Historians locate the origins of Morocco’s Gnawa population in Africa’s Western Sahel region or in present-day countries such as Senegal, Chad, Mali, Mauretania, and Nigeria. In Morocco, the Gnawa are often considered both an ethnic group as well as a mystical Sufi order whose religious and spiritual components are often expressed through songs and dance that may draw on their ancestral memory and origins. Gnawa spiritual and religious communities are located mainly in the Moroccan cities of Marrakesh, Essaouira and Fez.
The Gnawa possess a rich and complex liturgy and set of ceremonies and practices. Among their many religious practices, it is the Gnawa trance ceremonies that captured the imagination of outsiders. Through musical ceremonies and trances, the Gnawa are sought for their powers to cure spiritual and mental afflictions by freeing victims from malign influences. People from all walks of life who suffer from acute illness, infertility, or depression ask for the spiritual intercession of the Gnawa order.
A lila ceremony (the word also means “night” in Arabic) begins after sundown and lasts all night, and may take place inside a home, at a shrine or a center of a Gnawa family or group. The first part is called al-‘ada (custom), as if a warm-up exercise for what is to follow and may be accompanied by dates, milk, candles and incense, a task usually reserved for women. The session that follows is called kuyu or Awlad Bambara and opens with the invocation of blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad. Next, the ftuh ar-rahba opens the repertoire of songs linked to a central ritual surrounding the seven supernatural entities or mluk (singular melk). The traditional Gnawa ceremony includes seven sections with each section representing seven saints or ancestral spirits. Each section is associated with a particular color (white, light blue, dark blue, red, green, black and yellow) and symbolizes a particular function in nature and in the spirit world.
To the outsider, the ceremony is characterized by specific rituals and musical exchanges, notably short verses sung, answered by a response chant and accompanied by dance. Participants may enter into a trance through which a particular spirit may express a wish for an appropriate tune and the preferred color. The lila continues until the goal is achieved, the trance over, and the participants cleansed of afflictions.
The Gnawa orchestra has many musicians: the ma’alem (master or lead musician) plays the guembri (three stringed lute), and other members of the group play tbel (heavy drums or ganga) and qarqaba (metallic castanets). In recent decades, Gnawa music has inspired the development of popular Moroccan music and internationally Gnawa musicians are now well known public performers. As a result, many musical collaborations occur between Gnawa musicians and famous jazz and blues artists. Currently, the largest Gnawa World Music Festival takes place annually in Essaouira, Morocco and attracts over 400,000 fans.