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Gnawa from Algiers with his guembri (circa 1906) by Jean Geiser (1848-1923).

The Gnawa (or Gnaoua, Ghanawa, Ghanawi, Gnawi) people originated from West Africa; to be precise the ancient Ghana Empire of Ouagadougou (present day Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Burkino Faso and 85% of Mali (pre Gnawi/Mali Wars)).[citation needed]

This name Gnawa had probably originated in the indigenous language of North Africa and the Sahara Desert - the Berber language or Tamazight. The phonology of this term according to the grammatical principles of Berber is as follows: agnaw (singular), ignawen (plural).

The Gnawa are an ethnic group who, with the passing of time became a part of the Sufi order in Maghreb.[citation needed]


Gnaouas from Oran (Algeria) with their guembri.
Gnawas circa 1920s

The Gnawa population is generally believed to originate from the Sahelian region of West and Central Africa, which had long and extensive trading and political ties with Morocco.

While adopting Islam, Gnawa continued to celebrate ritual possession during rituals where they are devoted to the practice of the dances of possession and fright. This rite of possession is called Jedba (Arabic: جدبة‎‎). Gnawa music mixes classical Islamic Sufism with pre-Islamic African traditions, whether local or sub-Saharan.

Gnawa and music[edit]

Gnaoua in a North African Interior

The term Gnawa musicians generally refers to people who also practice healing rituals, with apparent ties to pre-Islamic African animism rites. In Moroccan popular culture, Gnawas, through their ceremonies, are considered to be experts in the magical treatment of scorpion stings and psychic disorders. They heal diseases by the use of colors, condensed cultural imagery, perfumes and fright.

Gnawas play deeply hypnotic trance music, marked by low-toned, rhythmic sintir melodies, call-and-response singing, hand clapping and cymbals called krakeb (plural of karkaba). Gnawa ceremonies use music and dance to evoke ancestral saints who can drive out evil, cure psychological ills, or remedy scorpion stings.

Gnawa music has won an international profile and appeal. Many Western musicians including Bill Laswell, Brian Jones, Randy Weston, Adam Rudolph, Tucker Martine, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, have drawn on and collaborated with Gnawa musicians such as Mahmoud Guinia. Some traditionalists regard modern collaborations as a mixed blessing, leaving or modifying sacred traditions for more explicitly commercial goals. International recording artists such as Hassan Hakmoun have introduced Gnawa music and dance to Western audiences through their recordings and concert performances.

The centre for Gnawa music is Essaouira in the south of Morocco where the Gnaoua World Music Festival is held annually. The Gnawa of Marrakesh hold their annual festival at the sanctuary of Moulay Brahim in the Atlas Mountains. The Gnawa of Khamlia hold their annual festival in August at the village Khamlia in Erg Chebbi.

See also[edit]


On-line sources


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  • Courtney-Clarke, M & Brooks, G. (1996) Imazighen: The Vanishing Traditions of Berber Women, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, UK
  • El-Ghissassi, H. (2006) Regard sur Le Laroc de Mohamed VI, Michel Lafon
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  • Hart, D.M. (2000) Tribe and Society in Rural Morocco, Frank Cass Publishers
  • Howe, M (2005) Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges, University of Oxford Press, New York, USA
  • Hoffman, K.E. (2008) We Share Walls: Language, Land, and Gender in Berber Morocco, Wiley-Blackwell
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  • McKissack, F. & McKissack, P. (1995) The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa, Henry Holt and Co. LLC
  • Pennell, C.R. (2003) Morocco: From Empire to Independence, OneWorld Publications
  • Pennel, C.R. (2001) Morocco since 1830: A History, NYU Press, USA
  • Porch, D (1983) The Conquest of Morocco - The Bizarre History of France's Last Great Colonial Adventure, the Long Struggle to Subdue a Medieval Kingdom By Intrigue and Force of Arms 1903–1914, Knopf
  • Porch, D, 2nd Ed (2005) The Conquest of the Sahara, Ferrar, Straus & Giroux
  • Rogerson, B & Lavington, S Edited by (2004) Marrakech, The Red City: The City through Writers' Eyes, Sickle Moon Books

External links[edit]