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Next Music Station
Hamid el-Kasri
'My father opposed the idea of me liking Gnawa music and had even beaten me sometimes to focus on my studies.'
Last Modified: 19 May 2011 12:41

"The Gnawa style of music arrived in Morocco along with the slaves campaigns during the eras of Sultan Mansour al-Dhahabi and Sultan Moulay Ismail who used to bring African slaves to build powerful armies to oppress rebels. These slaves came from various areas and tribes. That is why each group had its own style of music.

The Gnawa style was sung in different languages, depending on the group singing it, but they were all African languages and dialects.

The slaves were then released after the armies had been dissolved, and they became scattered all across the country. They co-existed with the local residents and intermarried, but their people preserved the Gnawa style of music. They sang songs in their own African languages to express their suffering ... the slaves, I mean.

The problem is that most of the Gnawa-related information was not documented in references that could state its styles and poems. We know nothing about it. When this style of music spread in Morocco, several generations learnt it from its singers across time. They have tried to develop this style and add a spiritual aspect to it, such as talking about jinn and Muslims' good old leaders.

That was when the Islamic influence started to show in this type of art, and Gnawa singers started to chant religious and spiritual hymns, after it originally was a way to talk about the suffering of slaves. We are considered as the latest Gnawa singers. It is a genuine type of music that has no strange instruments, like what we witness in other current styles of music to which many modern instruments have been inserted. We chant in spiritual concerts called layali or 'nights' where we perform religious rituals. 

My grandmother was a big fan of this spiritual type of art. Her husband's ancestors came from a family of slaves who were brought into the country. There were around 50 Gnawa singers living in the same neighbourhood. I lived nearby, and I used to escort my grandmother to these layali where they chanted spiritual songs. So, I loved the Gnawa style of music since I was a little child. However, my father opposed  idea of me liking Gnawa music and had even beaten me sometimes to focus on my studies instead of pursuing Gnawa music.

When my uncle noticed that the dispute between my father and myself on the Gnawa issue had escalated, he took me with him to Rabat city to keep me away from Gnawa

I worked with my uncle in a weaving shop in Rabat. One time, he sent me to buy some stuff from the grand market in Sella city, and on the way, I came across three singers chanting Gnawa in the street. I followed them and forgot about the stuff that my uncle had asked me to buy.

My uncle became extremely worried as he thought I was lost in the streets of the city, while I was following a band of Gnawa singers. One of them called me, his name was Samaka, God rest his soul in peace. He asked me why I had been following them for some time and where I came from, and I told him I came from the Ksar al-Kebir, and that my grandfather was a great Gnawa singer. He asked me if I knew how to play the Qarqab instrument, and I said yes.

Since having a child in a Gnawa band would add a kind of excitement and joy, he asked me to meet the next morning to join their band.

I went back to my uncle and he was extremely worried. He rebuked me for following a Gnawa band in Rabat after they had taken me away from Gnawa in Ksar al-Kebir city. I begged him, saying I really liked this style of music and that I would not refrain from my decision.

He then agreed and allowed me to join Samaka's band. I joined them and worked with them, and got paid good money. It was even more than what I was paid when I worked with my uncle, and he liked that! 

When I was 14-years-old, I decided to move up north, to Tetuan city which was considered as a school of Gnawa music. Master Abdullah al-Wazzani had 40 Gnawa singers there, practicing singing in his home everyday. I went along with three of my friends to learn Gnawa, and they are known Gnawa singers now. We studied the basics of Gnawa singing, its rhythms and the way of playing the guinbri instrument.

I then moved to Tangier and was taught by Master Abdul Wahid Stitu, who founded the Tanguba school.

I started a tour across several Moroccan cities, and then decided to stay in my city Ksar al-Kebir and I started to hold concerts. Later on, I moved to al-Araish city, where I invited top Gnawa masters to attend a private party to grant me their approval and blessings. You can call that party my graduation diploma, as without their blessings, no one becomes a Gnawa singer and can not even play the guinbri instrument. These are the known Gnawa conditions and traditions. " 

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