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 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.