You never truly quite know what to expect before venturing into Marrakech’s thriving central hub, Jemaa al-Fnaa. A five minute wander through this ancient space and you will witness acrobats, story tellers and magicians all competing to hold the gaze of the moving crowds.
There is one act, however that is perhaps quite different from the others. A troupe of four musicians, Abdulrahim, Mostafa, Abdelrazak and Said make up the group known as ‘Amal Saha’ and unlike the mysterious, healing sounds of Gnawa music in the square, Amal Saha’s songs are powerfully charged with optimism.
Abdulrahim disappear’s shortly after as the crowds begin to swarm around the group once more. Soon after the steady cadence of the band’s drums slowly fills the air with sound as screams, claps and shouts erupt from the crowd. Although Amal Saha’s lyrics are of course in Arabic, the raw, uncompromising riffs flowing from the bands electric banjo through to a megaphone powered by a car battery are without need of a translation. This was not so much of a conventional music performance in which a band plays music for an audience to listen. As the drums, guitars and shrill cries of Amal Saha pierce the already wild atmosphere of Jemaa al-Fnaa I learn that this is a performance in which both musician and crowd are animated under the same energy of expression.
And unlike the various punk concerts I attend back in the United Kingdom, Amal Saha are encased by a crowd of parents, children and the elderly, all chanting in unison.
Jemaa al-Fnaa is a five to ten minute walk from any of our Riad’s and a night spent with Amal Saha for me was another case example of the remarkable experiences that can be had just from walking through the streets of the red city of Marrakech.
From the red city of Marrakech to the sleepy oasis of Essaouira, one thing you will not miss on your visit to Morocco is the intense presence of ‘Gnawa’ music. From single musicians to whole troops practice this art form and you will instantly be able to recognise Gnawa in the streets by the distinctive beat of iron rattles or ‘karkabas’.
There is in fact a world of mystery encompassing the exact origin of this revered and celebrated art form. Moroccans agree that it originally crept into the country from the southern reaches of the Sahara deserts however there is much dispute as to how and who originally brought this unique style of music into Morocco.
This Gnawa musicias name is Omar and ever day as I walk from the Riad Dar Habiba down Rue Riad Zitoun el Kdim he is sat just outside the central square of Jemaa al-Fnaa, filling in the air with the steady cadence of Gnawa music through his 3 stringed bass plucked lute, called a ‘hajhuj’.
Although it’s uncertain as to how Gnawa came to arrive in Morocco, what’s important is that it did and that it spread to the four corners of the country like wildfire. Gnawa is so embedded in Morocco that some with a keen ear for this art form can tell the origin of a musician by the slight variations in style and performance in the same was a varying Darija Arabic accent.
Gnawa music is perhaps one of the most remarkable and fascinating arts that I have come into contact with here in Morocco. When you discover Marrakech for yourself you will see how perfectly synchronised this unique sound is with the beat of the red city.