell into a trance once and will never forget it.

“It’s like you’re on the edge of time,” Wisdom said.

From the 11th century to the 21st century

Wisdom has watched the Essaouira festival grow from a cult following to attracting up to 500,000 fans, including Western musicians looking to enjoy Moroccan blues. Ancient music is now enjoying a secular boom as it finds new audiences in Europe and America.

Today, Gnawa has inspired Moroccan bands that enjoy rock star status that would have astonished their musical forebears. It has become the best entertainment in Morocco.

Hakim said every time he plays at the annual festival, he discovers something new in the Gnawa playbook. He predicts it will influence a new generation of musicians.

Gnawa maalem Hamid el Kasri helped make Gnawa a modern force. He plays songs dating back to the 11th century, and his backup singers wear the same ornate silk robes and tasseled fezzes that Gnawans have worn for hundreds of years.

El Kasri, one of Morocco’s best maalems, fills stadiums across Africa and Europe.

As the Gnawa reached new audiences, some also modernized the ancient instruments. Maalem Mokhtar Gania electrified one of his gimbries, adding thresholds and decoration.

The music itself may be ancient, but it still resonates today. The important thing is that it comes straight from the heart, Ganya said through a translator.

“Music is not written just for the ear,” Ganya said. “In Gnawa music we begin with the spirits.”

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