The Enchanting Rhythms of the Gnaoua Festival

The Gnaoua Festival is a four day music festival held in June or July each year in the beautiful coastal resort city of Essaouira in Morocco. Gnaoua (also known as Gnawa) musicians invite jazz, rock, pop and contemporary World music artists from other countries to enjoy the experience of an interchange of musical ideas.

Gnaoua music, which dates back to the 16th century, is a blend of Berber, African and Arabic religious songs and rhythms, which is both a celebration of life and a prayer. Gnaoua combines acrobatic dancing with music, and even though the music is essentially spiritual, the throbbing rhythms are appreciated by a wide variety of people who are not influenced by the religious element.

Although sub-Saharan African influences are noted in Gnaoua music, its main following is in North Africa, specifically in Morocco and Algeria. A Gnaoua group consists of a master musician (maâlem) plus several musicians. Their instruments include the guimbri (three-stringed lute), the qarqaba (large metal castanets), and the tabal (cylindrical wooden drum), which are generally played with an intense rhythmic repetition. Dressed in long, shiny colorful robes and hats with long tassels, the musicians dance in a swaying and hopping fashion, while listeners abandon themselves to the music that is said to harmonize both body and mind.

Musicians that have participated in past festivals include Randy Weston, The Wailers, Keziah Jones, Pharoah Sanders, Doudou N’Diaye Rose and Omar Sosa. The result of interaction between musicians of various genres has been that Gnaoua music has taken a new direction, becoming more of a fusion of its spiritual elements with the genres of visiting musicians, while not losing its original undertones of ritualistic music. Many jam sessions are purely improvised, requiring some give and take from each of the musicians. What may start out as seemingly directionless soon becomes a blend of music that has both musicians and listeners enjoying the experience.

Since the first Gnaoua Festival in 1998, the event has grown from about 20,000 to over 200,000 visitors in 2006, including over 10,000 from around the world. The Gnaoua Festival has grown to be one of the largest public festivals in Morocco and it looks set to continue growing in popularity, with both musicians and music-lovers.