Perfect Sound Forever

The Music of the Gnawa

Spirits are Colors in the Night
By Mike Wood
(June 2012)

The power and mystic pulse of the drone has been a foundation of music, both spiritual and secular, minimal and rhythmic. Whether as the basis for Indian and Asian ritual, or the single note of chord that propels funk and reggae, or the mournful moan of the guitar or fiddle in blues and country music, the drone has been the simple but foundational source of music both ecstatic and contemplative.

In the West, it was the Indian and Asian drone that first inspired modern pioneers like John Cage, La Monte Young, Pauline Oliveros, and later composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Not much was known, or explored in the West about the powerful uses of the drone in the Middle East, both in ritual and secular fashion, until the late 1960s, when Brion Gysin's musical experiments along with, most importantly, Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones' recording of Moroccan tribal music (Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan in Joujouka) transported Middle Eastern music from the soundtracks of Mummy films and Bob Hope movies and began to be seen for its rich and beautiful palette. Today that rich vein of musical expression still remains obscure to most.

The Gnawa are a people of Western Africa, whose culture is a blend of Arabic and African influences, due to trade, travel and slavery. Their music which bears their name, refined over centuries and only recently removed from its spiritual uses and incorporated into pop and jazz, is a simple but profound music that is built off of the use of three instruments, one or two notes, and the drone. To these ears, it is the equal to Indian Classical and Hindustani music in terms of its rich colors and hypnotic properties.

The ritual music of Gnawa is used in night-long ceremonies in which trances are induced in the participants, who then encounter spirits--good or bad—of their choosing. Trance has a large role in the ritual music of Morocco and of Arabic music in general, far more powerful and important to the community than the dope-induced euphoria of the Beats who traveled to and lived in the area in the '50's and '60's.

In its purest form, the music of the Gnawa is for ceremonies of deep spiritual transcendence. In a typical all-night ceremony, three instruments provide the drone: the guimbri, a three-stringed lute/bass; the drums (ganga) and the qraqeb, the large metal castanets that provide a constant ringing beat. The sound created, even for the casual listener, is jarring. Part drone, part ritual rhythm, part funk, the music of the Gnawa suggests the eternal and the brooding gritty avenues for getting there.

"In a Gnawa song, one phrase or a few lines are repeated over and over throughout a particular song though the song may last a long time. In fact, a song may last several hours non-stop. The norm, though, is that what seems to the uninitiated to be one long song is actually a series of chants, which has to do with 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. But because they are suited for adepts in a state of trance, they go on and on, and have the effect, that they provoke trance from different angles. (Wikipedia +

According to Mohammed Ennaji and the Pre-History of the Gnawa,

"The Gnawa call these processor spirits the mluk, which literally means "the owners." The mluk belong to a category of beings called the jinn, or the jnun, in Moroccan Arabic. The jinn are beings of smokeless fire whose existence is confirmed in the Koran... The Gnawa musical repertoire: the bulk of the Gnawa repertoire comes out of the lila ceremony. It's about 180 songs altogether that are played on most occasions. There are some songs that have dropped out of the repertoire over the years. There are some songs that are rarely played, or are only played on special occasions, but there's a pretty standard group of songs that are usually performed in about the same order in any ceremony you go to. Within the Gnawa repertoire, there are two basic rhythmic patterns. One is a four-stroke pattern, where you have four strokes of the qraqaba for each beat. Then there is another one which has a three-stroke pattern. That can take a 2/4 or a 6/8 form. All of the songs of the lila repertoire are going to fall into one of those categories. Melodically, it's also pretty simple. It's a couple of pentatonic scales that are used. One would be [D E G A C D]."

Timothy D. Fuson says that "Another feature that distinguishes the Gnawa lila from the hadras of other brotherhoods is the system of color categories that mark the progression of the mluk over the course of the night. Each melk, in addition to having particular characteristics of personality, is associated with a particular color."

For Western ears, it is the haunting but familiar beat of the guimbri that may resonate beyond interest in the rituals and resulting altered states. Similar to a bass, but with a raw acoustic bite to it, the guimbri's drum-like pulse is one that feels like a direct line back to the origins of rhythm. But the ritual itself is more than ceremonial; there is an implied risk for the individual as for the community in evoking the spirits, even with the confidence in being able to control them. Gnawa are thus outsiders in their community for evoking and wrestling with them. But the payoff may be more than just making spirits do their bidding; the music and ritual of the Gnawa are gateways to God. Musicologist Deborah Kapchan has written definitively on this aspect of Gnawa music and the Lila ceremony, and worth quoting in depth:

"There is so much Sufism in Morocco of so many different ilks, so many different orders. The Gnawa are not Sufis. They are considered a tai'fa, an association, rather than a tariqa, an order. One of the differences being, not only hagiography, not only mediation by a shaykh, but the Sufis overall are interested in communing with God. They go straight up to find access to and communion with God. They don't hang around with the spirits at all. It's not that they don't believe in the spirits. They believe in the spirits, but they don't want to traffic with the spirits. It's a dangerous place to be. The Gnawa, they are specialists in the spirit world. When people don't know what to do with the spirits that are plaguing them, the Gnawa are the people to see because the Gnawa have mastered this realm. This is the realm in which they live.

Because of this, they are considered transgressive. They are often feared, because they have experience in this realm of the spirits, which is a very dangerous realm. They can be considered magicians or tricksters, but the bottom line is they interact with the spirits, and the spirits are capricious."

Thus Gnawa music is outside looking in when it comes to acceptance in Morocco. Still, as with other music that originated in mystical or ritual uses, the Gnawa--and the Moroccan government, which sees tourist dollars--secular uses are being embraced. In 1997, the Gnawa and World Music Festival was established, and since then, Gnawa artists have blended pop music in their sound and likewise the haunting groove of the Gnawa has been incorporated into jazz, hip-hop and myriad other styles. While all music, like poetry and art, began as a means for humanity to express, celebrate and question its experiences, Gnawa belongs to select group that has held on to its original intent. While secular interest and financial/tourist demands have started to inch into the marketplace, Gnawa, like Carnatic and Hindustani music in India, remains a vital spiritual as well as artistic source of worship and ritual for its practitioners. It is holy music, and the echo of its deep meaning is present in even its adaptations. Its drone and rhythmic power remain the sound of solemn rite.

Some of the more successful Gnawa acts, mostly guimbri players, include Hassan Hakmoun, Ouled Mambara and Maleem Mahmoud Ghania. Artists as diverse as Randy Weston, Stereo MC's and Archie Shepp have incorporated Gnawa into their sound. For the beginner, I'd suggest tracking down these records:

Mustapha Baqbou Gnawa Trance Music of Morocco (Sounds of the World, 1999)

Hassan Hakmoun The Fire Within: Gnawa Music Of Morocco (Music of the World, 1999)

Hasna El Becharia Djazair Johara: Algerian Gnawa Music (Indigo 2001)

Gnawa Diffusion Souk System (Warner 2003)

Various Artists Gnawa: Home Songs (Accords-Croises, 2008)

Various Artists Global Meditation: The Pulse of Life (Rhythm & Percussion) (The Relaxation Company, 2007)

Various Artists Night Spirit Masters: Gnawa Music of Marrakesh (Axiom 1991)

See also the five volume Gnawa Leila Series (Media 7)


El Hamel, Dr. Chouki. "The Gnawa Music of Morocco." Retrieved from

Fuson, Timothy D. "The Gnawa and Their Lila: An Afro-Maghrebi Ritual Tradition." Retrieved from

Kapchan, Deborah. Interview. Retrieved from

"The Lure and Lore of the Gnawa Healers." Retrieved from (this link is probably the essential resource for information on Gnawa)

Open Source Movies

Gwana Stories

Gwana videos on YouTube

Gwana Music at Wikipedia

Festival Essaouira

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