Gnawa, or Gnaoua , trance music is a familiar sound in the place Jema al Fna, Marrakech. Visitors and locals alike gather around groups of musicians to share a unique experience. Gnawa is a mixture of African, Berber and Arabic religious songs and rhythms. The music is considered both a prayer and a celebration of life. Many of the influences that formed this music can be traced to sub-Saharan Africa.
In a Gnawa song, one phrase or a few lines are repeated over and over throughout a particular song though the song may last a long time. In fact, a song may last several hours non-stop. The norm, though, is that what seems to the uninitiated to be one long song is actually a series of chants, which has to do with describing the various spirits, so what seems to be a 20 minute piece may be a whole series of pieces. Because they are intended for listeners in a state of trance, these pieces go on and on, provoking trance from different angles.
The melodic language of the stringed instrument is closely related to their vocal music and to their speech patterns, as is the case in much African music. This is the language of the blues. Gnawa have venerable stringed-instrument traditions involving both bowed lutes like the gogo and plucked lutes like the gimbri also called hajhuj. The Gnawa also use large drums called tbel and krakeb, large iron castanets, a familiar sight in tourist photographs since they are carried by the colourful water sellers in the Jema al Fna. The Gnawa hajhuj has strong historical and musical links to West African lutes like the Hausa halam, a direct ancestor of the banjo.
Gnawa hajhuj players use a technique which 19th century American minstrel banjo instruction manuals identify as “brushless drop-thumb frailing”. The “brushless” part means the fingers do not brush several strings at once to make chords. Instead, the thumb drops repeatedly in a hypnotically rhythmic pattern against the freely-vibrating bass string producing a throbbing drone, while the first two or three fingers of the same (right) hand pick out, often percussive patterns in a drum-like, almost telegraphic manner.
During the last few decades, Gnawa music has been modernizing and thus becoming more profane. Within the framework of the Gnaoua World Music Festival of Essaouira (“Gnaoua and Musics of the World”), the Gnawa play in a profane context with few religious or therapeutic dimensions. Instead, in this musical expression of their cultural art, they share the stage with other musicians coming from the other cultures.
As a result, Gnawa music has taken a new direction fusing its core spiritual music with similar genres like jazz, blues, reggae, and hip-hop. Every summer for four days in June, the Festival welcomes musicians that come to participate, exchange and mix their own music with Gnawa, creating one of the largest public festivals in Morocco as well as one of the best jam sessions on the planet.