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A gnawa street performer wearing traditional gnawi clothing in Rabat's Qasbat al-Widaya
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Gnawa singer in Salé, Morocco
Gnawa singer in Salé, Morocco

Gnawa music (Ar. ڭْناوة or كْناوة) is a body of Moroccan and West African Islamic religious songs and rhythms.[1][2] Its well-preserved heritage combines ritual poetry with traditional music and dancing. The music is performed at lila, communal nights of celebration dedicated to prayer and healing guided by the Gnawa maalem, or master musician, and their group of musicians and dancers. Though many of the influences that formed this music can be traced to West African kingdoms, its traditional practice is concentrated in Morocco.[3] Gnawa music has spread to many other countries in Africa and Europe, such as France.[4]

The word "Gnawa", plural of "Gnawi", is taken to be derived from the Hausa-Fulani demonym "Kanawa" for the residents of Kano, the capital of the Hausa-Fulani Emirate, which was under Morocco influence (Opinion of Essaouira Gnawa Maalems, Maalem Sadiq, Abdallah Guinia, and many others). The Moroccan language often replaces "K" with "G", which is how the Kanawa, or Hausa people, were called Gnawa in Morocco. The history of the Gnawi is closely related to the famous Moroccan royal "Black Guard", which became today the Royal Guard of Morocco.

Moroccan and Hausa cultures are connected both religiously, as both are Malikite Muslims, with many Moroccan spiritual schools active in Hausaland, and artistically, with Gnawa music being the prime example of typical Hausa music within Morocco.


In a Gnawa song, one phrase or a few lines are repeated over and over, so the song may last a long time. In fact, a song may last several hours non-stop. However, what seems to the uninitiated to be one long song is actually a series of chants describing the various spirits (in Arabic mlouk (sing. melk)), so what seems to be a 20-minute piece may be a whole series of pieces – a suite for Sidi Moussa, Sidi Hamou, Sidi Mimoun or others. Because they are suited for adepts in a state of trance, they go on and on, and have the effect of provoking a trance from different angles.

The melodic language of the stringed instrument is closely related to their vocal music and to their speech patterns, as is the case in much African music. It is a language that emphasizes on the tonic and fifth, with quavering pitch-play, especially pitch-flattening, around the third, the fifth, and sometimes the seventh.

Mehdi Qamoum playing the Guembri
Mehdi Qamoum playing the Guembri

Gnawa music is characterized by instrumentation. The large, heavy iron castanets known as qraqab or krakebs and a three-string lute known as a hajhuj, guembri or gimbri, or sentir, are central to Gnawa music.[5] The hajhuj has strong historical and musical links to West African lutes like the Hausa halam, a direct ancestor of the banjo.

The rhythms of the Gnawa, like their instruments, are distinctive. Gnawa is particularly characterized by interplay between triple and duple meters. The "big bass drums" mentioned by Schuyler are not typically featured in a more traditional setting.[6]

Gnawa have venerable stringed-instrument traditions involving both bowed lutes like the gogo and plucked lutes like the hajhuj. The Gnawa also use large drums called tbel in their ritual music.

Gnawa hajhuj players use a technique which 19th century American minstrel banjo instruction manuals identify as "brushless drop-thumb frailing". The "brushless" part means the fingers do not brush several strings at once to make chords. Instead, the thumb drops repeatedly in a rhythmic pattern against the freely vibrating bass string, producing a throbbing drone, while the first two or three fingers of the same (right) hand pick out percussive patterns in a drum-like, almost telegraphic, manner.


Gnawas perform a complex liturgy, called lila or derdeba. The ceremony recreates the first sacrifice and the genesis of the universe by the evocation of the seven main manifestations of the divine demiurgic activity. It calls the seven saints and mluk, represented by seven colors, as a prismatic decomposition of the original light/energy. The derdeba is jointly animated by a maâlem (master musician) at the head of his troop and by a moqadma or shuwafa (clairvoyant) who is in charge of the accessories and clothing necessary to the ritual.

During the ceremony, the clairvoyant determines the accessories and clothing as it becomes ritually necessary. Meanwhile, the maâlem, using the guembri and by burning incense, calls the saints and the supernatural entities to present themselves in order to take possession of the followers, who devote themselves to ecstatic dancing.

Inside the brotherhood, each group (zriba; Arabic: زريبة) gets together with an initiatory moqadma (Arabic: مقدمة), the priestess that leads the ecstatic dance called the jedba (Arabic: جذبة), and with the maâlem, who is accompanied by several players of krakebs.

Preceded by an animal sacrifice that assures the presence of the spirits, the all-night ritual begins with an opening that consecrates the space, the aâda ("habit" or traditional norm; Arabic: عادة), during which the musicians perform a swirling acrobatic dance while playing the krakebs.

The mluk are abstract entities that gather a number of similar jinn (genie spirits). The participants enter a trance state (jedba) in which they may perform spectacular dances. By means of these dances, participants negotiate their relationships with the mluk either placating them if they have been offended or strengthening an existing relationship. The mluk are evoked by seven musical patterns, seven melodic and rhythmic cells, who set up the seven suites that form the repertoire of dance and music of the Gnawa ritual. During these seven suites, seven different types of incense are burned and the dancers are covered by veils of seven different colours.

Each of the seven families of mluk is populated by many characters identifiable by the music and by the footsteps of the dance. Each mluk is accompanied by its specific colour, incense, rhythm and dance. These entities, treated like "presences" (called hadra, Arabic: حضرة) that the consciousness meets in ecstatic space and time, are related to mental complexes, human characters, and behaviors. The aim of the ritual is to reintegrate and to balance the main powers of the human body, made by the same energy that supports the perceptible phenomena and divine creative activity.

Later, the guembri opens the treq ("path," Arabic: طريق), the strictly encoded sequence of the ritual repertoire of music, dances, colors and incenses, that guides in the ecstatic trip across the realms of the seven mluk, until the renaissance in the common world, at the first lights of dawn.

Almost all Moroccan brotherhoods, such as the Issawa or the Hamadsha, relate their spiritual authority to a saint. The ceremonies begin by reciting that saint's written works or spiritual prescriptions (hizb, Arabic: حزب) in Arabic. In this way, they assert their role as spiritual descendants of the founder, giving themselves the authority to perform the ritual. Gnawa, whose ancestors were neither literate nor native speakers of Arabic, begin the lila by recalling through song and dance their origins, the experiences of their slave ancestors, and ultimately redemption.

Gnawa music today

During the last few decades, Gnawa music has been modernizing and thus become more profane. However, there are still many privately organized lilas that conserve the music's sacred, spiritual status.

Within the framework of the Gnaoua World Music Festival of Essaouira ("Gnaoua and Musics of the World"), the Gnawa play in a profane context with slight religious or therapeutic dimensions. Instead, in this musical expression of their cultural art, they share stages with other musicians from around the world. As a result, Gnawa music has taken a new direction by fusing its core spiritual music with genres like jazz, blues, reggae, and hip-hop. For four days every June, the festival welcomes musicians that come to participate, exchange and mix their own music with Gnawa music, creating one of the largest public festivals in Morocco. Since its debut in 1998, the free concerts have drawn an audience that has grown from 20,000 to over 200,000 in 2006, including 10,000 visitors from around the world.

Past participants have included Randy Weston, Adam Rudolph, The Wailers, Pharoah Sanders, Keziah Jones, Byron Wallen, Omar Sosa, Doudou N'Diaye Rose, and the Italian trumpet player Paolo Fresu.

There are also projects such as "The Sudani Project", a jazz/gnawa dialogue between saxophonist/composer Patrick Brennan, Gnawi maâlem Najib Sudani, and drummer/percussionist/vocalist Nirankar Khalsa. Brennan has pointed out that the metal qraqeb and gut bass strings of the guembri parallel the cymbal and bass in jazz sound.

In the 1990s, young musicians from various backgrounds and nationalities started to form modern Gnawa bands. Gnawa Impulse from Germany, Mehdi Qamoum aka Medicament (The cure) from Morocco, Bab L' Bluz with members from France and Morocco, and Gnawa Diffusion from Algeria are some examples. These groups offer a rich mix of musical and cultural backgrounds, fusing their individual influences into a collective sound. They have woven elements of rap, reggae, jazz, blues, rock and rai into a vibrant musical patchwork.

These projects incorporating Gnawa and Western musicians are essentially Gnawa fusions.

List of Gnawa maâlems

A 19th century Gnawa musician
A 19th century Gnawa musician


  1. ^ "Gnawa music: From slavery to prominence".
  2. ^ "The Transcendental Sound of Moroccan Gnawa Music". 30 May 2018.
  3. ^ El Hamel, Chouki (n.d.). [ "Gnawa Music of Morocco.
  4. ^ Meddeb, Abdelwahab (n.d.). Lila gnawa. (in French)
  5. ^ Schuyler, Philip D. (1981). Music and Meaning among the Gnawa Religious Brotherhood of Morocco. The World of Music. Vol. 23, No. 1. pp. 3-13.  – via JSTOR (subscription required)
  6. ^ Schaefer, John P. R. (2004). Rhythms of Power: Interaction in Musical Performance. Texas Linguistic Forum. Vol. 48. pp. 167-176.