On January 31, 2017, Morocco re-entered the African Union (AU) after a 33 year absence. “It is so good to be back home, after having been away for too long,” King Mohammed VI told AU leaders in a speech at the 28th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa. “It is a good day when you can show your affection for your beloved home. Africa is my continent, and my home.”

The monarch has indeed made a concerted push to bring his kingdom “home.” Since ascending to the throne in 1999, he has signed 949 bilateral agreements with other African countries, almost twice the number signed since independence in 1956. This past year, Morocco negotiated a joint gas pipeline project with Nigeria, built fertilizer plants in Nigeria and Ethiopia, and pioneered a continent-wide agricultural development initiative. Société Nationale d’Investissement, the royal family’s holding company, has begun to invest heavily throughout Francophone Africa, and the kingdom is now taking steps to join the Economic Community of West African States. In spearheading private-public, South-South enterprises across the continent, the kingdom is attempting to lead a new, neoliberal “pan-Africanism of development.”

But while the Moroccan state is just starting to make itself “African” again, one music festival has been strengthening Morocco’s links with the rest of Africa for almost twenty years. Since 1998, the Gnaoua and World Music Festival has been held every summer in the Atlantic beach town of Essaouira, in celebration of the music of the Gnaoua, a Moroccan religious brotherhood that worships through group chant, song, and dance. Originally composed of communities of slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Gnaoua have traditionally played their music during night-long ceremonies in which dancers enter a trance to engage with the spirits possessing them.

The festival has played a key role in taking Gnaoua music out of obscurity and into Moroccan popular culture. Importantly, it has also emphasized its African roots. “We have always defended the African roots of this culture,” Neila Tazi, the event’s founder, wrote on the festival’s website last year. “[Twenty] years ago we were not taken really seriously. Gnaoua, Essaouira, and Africa simply did not meet much positive echo. Today, events all come to confirm that there is meaning to all of this.” “Moroccans often forget that Morocco is in Africa,” musician Hamid Moumen observed in an article for Africa Is a Country. For him, Gnaoua “is a bridge south across the Sahara for Moroccans to rediscover their African roots.”

As Moumen suggests, Gnaoua became seen as one of Morocco’s primary cultural links to Africa, an idea the festival has been instrumental in promoting. While this relationship might seem natural, it is anything but. Instead, Gnaoua rose to prominence as Morocco’s “African” music over the past half-century due to the deliberate actions of musicians, promoters, nationalists, and a sultan.

Appropriating “African” Music

With funding from a number of high-profile Moroccan companies, the Gnaoua festival brings together Gnaoua masters, called ma’alems, and foreign musicians playing the music of the global African diaspora: jazz, reggae, blues, funk, and hip-hop, among others. Past participants have included musicians, Marcus Miller, Cheb Khaled, and Toumani Diabate.

Featuring semi-traditional Gnaoua performances as well as collaborations between ma’alems and foreign artists, the festival presents Gnaoua as a Moroccan tradition tying the country to Africa. The event is “100% Souiri [from Essaouira], 100% Moroccan, and especially 100% African,” reads the festival’s website. In the town’s many cafes, decorated with paintings of Gnaoua musicians in Rastafarian red, yellow, green, and black, musicians mix Gnaoua instruments with djembes to jam out on Bob Marley songs. When I asked one CD shop owner in Essaouira why a Gnaoua festival would have so many non-Gnaoua musicians, he replied matter-of-factly, “All of Africa plays this music.”

The festival also features panel discussions between academics, artists, journalists, and other experts. For the past few years, these forums, which are organized by the National Council for Human Rights, have focused entirely on the African continent. Last year’s forum discussed changing African mobility patterns and their potential influence on cultural, social, and economic transformations. “The diversities of the African Diaspora, and in particular its internationally recognized competencies in many areas of activity be they scientific, cultural and artistic etc., would be an advantage for African development,” the festival’s website claims. “Today, Morocco has never been so resolutely focused on Africa, so the Gnaoua Festival is actually in tune with [the] country’s economic policy.”

The festival paints a harmonious picture of Moroccan cultural heritage, pan-African identity, and ambitious economic expansion, with Gnaoua music as the brush. But, though it now enjoys corporate sponsorship and official approval by the Ministry of Tourism, the Gnaoua tradition was once far from embraced.

A History of Religious and Cultural Policing

Throughout the 20th century, the Gnaoua brotherhood and other Black Moroccan communities suffered from poverty and socio-economic exclusion. The traditions they practiced were dismissed as backwards, pagan, and fraudulent by mainstream Moroccan society. Though mostly performing in private ceremonies, when Gnaoua musicians played in public they were often panhandling. American anthropologist Carleton Coon described a typical performance in the 1920s:

They wear rags and comic headdresses, belts covered with cowrie shells, and leather sandals. In their hands they carry pairs of iron clappers. Wandering through the streets of towns, singly or in pairs, the Gnawa sing to attract a crowd. Once a few people have paused to see them, the Gnawa break out in a fast jazzy dance, clicking out the time on their clappers, and singing a little song. They collect the few coins given to them, bow and bless the audience, and move on.

Compounding this economic marginalization, members of the Gnaoua brotherhood were continuously victimized by the state. As Professor Ellen Amster details in Medicine and the Saints, when France began its colonial expansion into Morocco in the early 1900s, powerful Sufi orders and brotherhoods, who wanted to keep Morocco independent, opposed Moroccan ruler, Sultan Abd al-Hafid’s compliance with French demands. The leaders of these orders were formidable religious and political forces and had the power to counter and even dethrone the sultan. To delegitimize them and consolidate his rule, Abd al-Hafid began attacking Sufi leaders as heretics, while also adopting a Salafi-like form of Islam that emphasized “rational” religious practice. Besieged by hostile tribal armies, Abd al-Hafid called in the French in 1911 to protect the throne.

While the sultan’s doctrinal shift targeted specific religious orders, it helped cultivate a general distrust of Sufism within mainstream Moroccan society. As Amster writes, Salafi thought portrayed Sufis as “charlatans who faked thaumaturgy and miracles to dupe an innocent public.” The Gnaoua brotherhood, while not technically Sufi, was lumped into these “irrational” devotional groups.

When Morocco’s nationalist movement started gaining momentum in the 1930s, it also adopted rationalist Islam. Nationalists pushed for a comprehensive “modernization” of Moroccan culture, and viewed the devotional displays of various Sufi orders and brotherhoods as playing into European Orientalist notions of Morocco as “primitive.” In 1933, a popular nationalist journal of the time, L’action du Peuple, announced a sultan-approved ban on all such orders, in the interest of the “social evolution of the Moroccan people.” It listed the Gnaoua among the various Sufi orders, like the Aissawa and the Hamadsha, that engage in “practices that are barbaric, savage, and… contrary to the spirit and the prescriptions of Islam.” A decade later, the Sultan would sign a similar ban on establishing new Sufi orders. Coming as they did from a figurehead under the French protectorate, these bans were mostly symbolic. Nonetheless, they further encouraged widespread contempt for “unorthodox” Islamic communities, like the Gnaoua.

Making Gnaoua Music Moroccan

The modernizers’ disdain for “barbaric” traditions like Gnaoua continued after independence in 1956. Educated urban elites, who had brought the nationalist movement to power, pursued a policy of cultural and educational “Arabization,” which marginalized Morocco’s Berber and Black communities. These efforts were reflected in the Middle Eastern love songs that dominated Moroccan radio at the time.

The project did not, however, last. “We feared the invasion [into Morocco] of oriental songs in the time of Umm Kulthum, Farid El Atrache, Abdel Halim Hafez, and so on,” Moroccan musician Omar Sayyed said in the 1981 documentary Trances. In response to this invasion, Sayyed and his friends formed Nass El Ghiwane, a now-legendary Moroccan band, in the early 1970s. Rejecting foreign influences, they pieced together a new, nationalist folk music from Morocco’s diverse soundscape, including the music of the Aissawa and Hamadsha brotherhoods as well as other genres like Aita Melhoun.

As Professor Elias Muhanna writes, Nass El Ghiwane’s “music, which was unlike anything ever heard in Morocco, was in its own reckless way a summation of everything ever heard in Morocco.” The band quickly became a nationwide sensation. By the end of the ’70s, a trained Gnaoua master from Essaouira named Abderrahman Paco had joined the group, bringing with him the brotherhood’s musical melange. The mix proved to be a hit, and the subsequent rush of similar “folk” bands all made sure to feature Gnaoua instruments and songs in their music.

By incorporating Gnaoua into its musical melting pot, writes Ziad Bentahar, Nass El Ghiwane displayed a “will to re-embed national identity within the rest of the continent rather than adhere to a pan-Arab identity.” In other words, Gnaoua was becoming Moroccan, and Black Moroccan culture was entering the mainstream.

Gnaoua Music Goes Transnational

While Nass El Ghiwane’s music may have sparked a desire to connect with African culture, the impulse had been growing for at least a decade,

In 1967, African-American pianist Randy Weston came to Tangier as part of a U.S. State Department-sponsored cultural diplomacy tour. Weston and his ensemble had travelled through thirteen African countries, as well as Lebanon, playing jazz, the African diasporic music of the United States. Soon after arriving in Morocco, he ran into Abdellah El Gourd, a Gnaoua master, who took him to one of the brotherhood’s trance ceremonies. Weston says he remained in an altered state for two weeks.

Having already experimented with pan-Africanist music, Weston quickly saw the connections between Gnaoua, jazz, and the history of Black slavery in the United States and Morocco. He stayed in Tangier until 1974, running a jazz club where he collaborated with El Gourd and other musicians. He even managed to hold an African music festival, without the support of either the American or Moroccan governments. “I think pan-Africanism was just too radical a concept for them,” he observes in Professor Hisham Aidi’s book, Rebel Music.

Thanks to the efforts of Weston and Nass El Ghiwane, by the early 1980s, Gnaoua music was being recorded by all kinds of Moroccan musicians. Ma’alem Mahmoud Guinea, from Essaouira, led this shift, followed soon thereafter by masters from across the country, including some from his family. Guinea released both traditional and experimental fusion recordings, experimenting with drum kits, keyboards, and even didgeridoos.

Some musicians took Gnaoua’s sounds outside Morocco, starting with Hassan Hakmoun who moved to New York in the late 1980s, as well as the North African fusion group, Orchestre National de Barbés, which went to Paris in the 1990s. At the same time, artists like saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant started coming to Morocco to record with ma’alems. As Gnaoua music began to go global, groups like Gnawa Diffusion and Darga started popping up. The young musicians of these bands mixed Gnaoua, reggae, and funk with a liberationist political bent. “The third world’s god is a big black Gnawi,” sings Gnawa Diffusion’s leader Amazigh Kateb.

Meanwhile, the Moroccan state had turned a new page regarding Sufism, now sponsoring Sufi groups as a bulwark against Islamic extremism. Tapping into Gnaoua’s growing popularity as well as newfound state legitimacy, Neila Tazi’s communications agency A3 organized the first Gnaoua festival in 1999. Tazi, local officials, and business elites saw the festival as tackling three goals at once: preserving Gnaoua traditions, rehabilitating Essaouira’s then-struggling economy through tourism, and fighting extremist ideology by promoting “peaceful” and “tolerant” Islamic culture. In a city of 70,000, nearly 20,000 came for the first festival. By 2016, the event was drawing around 500,000 visitors, consisting largely of young Moroccans. To put these numbers into perspective, anthropologist George Lapassade estimates that roughly 500 to 1,000 residents regularly attended Gnaoua ceremonies in Essaouira in 1976.

Gnaoua Music as Soft Power

Immensely popular both at home and abroad, the repressed trance music of former slaves has become, in Hisham Aidi’s words, the “musical face” of Morocco. But not everyone is joyously clapping along. While conducting my research with Gnaoua musicians in Essaouira, many musicians told me they felt used by the festival. Some believed the event was straying from its original purpose by increasingly spotlighting the foreign musicians, who they said received much higher payments. One master, who asked to remain anonymous, called the organizers “thieves,” accusing them of making big bucks of off Gnaoua’s popularity while ignoring the continued poverty of many ma’alems. “The Gnaoua have been instrumentalized,” Chouki El Hamel, a scholar of Black Moroccan history, told me. “And they’re not happy about it.”

At the same time, some members of the brotherhood have themselves started to instrumentalize Morocco’s new “African” focus. El Hamel, who is the author of Black Morocco: A History of Race, Slavery, and Islam, told me of a recent visit to Essaouira he made to interview some ma’alems. I heard similar stories during my research.

Even if all this is true, why “fix” the story now? A local record producer close to Essaouira’s Gnaoua community explained to me that Gnaoua musicians and other Moroccan producers have been working to establish Morocco as a hub for the African music industry. The “myth” of slavery could potentially discourage sub-Saharan musicians from collaborating with Moroccans and serve as a roadblock to Morocco’s journey “home.”

This emerging revisionist history suggests that Gnaoua music’s rebirth as Morocco’s “African” musical heritage may not be a simple story of cooptation. While festival organizers attempt to capitalize on the tradition amid the kingdom’s redirection towards Africa, some in the Gnaoua community are willing to take advantage of the continental drift. As Morocco “comes home” with big plans for the future, the Gnaoua will continue to negotiate their relationships with those interested in what they represent, but not necessarily who they are. “Culture,” as the festival’s website says, “is a genuine political project.”

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