The beauty of Gnawa \\ From ecstasy to existence

Writing from Cairo, James White reflects on the majesty of Gnawa music and its returning popularity. 

Perched on the steps of a terrace of a busy cafe, I tried to keep low enough not to block anyone’s view behind me of the clattering five-piece Gnawa group. A woman who sat aside from the main huddle in the room began to roll her head, eyes closing as she leaned more heavily on her neighbour. The music became increasingly loud and fast, her contortions growing more and more exaggerated until the noise from the krakebs (metal castanets) elided into each other. She screamed and collapsed, exasperated, to the alarm of her immediate spectatorsbut largely unnoticed by the band that continued to fill the room with the same repetitive combination of strings, percussion and inspired vocals. Known by many Sufis as wadjd, defined as a state of ecstasy or rapture, this experience is only a partial realisation of wudjud, or ‘existence’.

Follow our Sounds Around the World playlist

Like many other mystic traditions that encompass Sufism, Gnawa music stems from concepts of syncretism and liberality. Coming from predominantly Fulani lands in West and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Gnawa were an ethnic group displaced by the Slave Trade that saw new opportunities in the Sufic teachings that had spread across North Africa. The fluid nature of Sufism gave a chance to re-interpret the world around them whilst retaining their cultural history, taking on the role of healer and entertainer. Although no longer possessed by a master, Gnawa belief has it that one is still possessed by spirits—which themselves must be ‘mastered’.

Today, Gnawa music is most associated with the Moroccan town of Essaouira, which hosts the annual Gnawa World Music Festival and was home to one of Gnawa’s most prodigious musicians, Maalem Mahmoud Gania. Born in 1951, Gania continued on his father’s role as Maalem or ‘master’, later going on to record music with local labels such as Tichkaphone, La Voix El Maaraf and Sonya Disques as well as array of foreign collaborations including spiritual Jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. In 2015 Gania recorded Marhaba with James Holden and Floating Points, an album which led Gnawa music into a new realm of UK dance music; raising the profile to a largely unbeknown community whilst placing it within a new context.

For some, this recontextualisation may feel like indulging an exoticism but rather it offers a legacy and reinvigoration for those whose history is represented in audio recordings; a Boiler Room session viewable in 1080p of Gania and his two sons a year before his death in 2015 is an invaluable addition to the evolving catalogue of cultural identity and representation for the Gnawa people. The collaboration with Moroccan-American group Innov Gnawa on Bonobo’s latest album Migration brought Gnawa music into the foreground, with seemingly incomparable sounds intermingling with intelligence and a willingness to explore a new musical globalisation.

With this in mind, it may not seem as surprising to find Maalem Mahmoud Gania’s final studio recordings emerging from the one-man Brighton label, Hive Mind Records.  Released in the Autumn of 2017, Colours of the Night is a timeless, incalculable piece that is spread over two LPs. Although divided into tracks, each epic lasts around 8 minutes, blending into each with almost indiscernible intervals.  These LPs represent the first ever vinyl of his solo work and the first records outside of Morocco.  With commendations from Montenegro to Japan, we see a new era of organic growth and a legacy that is not bound by time or place. It is an interest to engage with a small community across the world that highlights a profound curiosity to know more.  For that reason, Colours of the Night is an excellent example of the concept album of today; all-encompassing and intuitive.  

Two years after the death of Maalem Mahmoud Gania, one can only wonder whether Gnawa music would just be another undiscovered gem for many outside of Morocco if not for Gania. From healer to entertainer, the Gnawa people have carried a rich and complex history with them of both adaptability to changing environments but also a steadfast continuity.

Reflecting on my experience on the hot evening in a cafe in Fez, it was the ecstasy of the audience that made the music exist.  Even if recordings such as Colours of the Night can only touch on this partial realisation, Gnawa music will continue to flourish around the world in changing capacities.

Tweet @EZHmag

EZH | James White