The people of gnawa comes from western Afriqua (Guinea, Mali,
Soudan). They were deported to Morrocco as slaves of rich
sultans. Their spiritual leader Sidi Bilal was the first slave
set free by the prophet Mahomet.
Over a period of time, the people of gnawa
and the local population mixed to form a brotherhood with
a blend of African and Arabic culture. They practised a ritual
of possession called lila de derdeba.
This ritual staged by the cult masters
for the followers evolves round the playing of music (by the
master musicians and the clairvoyants) resulting in a deeper
form of inner communication.
During the ritual, the musicians first
play their repertoir of entertainment (koyyou), then they
play their sacred repertoir (mlouk). The followers and the
dancers go into transe. The master musicians play from midnight
to seven a series of songs played on his guembri accompanied
by the qarqabu players, each song relating to a special spirit
The origins of these spirits can be supernatural
or saints who have really existed. There are seven families
of spirits (mlouk).
Each spirit has is own song. Each family
has their own incense (burned when the spirit take possession
of the dancer) and their own color. The pale blue is reserved
to the spirits of the sea (moussaouiyin), the dark blue is
assigned to the mlouk of the sky (samaouiyin); the mlouk of
the forest (rijal al ghabat) comes from Africa and is black
in color. They are considered as the most dangerous category
of spirits in Morrocco. The red is assigned to the spirits
who haunt the slaughterhouse (sidi Hammou). The white and
the green are reserved for the saints (Moulay Abdelkader jilali,...).
The yellow is assigned to the female spirit Lala Mira.
In the Koran, it is written that the djinns
(spirits) were created by pale fire without smoke which are
different to angels made of light. They are described as entities
more subtle than human being. They have the same psychological
and physiological functions, they eat, they drink, they marry,
multiplie and die. They also have a social constitution such
as human beings. Their activities start at the beginning of
the night and end at sun rise, at the first call to pray.
dancers end up in a trance like state communicating with the
spirits. During the ritual of possession (lila de derdeba),
as the maalem (master musician) plays, the dancers possessed
enter into a trance like state and communicate with the spirits.
The dancers once possessed use ritual objects : for the dance
of Sidi Hammou they use daggers, and for Sidi Moussa (Moses)
carry a bowl of water on their heads .
When the dancers are in a trance, the
clairvoyant put a veil (the veil is made up seven colors,
each color representing a spirit). This veil is placed onto
head of the dancer and encens are burned at the same time.
Amongst the followers, there are a number
of people who are ill and are searching for a cure. However,
possession is not the only way of exorcising. The rituals
of the gnawa are "initiation for the ill". Indeed,
a lot of the people who are cured stay in the brotherhood
and pursue the spiritual way of life. The cult of possession,
trek, means for the gnawa to discover the inner light.
The external pressures exerted on the
gnawa brotherhood are very strong, from muslims fundamentalists,
and modernists who say that to communicate with spirits are
not compatible with a progressive civilisation.
More and more maalem (master musicians)
are attracted to the musical activities, leaving less time
for the traditional rituals. During the chaabane month (just
before the ramadan), the musicians are always ready to play
for the crowds of people who are waiting for the beginning
of the lila de derdeba.
The gnawa musicians are divided into two
categories : the masters musicians and the troop. The master
musicians is called maalem (plur. maalmin), they are the guarantor
of the cult and of the musical tradition. In Morrocco, they
call maalem each person who have a skill in a particular activity,
technical or intellectual. To obtain this status the novice
will have to be officially recognised by the members of his
The main musical instrument is the sintir
(guembri or hajhouj). This instrument is played by the master
musician (maalem). The maalem is the main singer of the troop.
The other musicians play the qarqabu, a kind of metallic castanets,
they dance, and sing the backing vocals. They are the followers
of the maalem (the master).
The sintir is a luth with three strings
and produces a bass sounding note. The instrument is made
of wood and skin. The body that resonates is covered by dried
camel skin. The skin is stretched by the right hand of the
musician, the same time that he plays the strings which gives
the sintir its percussive sound. Two of the three strings
go to the head of the instrument. The middle string stopping
in the middle of the fingerboard. The sintir is always accorded
in the cord of D. The strings are made from the intestins
of a goat which were sacrificed.
The qarqabu, also called qraquech,
are used by the troop. They are two castanets made of metal
and help to produce the rhythms that lead the dancers into
trance. The quarquabu players are generaly six; three on the
right of the maalem and three on the left. They also perform
backing vocals and acrobatics dances.
During the introduction of the sacred
part of the ritual, the gnawa play two drums called tbel.
These are struck with two sticks ; one sticks bent, one stick
You can imagine the trance like sounds
echoing over the sea of sands where body and spirit become