Moroc ’n Roll: Gnawa Style

As we weaved our way through the alleyways of the ancient medina on our way to the Roman arched entrance gate, souk keepers hurried to arrange their spices, oils, and scarves, while the narrow streets swelled with eager spectators.

The kick-off parade for the Gnaoua World Music Festival was about to begin. The festival takes place each June in Essaouira (pronounced “Essweera” in Arabic), about a two-hour drive from Marrakech on the Moroccan coast between Rabat and Agadir.

Brightly robed women with children in hand and turbaned men wearing hooded djellabas and ankle-length tunics lined up against the sand-colored walls, waiting anxiously for the Gnawa brotherhood performers to begin.

The rumbling percussion of the skin-covered drums, the click clack click of the steel castanets, and the gospel-like chanting and hand clapping echoed through the tunneled entryway, revving up the crowd.

The band, Djembe New Style, is comprised of West African drummers from Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, and Guinea. (Photograph by Lisa A. Walker)

Djembe New Style is comprised of drummers from Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea. (Photograph by Lisa A. Walker)

Finally, the Gnawa emerged, hand-sewn beads and cowry shells popping off their long satin robes and tassels spinning around their heads as they chanted, jumped, and danced. The music (a mixture of Sub-Saharan, Berber, and Sufi) was infectious.

The crowd gently enveloped the performers as they made their way through the narrow streets until they merged into one long joyous procession making its way to the main stage by the beach as the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean.

As my colleague and I joined the parade, I realized why this music festival was so different from others I’d been to before.

For starters, we weren’t packed into a hot stadium or a dusty field. We were in a picturesque city enjoying balmy winds coming off the coast. And the music wasn’t a bunch of emerging artists trying to make their mark but groups of really ancient ones, performing a spiritual music that began hundreds of years ago.

It was here in Essaouira that many of the ancestors of the Gnawa, descendants of West African slaves, were literally bought and sold. But, they brought their mystical culture — spiritual animistic and Islamic Sufi healing rituals with hypnotic music, performed in secret sacred ceremonies known as “lilas” – with them from their homelands.

Today the Gnawa continue to perform their music in private to awaken and communicate with spirits. But when playing for the public, as they do at the Gnaoua festival, they are representing their culture and celebrating their heritage and music, along with the various other African and international musicians that come to play with them.

Attending the festival was an opportunity to experience Gnawa music where it originated. Being there transports you to another time, exposing you to a city and a society that has been evolving since the 5th century B.C.

It’s no wonder Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and Cat Stevens made pilgrimages to Essaouira back in the ’60s and ’70s in search of “authentic vibes.”

But what’s really amazing is that you can still experience it today. 

Lisa A. Walker is a book production manager at National Geographic. Follow her story on Twitter @walkersvibes.