Gnawa – desert music of Morocco – an introduction

We are in this partly hidden all night den in the medieval market place of Fees.

It’s deep in the night and the city is sleeping. The den though is rocking. Everyone is sat on the floor drinking tea in the tight space lined with rugs and the musicians are sat down playing this amazing bass driven music that hypnotises with its drones and ancient desert funk. The atmosphere is electric and the band is tearing it up.

Gnawa is the transcendental music of the desert- the north Saharan mahgreb, it’s spine is the three stringed lute or gimbri that plays the bass lines. I’ve seen some of the best bass players anywhere playing this stuff (would have been in the controversial top 15 bass players if I knew their names). Their playing is so fluid, it seems to float away from the track, mesmerising and yet always the spine- the sound is elastic and makes you move. The rhythm comes from the finger cymbals or krakebs that splash all over the rhythm driving the song on and the singing is almost religious in sound and fervour.

The songs can last for hours and the atmosphere and the power of the drone really does hypnotise you. Listen to the music and you feel the power of the endless desert and the empty skies and the ancient traditions of the people that invented it centuries ago. Despite it being a really old form of music it seems timeless and in the 21st century is everywhere in north Africa. It sits easily with the blues and with trance techno and crossover players have mashed these together and come up with some great results.

There is talk of magic and religion mixed in with the powerful healing quality of the music and when you are sat there in the middle of it sipping mint tea and floating on the great atmosphere you can feel it’s innate power. Being built for creating the trance like state, the music takes you onto another plane- and the players will be lost in the sound and play for hours and hours, the night unfolds and the music takes you away. Perfect.

There is a huge Gnawa music festival held every year in June in Essaouira (the town famous for its Jimi Hendrix Connection). The festival is a big, sprawling affair and has seen the acceleration of Gnawa away from its older more mystical, religious roots into something more modern and profane. The festival encourages fusion and jazz, blues, hip hop and trance artists have been asked there to perform and collaborate with the locals to push Gnawa further forward into new spaces.

Past participants have included Randy Weston, Adam Rudolph, The Wailers, Pharoah Sanders, Keziah Jones, Omar Sosa, Doudou N’Diaye Rose, and the Italian trumpet player Paolo Fresu.

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3 comments on “Gnawa – desert music of Morocco – an introduction”

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  1. Was in Essaouira in 2008, heard and saw gnawa played live; fantastic, so much better than on CD – you need to see the musicians, the energy they put into the performance; bands often have a ‘Bez’ style dancer who plays finger cymbols. Also saw the ‘castle’ that Hendrix is alleged to have written about – nice tale but the song was released before Hendrix ever visited Essaouira – great place to visit, bar the howling Atlantic winds!

  2. ooh it’s nice. see what you mean by bass driven as opposed to the pipes and drums of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. also reminds me of that music that Jimmy Page+Robert Plant did w/ those musicians. Is nice. Bet Cerys would dig it.

  3. could any one please give me an essay about music in morocco

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