Traditional Gnawa Musical Instruments

The Gnawa are a Moroccan ethnic group well known for their love of music, which they use to express themselves in a range of age-old rituals. It is generally agreed that the Gnawa, also known as Gnaoua, were brought as slaves to Morocco from East and West Africa, and their songs and chants may refer to this injustice against their ancestors. The Gnawa are also known as traditional healers, where they use their music and chanting as part of the healing process. The hypnotic beat of their music, along with the rhythmic, repetitive chanting have a somewhat hypnotic, calming effect.

Among the instruments used by the Gnawa in their music are krakebs, large metal castanet-type instruments which are knocked together rhythmically, as well as double-headed drums known as a tbal. This will be accompanied by singing, chanting and playing of a range of stringed instruments called sinters, also known as guembri, gimbri or hejhouj. The sinter is a three-stringed bass lute about the size of a guitar. It is made from a carved hollowed-out log, with the playing side covered in camel-skin. The neck of the sinter is a stick with one short and two long strings made of goat gut, producing a sound similar to a double bass. The strings are plucked with a downward movement, while a percussive tone is made by slapping the camel skin. The sintar’s lowest string makes a droning sound which remains constant, while the second and third strings are tuned higher. A buzzing sound is created by hanging metal rings from the instrument’s neck which vibrate with the sintir’s rhythm. The percussive playing style is similar to those found in West African countries, from which the Gnawa originate, and the sinter is similar to the xalam, or khalam, played in those countries.

Described as both a prayer and a celebration of life, to outsiders it may appear that a Gnawa performance is one very long song, which may sometimes last a number of hours without a break, but these are in fact a series of chants where various spirits are invoked. The stringed instruments will usually be accompanied by singing and/or chanting in harmony, with both performers and spectators becoming so enwrapped in the experience that they go into a trans-like state, which many find to have therapeutic benefits.