|THE GNAWA AND THEIR LILA:
An Afro-Maghrebi Ritual Tradition
by Timothy D. Fuson
Islam is sometimes thought of both by Muslims and non-Muslims as a self-contained, monolithic religious and cultural whole, unchanging through time and space. Yet in reality, Islam did not obliterate the cultures that came before it. The Qur'an itself is incomprehensible without knowledge of the earlier biblical and historical contexts to which it constantly refers. Similarly, Islam as practiced in any location bears traces of both its own history and the history of particular peoples and places. Islam as practiced in Morocco encompasses a wide spectrum of devotional practices reflecting the cultural diversity of the country itself. Even today, some 1,200 years after Arabs first arrived in the land, the culture of the native Berber populations still flourishes in such realms as language, dress, and song. Another distinct ethnic group in Morocco is the black African population.
The Gnawa and Their Origins
The term "Gnawa" refers firstly to a North African ethnic minority that traces its origins to West African slaves and soldiers. Gnawa communities in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) trace their origins to the Sudan, not meaning the present-day nation of Sudan, but rather sub-Saharan African in general. (The word Sudan, after all, is merely the Arabic word for "the Blacks.") Thus, like the term "African-American," Gnawa refers to a group of people whose ancestors came from diverse regions of Africa but took on a collective identity in exile. In song texts, the Gnawa refer to their origins among the Bambara, Fulani, and Haussa, and history points to a large influx of them primarily in the Niger river bend area of Mali and Niger. The origins of a black African community in the Maghreb may be traced back at least as far as Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour's conquest of the Songhai empire in 1591, when several thousand men and women were brought north as servants. Other documents make mention of a black African presence and musical tradition in the Maghreb as early as the eleventh century. The slave trade in Morocco continued until the early years of the twentieth century.
The Lila A Ritual Tradition
The second use of the term Gnawa refers to the people who participate in the musical and ritual tradition of the lila (Arabic "night") or derdeba ceremony. Not all ethnic Gnawa participate in this tradition, and not all lila practitioners trace their ethnic ancestry to the Sudan. However, the lila tradition is recognized to be a manifestation of the expressive culture of the historical Gnawa.
The lila is a rich ceremony of song, music, dance, costume, and incense that takes place over the course of an entire night, ending around dawn. An explicit goal of the lila is to allow participants to negotiate relationships with their melk (pl. mluk). The melk is an abstract entity that gathers a number of similar jnun (genie spirits). The ritual enables participants to enter the trance state of jadba, in which they may perform startling and sometimes spectacular dances. It is by means of these dances that participants negotiate their relationships with the mluk either placating them if they have been offended or strengthening an existing relationship.
The Gnawa lila shares these functions with the hadra ceremonies of other Moroccan Sufi and Sufi-inspired groups such as the Aissawa, Hamadsha and Jilala. All groups use music, song, and dance to enable communication with the jnun. All of the groups sing invocations to God, the Prophet Muhammad, and various Muslim saints of the Middle East and Morocco in order to purify their intentions in the performance of the ritual. There are, however, some crucial differences in the way the Gnawa approach the world of the unseen. Most Moroccan brotherhoods trace their spiritual authority back to a founding saint. They begin their ceremonies by reciting that saint's written works or spiritual prescriptions (hizb or wird) in Arabic. In this way, they assert their role as the spiritual descendants of the founder, giving them the authority to perform the ceremony. The Gnawa, whose ancestors were neither literate nor speakers of Arabic, possess no such texts via which to perform their authority. They begin the lila by remembering, through song and dance, the Gnawa of times past, their lands of origin, the experiences of their slave ancestors, and their tales of abduction, sale, separation and loneliness, and ultimately redemption.
A System of Colors
After paying tribute to their forbears in the opening sections of the lila, the Gnawa begin the sections dedicated to the mluk. Another feature that distinguishes the Gnawa lila from the hadras of other brotherhoods is the system of color categories that mark the progression of the mluk over the course of the night. Each melk, in addition to having particular characteristics of personality, is associated with a particular color. When a melk is invoked, the Gnawa play its corresponding music, sing its corresponding invocations, dress the trancers in the appropriate colors, and burn the corresponding incense. Because the mluk must be invoked in a certain order, the lila follows a path through the night whose road is marked in the sensory realms of sound (music, song), sight (colors), smell (incense), and movement (dance).
The Gnawa Today
It appears that in the last thirty years, there has been some reevaluation of the status of the Gnawa within Morocco. At municipal festivals as well as national festivals such as the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, Gnawa groups are increasingly featured as part of cultural events programs. Some of this added visibility is due to the work of the groundbreaking ensemble Nass el-Ghiwane, which in the early 1970s created a vibrant new musical form combining music of the Gnawa with other traditional Moroccan genres (Arab-Andalusian, milhun, 'aita) and featured lyrics that hinted at the revolutionary. The prominent position of Gnawan influences in the Ghiwanian repertoire highlighted the African elements of Moroccan culture and seemed to assert a solidarity with other revolutionary music of the African Diaspora such as reggae. Additionally, the growing interest in Gnawa music by European and American musicians such as Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders, Bill Laswell, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant has helped to counter the old, prevailing view of Gnawa music as something primitive and low. Whether the Gnawans newfound popularity represents a real change in social status for the Afro-Maghrebian population is debatable. Across the path of the night, however, there is no doubt that the Gnawa retain their spiritual authority. Their transformation of disempowerment into empowerment is a source of inspiration that suggests the possibility of redemption for all sufferers.
Timothy D. Fuson is an ethnomusicologist studying at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been involved with Gnawa music for several years both through research in Morocco and by performing in the San Francisco area with the Moroccan ensemble Marhaba.
Reprinted with permission of 651 ARTS.
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