10 Things to Know about Gnawa Music
The Gnaoua Festival Tour 2017 kicks off this week with a free performance in the David Rubenstein Atrium, followed by several more events around the city. For the uninitiated, musicians Amino Belyamani and Samir Langus, two members of the New York City–based band Innov Gnawa, share a few things you need to know about this ancient North African musical tradition, which is currently enjoying renewed popularity.
See also: Gnawa Music: A Personal Journey.
1. The term "Gnawa" (also spelled "Gnaoua") refers to both a people and a style of music.
There are many theories on where the word "Gnawa" comes from, but it most likely stems from the Berber word "aginaw," which means someone that you can't understand. There are multiple branches of Gnawa music—at least three or four—within Morocco, and even more outside of Morocco. You hear that musical style all over the north of Africa—in Algeria, it's called Diwan, and in Tunisia, it's called Stambouli. It's all kind of the same manifestation of centuries of the slave trade and slaves from northern Mali and Mauritania being bought and sold all throughout that region and creating music from their history and ancestors. So Gnawa is really an all-encompassing term for the culture that resulted from the slave trade in that area.
2. Gnawa is ancient.
A lot of African culture in general and especially musical cultures like Gnawa have been passed on from generation to generation orally, so not a lot is documented and a lot has been lost, including the language. The oldest songs are sung in Sub-Saharan languages of Bambara, Fulani, and Sudani, and more recently Arabic has been incorporated. That being said, we know that Gnawa culture—including its music—dates back to the animistic and shamanistic cultures of West Africa, predating the arrival of all of the monotheistic religions to Africa. The first documentation comes from the twelfth century, so it's at least 800 years old and is likely even older.
3. In addition to vocals, Gnawa music usually has three instruments.
The main instrument has different names depending on where the musicians come from, but the most common name is sintir. The sintir is a guitarlike stringed instrument whose body is made of a piece of a hollowed-out tree—different trees are used and produce different sounds—fig tree, walnut tree, for example. It has two and a half strings, which are made of goat guts.
In addition to the sintir, Gnawa musicians also play iron castanets known as qraqebs, which produce a sound like a horse walking or running. Finally, there are drums called tbel that are made from goat skin and played with one flat stick and one curved stick.
4. Masters of Gnawa music are called maalems.
To become a maalem, you have to spend your whole life just learning, to get as much information as you can from someone who is already a master. Our Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer always says to us: "Learn to listen. Listen to learn." At first, you start with just cleaning the master's house. You do shopping. You do everything for him. You run his errands to be accepted by him. And then he will say, "Okay, you are a good kid, you can join in." And then you start learning the castanets, and the dance, and then you do the chorus. And then you cannot… never, never, never play the sintir in front of your master. And it takes years and years of experience to become a maalem. You have to study your whole life. You can never call yourself a maalem, either. You have to let other maalems give you that title.
5. Gnawa music has a spiritual role, which is practiced at lilas.
A lila is an all-night community gathering with Gnawa spiritual music that involves a sacrifice of some kind—a rooster, sheep, or even a cow—and a whole order of sections of songs that have call-and-response singing and in which participants go into a trance. Each city has its own order of songs for a lila. Once it gets into the sacred part of the music there are seven colors, each of which has its own repertoire of songs that deal with a certain element or spirit. It's community music, led by a maalem who makes sure not to skip any songs that are important to specific people within the community.
6. Gnawa music includes religious and nonreligious themes.
Gnawa predates Islam and retains themes of the natural world. Many of the colors of songs refer to things like the sea, the sky, and the forest. The themes also include ideas of migration, exile, nostalgia, and tributes to religious prophets, historical figures, Gnawa ancestors, and previous maalems.
7. Gnawa has influenced artists across multiple genres.
Starting in the '60s and '70s, with the hippie movement, a lot of Americans wanted to travel back to Africa, especially artists like Jimi Hendrix, Pharaoh Sanders, Randy Weston, and also British people—The Rolling Stones, Robert Plant with Led Zeppelin—there was a whole movement of musicians who would all go to Essaouira just to feel that inspiration. And if you go there you can't escape the Gnawa, because it's so prevalent, so it opened up the whole world of fusion and everybody started being interested in it. It also opened up Gnawa to more Moroccans. It was like a big explosion everywhere.
8. Gnawa is experiencing a renewed popularity.
The Gnaoua and World Music Festival in Essaouira has played a huge role in reviving Gnawa among young people. It made it possible that you could play Gnawa without it being sacred, so that opened everything up. Before that, Gnawa was only played in lilas and you had to be part of the community or have very direct connections to attend a lila. You can't just walk into a lila without knowing anyone in the room. So it was very closed at every level, for the audience and for other potential musicians. The festival opened all the doors to other musicians who are interested, and now of course with the Internet, Gnawa has just exploded. It is so present in Morocco. Everyone can play it, especially the younger generation. Everyone wants to play Gnawa.
9. Gnawa music is performed by men and women.
Women have always been important in Moroccan culture, so let's start with that. A woman is usually the emcee—called the muqadma—of the lila, which is such an important role. She has to know everyone and everything. She has to basically be a maalem also, in a way. Now today you have a male version of that role, but you still have a lot of women doing it. Most people that trance in a lila are women. So it's always been open to women to dance and trance in a lila. Hasna El Becharia is a pioneering sintir player from Algeria that paved the way for female Gnawa instrumentalists, and there's also Asmaa Hamzaoui joining the ranks. You now have even all-women bands. It's amazing. It's beautiful.
10. New Yorkers love Gnawa music!
Gnawa is such a universal music. If you're a musician or a music fan, it would be very hard for you not to be attracted to Gnawa. It's so entrancing, it makes you stop whatever you're doing and dance or sing with them. All of these musicians in New York are falling in love with this music. To me it makes sense, without any pretension. I think Gnawa is such an amazing music, it makes total sense.
About the Authors
Samir Langus and Amino Belyamani are members of Innov Gnawa, a New York City–based musical collective dedicated to exploring Morocco's venerable Gnawa music tradition. Led by Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, the band delves deep into the roots and rituals of Gnawa music while adding their own, contemporary spin through additional African and Latin percussion traditions.