To learn the most about a place, it is said that you should listen to their music. Morocco is host to a hybrid of cultures: a blend between the original inhabitants, the Amazigh peoples, Arab culture through the spread of Islam across Northern Africa, and the remnants of African empires south and east of the Sahara Desert. Gnawa are the descendants of those empires, and their music is a living testimony to the ordeal of their ancestry.
Every culture present in Morocco can fuse with another. They grow, and become something new in themselves. Music evolves in this way just the same. Maghrib has chaabi, rai, malhun and a myriad of other regional types. Gnawa is the musical tradition handed down through generations of African slaves. The bond between this music, its history and its people, cannot be broken. And in order to know where something is going, they say you have to know where it came from. This is where our journey begins.
I am an African-American filmmaker studying cinema at St. John's University. I developed an avid interest in Maghrebi culture when I was a teenager, but only in recent years did I delve further into its various components. Gnawa music was originally very foreign to my ears. That was, until I realized that what I had been raised to hear was but a distant child of this mystical style.
Right away, one can notice the roots of African-American soul and blues in Gnawa. Indeed, the styles fuse so well during the annual Gnaoua and World Music Festival that it has created its own subgenre of music: fondly named Moroccan roll. Each year the master musicians (maallems) of Gnawa music (including co-founder Maalem El Kasri, Maalem Abdelkebir Merchane, Maalem Hassan Hakmoun, and many more) gather in Essaouira to a crowd of thousands. Avid fans come to witness the blend of their favorite bands, and experience trance. It is this festival that will serve as the climax of the documentary Nightmusic, but it must be made clear that this is not Gnawa in its truest sense. What is performed at the annual Festival is different from the sacred ceremony, and made "profane" for foreign audiences.
To fully appreciate the power of trance and ritual, I will attend a lila in each city I travel to: Tamasloht, Essaouira, Marrakech, Rabat, Casablanca, Safi, etc. A lila is the centerpiece of Gnawa music, and gains it name from the Arabic word 'lail'. It lasts all night, held to both invoke spirits and induce participants into healing trance (jedba). Those within Gnawa are of the belief that the Holy cannot be experienced in direct contact but through spiritual manifestation. The details of the ceremony are very steeped in tradition, some which have not been altered for generations. Though the length of lilas vary depending on the needs of the ill (and willpower of the maalem), they can be said to last several days at a time. My production assistant Hamouda will assist me in my attendance at these sacred events, and be my cultural guide during film production.
The history of Gnawa music and its mystical nature are bonded in a way that compel me to know this for myself. Through the lyrics (some in Bambara, a Malian dialect, and a majority in Arabic such as 'La Ilaha illa Allah'), it is made clear that the impetus for their spiritual connection is a direct result of their painful exile and slavery. This will appear frequently throughout the documentary.
As an African-American, I want this documentary to answer the questions 'Who are we' and 'Where could our origins lie?' For Gnawa, the overwhelming conundrum is what they have become. There is a disconnect between the elder maallems within the community, and new appreciators of the musical style who are quick to learn how to play but disregard any tie to al-mlouk, or the possessing spirits. Tagnawit (or authentic Gnawa) is an issue I too want to dissect in Nightmusic.
The last point of Nightmusic is to gain a Moroccan opinion on what Gnawa means and its importance to the culture as a whole. Many Moroccan Muslims are staunchly opposed to the music, condemning it for borrowing elements of Sufism and conjuring djinns. I wish to interview them and provide a duality for viewers.
Nightmusic is a journey through Moroccan religion, history, customs and music all in one. I aim to reach my fundraising goal of $3,000 by the beginning of March through grants, community fundraising, grassroots awareness, and connecting with fellow fans abroad. If I am successful, the trip is scheduled for mid-May.
The future and origins of Gnawa should be preserved through our generation and those to come. If The documentary does its job well, it can create interest in the connections between the Diaspora and Black African culture. And Gnawa will gain the respect it has always had from me and countless others.