The historical Gnawa of Marrakech

Per: Majda FADILI  

CULTURE The Gnawa are on of the pillars of Jemaa El Fna, their frentic rhythms and dynamic movements guide tourists to this magical place. Onlookers and tourists gather for this incredible show steeped in history.

The Gnawa are not confined to a single genre, this brotherhood has cultivated a world of combining body language, folk music and spirituality. 


Originally, the Gnawa were slaves who arrived in Morocco with caravans of traders. From Senegal, Sudan among other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. These men were placed in influential families in the service of the sultan. Several versions have tempted to explain the name Gnawa, the anthropologist Maurice Delafosse provided an explanation based on etymological and historical data. The word 'Gnawa' is derived from the Berber phrase akal - n- iguinaouen. According to Delafosse, this phrase is the origin of the word, Guinea and Gnaoua, both being Phonetically similar, meaning black from the country of black men.

Jemaa El Fna place

Founded in the eleventh century, Jemaa El Fna is unusual for its diversity and social potential. It has been classified as Intangible Cultural Heritage Humanity since 2008. With over 100 members, the brotherhood of Gnawa has co-existed on this site since 1966, with Hmadchas (dancers and singers belonging to Sufism) and Aissawas (snake charmers). Positioned at the entrance to the square, Gnawas often wear brightly coloured outfits. They are distinguished by their red caps studded with cowries " a shell that slaves were introducing their scepters in which contact with the ground , emitted a steady rhythm , a kind of stress relief deal with difficult conditions. " Said Moustapha Weld Ba Hmed , Gnawa from father to son . The emblematic figure of Jemaa El Fna, the 51 year old says "The words , the tone and pace of the Gnawa music have a certain therapy on the viewer while offering them a show of body language : acrobatic movements are synchronized with the melodies , the Gnawa trance creates a mystical atmosphere around them." Gnawas never go unnoticed thanks to their musical instruments. 

In recent years, Gnawa music has gained international popularity with international groups and orchestras. In 1995 the rock band Led Zeppelin along with Gnawa musicians, offered an impromptu concert in Jemaa El Fna. Some artists such as Randy Weston and Bill Laswell frequently solicit Gnawa musicians for compositions and performances. 

Text Majda Fadili

Translation Karen Athwal

Photo DR