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Sleepless in Essaouira: up close and personal with Morocco’s entrancing Gnawa culture

No visit to Morocco is complete with witnessing Gnawa, a soul-shaking blend of music, dance and poetry that traces its roots back to medieval communities of sub-Saharan Africa.

Published 27 Mar 2022, 18:00 BST, Updated 4 Apr 2022, 17:28 BST
A Gnawa band playing tbel drums and krakebs.

A Gnawa band playing tbel drums and krakebs.

Photograph by Alamy

It’s twilight in Essaouira. There’s a stippled afterglow smudging the Atlantic horizon, and the last kitesurfers are padding, barefoot, back to their digs. Behind the beach, snail-sellers are serving steaming cups of soup from their little carts. As the swirl and cry of lesser black-backed gulls begins to fade, the city’s other signature sound rings out: a persistent, metallic rhythm, bouncing off the city walls. Clackety-clackety-clackety-clackety. It’s the sound of krakebs, the hand-held, castanet-like cymbals peculiar to one of Morocco’s most distinctive musical traditions: Gnawa.

Spend more than a night or two in any Moroccan city and you’re sure to encounter a Gnawa band, playing at restaurants or busking in the squares. With krakebs setting the tempo, they pluck out bluesy tunes on guembris — three-stringed lutes with an elongated, drum-like body of wood and camel skin — then layer on rallying call-and-response vocal melodies in Darija Arabic, Amazigh and Bambara. Often they weave in handclaps and bassy tbilat drumbeats for extra percussive force.

Most people in this scattered community can trace their ancestry back to the medieval Sudanic Empires — the part of West Africa that now includes Senegal, Mali and Guinea — and were ethnically marginalised as a result. But things have begun to change: in modern, increasingly multicultural Morocco, their sub-Saharan origins are celebrated. Essaouira, the diverse city they’ve adopted as their capital, is the best place to catch an authentic Gnawa performance.

Almost any evening will do, but this one is special. On a vast temporary stage beneath the crenellated city walls, more than 100 top maâlems (master musicians), kouyous (dancers), mqadmats (mistresses of ceremonies), porte-drapeaux (flag bearers) and mbakhrats (incense bearers) have gathered en masse. Lighting engineers and camera operators are circling; this gala performance will be televised. It’s a belated celebration of a monumental honour: in December 2019, UNESCO added Gnawa culture to the Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Exuberant entertainers, Gnawa bands are compelling to watch. Flamboyantly dressed in embroidered tunics, babouche slippers and caps embellished with cowrie shells and topped by long tassels, they take turns to dance. As their songs get faster and faster, they launch into dizzying spins and Cossack-like knee-bends, moving their heads in time until their tassels whirr like helicopter blades.

Behind the apparent jauntiness, there’s a serious, spiritual side. Traditionally, Gnawas specialise in expelling evil spirits by performing lilas, dusk-to-dawn sessions of trance-inducing music and dance. “We learn as children, from our parents and grandparents,” say the maâlems I meet backstage. “It’s an essential element of our Sudanic heritage.”  With its on-demand exorcisms and Senegalese textile traders, there are times when Essaouira feels far closer to West Africa than its geography would suggest.

The morning after the gala, the postcard-perfect city feels even more relaxed than usual. The jewellers and marquetry-box sellers smile cheerfully as I make my way through the orderly Medina to the battlements, where Moroccan tourists are posing for selfies. Only the fishing harbour seems as busy as normal, with blue-painted boats packed in tight after a long stint on the water, and gulls squabbling over the catch. Planning lunch in a bring-your-own restaurant — a basic place where chefs will season, grill and garnish whatever ingredients you show up with — we pick out a few succulent fish.

Later, in a laid-back rooftop bar, I chat to some young Gnawa musicians at the end of their set. “Thanks to regional competitions, the festival and now UNESCO, interest in Gnawa music is really picking up,” says 21-year-old guembrist Abdljbar Aytmamass. “It’s tough to make a name for yourself, though. All the major gigs go to the major stars.”

“Still, we keep playing,” adds teenage krakrebist Abdrahim Essalhi. “Music is in our blood. It’s not a choice. It’s a calling.”

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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