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Gnawa Music: A Traditional and Authentic Spiritual Music Experience in Morocco

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What is Gnawa Music? A Guide to Learning about This Ancient Spiritual Music

Gnawa Music

The term Gnawa is said to originate from the Saharan Berber language word. The term Agnaw means “black” slaves and explicitly refers to men. It is written Agnaw in the singular and Ignawen in the plural.

History of Gnawa Music in Morocco

Gnawa music started when slaves from Sudan, Ghana and Senegal were brought to the south of Morocco. This was when they were brought to work in sugar plants, specifically in the region of “Haha,” an Amazigh tribe.

Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah brought groups of Black slaves, in 1760, from southern Sahara countries. This was when the construction of the harbour of Essaouira was completed. For slaves, this experience was excruciating. They suffered a considerable deal of unfairness and maltreatment. This is one reason their songs tell about the painful journey they went through in the Sahara and the sufferings of slavery. The Gnawa music continues its spiritual song at its roots today.

Even though Gnawa music is practiced all over Morocco, Essaouira city is considered the capital where it is practiced and played regularly. Thus, when you visit this ancient city, you will learn everything you need to know about Gnawa’s spiritual music. This music is truly cherished by its remembers and Moroccan people alike. Besides, the words of the songs have deep meaning and a significant reference to Gnawa history,

there are so many unique traditions that you will discover and learn about Gnawa music.

For the Gnawa group, having the leader and the master (maâlem) is vital for preserving their traditions and success in continuing their traditional spiritual music/songs. Thus, the Gnawa members are required to follow their master and stay connected like one single body.

Maâlem is Gnawa’s leader and chief who leads the artists and dancers team. He is an expert and knows everything you need to know about this ancient music. 

Having Gnawa music Maalem Leader when visiting this historical city of Essaouira is crucial to learn all about Gnawa culture:

  • You will hear him play unforgettable traditional Gnawa melodies.
  • You will learn the words they sing and the purpose of the song.
  • You will discover all kinds of inherited Gnawa garments and costumes.
  • You will learn about the role and significance of the trance in the body’s spirits.
  • You will learn about the symbolism of their clothes, rituals, and instruments.
  • You will discover the history and craft of the ornamented lute-like guembri instrument.
  • You will have a chance to attend a local kuyu (Gnawa dancer) dance performance.
  • You will be in touch with the pure/authentic Gnawa traditions with a local musician lead.


Guembri is one of the primary instruments that the group members must master for the rhythm to be authentic.  

There are many primary and essential instruments that each member of the group needs to master. This is for the Gnawa to sustain life-long tradition and to maintain its authenticity.

The following instruments are crucial to be mastered by all of its members:

  • The guembri.
  • Lute with three strings.
  • The qarqba, (metal castanets).
  • The tabal “Ganga.” is A cylindrical (wooden drum).

Here are some facts about Gnawa music Lila “Ritual Night”:

  • Gnawa music is traditionally a vital part of a Lila night ritual, celebrated during the night. This is the time Gnawa members reconnect on a deeper level.
  • The all-night event starts after sacrificing an animal, such as a camel. This is to make sure that the spirits exist after this is done.
  • The master “Maâlem” and his clairvoyance lead the artists playing the krakebs. They melt scent to call the supernatural powers to seize the followers.
  • The beats played are straightforward and recurring. Yet, They are vibrant and unique. Thus, they have a deeper spiritual meaning.
  • Those joining the Lila get into a trance state. This permits them to confront their partnership with their supernatural powers, called “Almlook.” The Amlook allows Gnawafollowers to return to their normal state.
  • Seven is a magic number in the Lilas, with the seven supernatural powers standing for seven various colours. Many factors are included to awaken the “Almlook” during the Lila. These include seven different fragrances, seven various clothing shades and spiritual rhythms.

Throughout Gnawa history and tradition, certain practices include piercing themselves on swords and beating their heads with iron balls at religious ceremonies. However, these practices have been fading over the years.

It will also be a learning experience to attend Gnawa’s history lectures and their music structure. Thus, you will be amazed by what you will experience, whether you are eager to learn about Gnawa music or just curious about it.

While there, make sure you have and enjoy a cup of Moroccan tea while listening to the Gnawa music at a local music hotspot. It is incredible, one of the most fantastic atmospheres you will ever experience.

Written by Moroccan Legacy

Moroccan Legacy, your number one source, a distinguished, original and respected hub for all you need to know about Morocco.
Moroccan Legacy Inc was founded in Canada in 2013. It was founded for one mission: to provide and present the authentic legacy and culture of Morocco.

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