Musicians engage Morocco’s ‘African’ identity through Gnawa

The typical jazz festival in Morocco is characterized by a celebration of the Andalusian legacy of Morocco’s musical heritage, focusing on the sounds of Iberia’s Arab and Islamic past. But there is another type of music important to Morocco’s cultural heritage that is often overlooked at the country’s flagship music festivals. Gnawa music is the spiritual songs and rhythms to emerge from Morocco’s formerly enslaved and whose origins are in West and Central Africa. The only cultural institution to focus on showcasing this culture is the annual Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essaouira, a former trans-Saharan slave entrepôt on Morocco’s southern Atlantic coast.

The peripheral presence of Gnawa in Morocco’s premiere music festivals—Jazzablanca, Jazz au Chellah, and Tanjazz—is emblematic of what Hisham Aidi observes as “a much larger conversation about identity in Morocco, and which direction the country should face—east, west, or south.” It is a debate rooted in a historically uneasy relationship between the Gnawa people and the state. In the colonial era, French officials played upon Gnawa’s Sufism and mystic rituals to counter Islamic reform movements, and keep Morocco at a distance from the greater Middle East. During the post-independence period, the country’s political and cultural elite preferred Andalusian music as the national tradition, considering Gnawa and its rituals to be a possible source of embarrassment to the rest of the Arab and Islamic world.

However, in the past 20 years Gnawa music has made small inroads into the elite cultural spaces of Morocco. At this past month’s Jazz au Chellah Festival in Rabat, Gnawi acts such as Mustapha Baqbou, Gnaous De Marrakec, and Gabacho Maroconnection featured on the bill. The entrance of Gnawa into such spaces reflects a change in gaze from festival curators, who are now beginning to look south at the country’s West African roots. The gesture is a small, but significant step for a community that has had to continually negotiate their social and cultural legitimacy in Morocco.

Gabacho Maroconnection is a Gnawa band based in Europe, who opened this year’s Jazz au Chellah. Hamid, the band’s leader, has an almost activist vision for the role of Gnawa in the greater Moroccan society. He says, “Moroccans often forget that Morocco is in Africa… Gnawa is a bridge south across the Sahara for Moroccans to rediscover their African roots.” Hamid and other Gnawa musicians celebrate the advances Gnawa has made in the Moroccan cultural realm in recent years, but insist there is still progress to be made in order to place Gnawa next to Morocco’s more recognized music traditions. “We need more help from the people at the responsible institutions. The festivals are good, but we need help in other areas to push the cultural politics forward,” he claims.

This feeling of marginalization may in fact be the thing that brings Gnawa back to the core of Moroccan identity. It is a sentiment that resonates with many Moroccan youth, especially those living in Europe and the United States, and who have encountered their own struggles with integration. Motifs such as displacement, hardship, and suffering that are intrinsic to Gnawa music are themes that many in the diaspora relate to and use to help construct for themselves an identity and place in society. As Hamid explained, “Even if young North Africans in Europe like hip hop, they feel Gnawa. It’s biological. It’s in their roots. They may not become crazy for Gnawa, but they see it as a part of them.”

Hamid knows, because he is the perfect case study. Originally from Essaouira, Hamid’s engagement with Gnawa abroad has called him back to his roots. And even with the success he has enjoyed touring Europe, he now thinks about returning to Morocco to live permanently. It may just be that while cultural institutions within Morocco take baby steps towards embracing Gnawa, it will be Moroccans overseas, and bands like Gabacho Maroconnection that will give Gnawa music and culture an extra push towards the center of Morocco’s cultural identity.

Matthew Joseph Greene

Matthew Greene is a freelance writer currently living in Rabat, Morocco.

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