Music from the Arab World: Gnawa music offers songs with soul

Before the West created the label "trance music", a more literal form was practised in some parts of the Arab world for more than 500 years.

Before the West created the label "trance music", a more literal form was practised in some parts of the Arab world for more than 500 years. In the sixth of our eight-part series on Music of the Arab World, we traces Gnawa music's journey from its spiritual beginnings to the toast of the world's music scene

The origins

Spread across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, Gnawa is a North African community whose people, said to be the descendants of West African soldiers and slaves, use music as the principal form of artistic expression. Through Sufi-inspired ceremonies involving dance and costumes, not to mention channelling the otherworldly, original Gnawa music was made up of songs that were, in reality, prayers set to music.

The music

The aim of traditional Gnawa music, performed in Arabic and Berber, is to channel the spiritual realm. Song and ritual are, therefore, inextricably linked. Gnawa is heavy on instrumentation with qraqeb (iron castanets), a large drum called the tbel, and the hajuj (or gimbir), a three-stringed lute, all of which feature prominently in Gnawa compositions. Another highlight of Gnawa music, one which captured the attention of Western rock musicians such as Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, is its unique guitar-playing styles. Instead of strumming a series of strings to create chords, Gnawa musicians use a thumb to pick a bass chord while two fingers create rhythmic patterns complimenting the tbel beat. The overall effect is of a droning, almost hallucinatory soundscape. A Gnawa song is heavy on repetition of refrains and phases. This creates the impression of songs lasting hours, but they actually are a series of deft, interlocking suites.

The rituals

Traditional Gnawa performances are held during religious ceremonies called the lila or derdeba. The aim of the ceremony is to channel the participant's particular saint to appease or develop the relationship. When participants reach this nirvana-like state - called the jadba - they often break into swooping dance moves. The lila, however, does not only focus on the spiritual plane. The performance also has participants singing about the Gnawa days of old. Lila often begins with a suite celebrating the journey from being captured, sold in bondage, the separation from family and friends, freedom and, finally, redemption. The main part of the ceremony focuses on channelling the saints. This is done through a complex system where dancers wear specific colours throughout the performance in addition to corresponding instrumentation and incense-burning.

Gnawa today

Since the 1980s, a more modern and secular form of Gnawa began taking hold in Morocco and Algeria. With more cultural festivals springing up in Morocco, Gnawa was increasingly finding itself on a bigger stage. The 1970s Moroccan ensemble Nass el-Ghiwane brought Gnawa music to the mainstream world by fusing its rhythms with pop-like song structures and straightforward lyrics. Reggae found a large fan base in Africa in the 1980s, and its rhythms also found their way into some Gnawa music. Some critics even went as far as declaring Gnawa an African version of reggae.

The continuing growth led to the creation of the popular Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival in Morocco, now in its 15th year and held annually around June. The festival showcases masters of Gnawa music as well as jam sessions with guest performances from other genres. This year's festival saw fusion sessions incorporating Gnawa with jazz and the South-Asian mystical tradition of qawwali.

The stars

They may be called stars in the west, but for Moroccans and Algerians, the leading Gnawa musicians are called ma'alem, meaning master. One of the most accomplished is Morocco's Mahmoud Ghania, simply know as The King. Ghania and his hajuj engaged in startling guitar duels with Carlos Santana, and performed alongside the famous saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Algeria's Hasna el Bacharia is one of the leading female Gnawa musicians whose electric-guitar stylings have earned her plaudits in both Africa and Europe. Rabat's Hamid El Kasri is known for his voice as well as his playing, while fellow Moroccan Brahim Belkane, known as The Traditionalist, has the distinction of jamming with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

The playlist

Begin your Gnawa collection by dipping into these albums

Gnawa Music of Marrakech: Night Spirit Masters (1991)

Curated by the musical tastemaker Bill Laswell, this is a spellbinding collection of uncredited Gnawa songs performed in both a heavily percussive group format and more vocally driven pieces.

Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco (1995)

The American jazz pianist Randy Weston jammed with Morocco's best Gnawa musicians for this Grammy-Award nominated, 70-minute collection.

Eat the Dream: Gnawa Music from Essaouira

Featuring current and "field" recordings from Abdullah Ghania and The Ghania ensemble, the collection captures the rhythmic and slightly raucous nature of Gnawa.