How Morocco’s gnaoua musicians are keeping things fresh
As soon as Khalil Mounji, Khadija Sijilmassi, and I walk into the house – cramped, brightly lit, and already smelling of incense – we’re ushered over to sit with the musicians. We cross over to the wall that Maalem Soufiane Bakbou and his group are resting against, weaving around people anxiously carrying trays of food and piles of coloured cloth in preparation for the long night ahead. We all shake hands, and cell-phones are quickly pulled out for selfies. ‘We’re like VIPs’, Mounji says to me as he sets up his camera.
He’s joking, but he isn’t wrong. Mounji is the founder and head of Gnaoua Culture, an association he runs with Sijilmassi, Hamza Zogarh, Walid Bendra, and Tarik Essalmy. They work to promote gnaoua, the devotional music of Morocco’s centuries-old Gnaoua brotherhood – whose name comes from that of the Moroccan ethnic group that spawned both the brotherhood and its music by combining sub-Saharan and North African traditions – which has unexpectedly become a global pop sensation in recent decades. In Mounji’s words, his team works to ‘integrate’ gnaoua: to enshrine, using contemporary media technology, a tradition often looked down upon as ‘primitive’.