Hassan Hajjaj

Gnaoua or Never

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’.

Hassan Hajjaj

Hassan Hajjaj – Allal Aclau (courtesy the artist and the Institut du Monde Arabe)

I wanted to see his team in action, so Mounji took me to a lila (‘night’), the cornerstone of gnaoua culture. Traditionally, from before midnight until after sunrise, a maalem (‘master’) and his group sing and play the gumbri (a three-stringed bass banjo) and the qraqab (double castanets), while devotees dance. It’s not a house show, though; some dance just for fun, but others use the music to enter into a state of trance, through which they enter into communion with the spirit that has possessed them. Gnaoua musicians play through seven hour-long cycles of songs, each corresponding to a colour and specific set of spirits (the mluk). Dancers only fall into a trance when they hear the colour of their spirit. Unlike in exorcism, however, the possessed do not seek to rid themselves of their possessor; rather, through their dance and communion with the spirit, they renegotiate the relationship, gradually reshaping it from a parasitic to symbiotic one.

The music’s reverence for spirits, combined with the fact that practitioners are generally working-class, if not impoverished, have long led the Gnaoua to be derided in mainstream Moroccan society as backwards, unclean, and even Satanic. Even as gnaoua musicians started touring internationally and recording albums with high-profile musicians like Jimmy Page and Pharaoh Sanders in the 1980s, this image stuck. Mounji initiated Gnaoua Culture to combat gnaoua’s negative reputation, which he’d experienced first-hand as a teenager learning the gumbri. He’d fallen in love with the music, but his parents disapproved. ‘My mother told me I’d become a beggar if I kept playing’, he says. In defiance, he made up his mind to help change the image of gnaoua ‘in the subconscious of Moroccans’.

Hassan Hajjaj

Hassan Hajjaj – Abdul Qadir Oktaoa (courtesy the artist and the Institut du Monde Arabe)

After founding the organisation in 2014, Mounji set about making contact with Morocco’s entire Gnaoua community. Now, he says, he knows just about everybody. ‘My entire Facebook feed is gnaoua’. In his spare hours (he works full-time, managing communications for a hospital in Casablanca), he and his team travel up and down the country, professionally filming lilas and other performances, which they post on Gnaoua Culture’s YouTube page. They also do communications work for maalems, running their Facebook pages, promoting their events, connecting them with music industry players, and giving groups advice on their overall presentation. ‘We want to communicate gnaoua with a good image, a clean image’, he tells me. ‘We care about the image of gnaoua. We have to do it professionally.’ The team have even produced a gumbri mobile app, and are currently working to create an e-commerce platform for maalems to sell gnaoua instruments and clothing.

All of this work is pro-bono and entirely self-funded. When Mounji started the project, many maalems were suspicious, assuming he was trying to profit of their traditions. They feel they’ve been burned before, by concert organisers and media companies that were either greedy or careless. Mounji had to work had to convince the community he wasn’t in it for the money, and only for the love of the tradition. ‘Little by little, they [have come to] trust us. And now, they call us to come film and publicise them.’

Hassan Hajjaj

Hassan Hajjaj – Simo Lagnawi (courtesy the artist)

With some pride, Mounji says that Gnaoua Culture has indirectly helped raise the overall level of professionalism of gnaoua groups. ‘They see how we work. They know all the world can see them.’ At the very least, groups are now sure to add maalem names and song titles to their videos, instead of simply titling them ‘gnaoua’, a once-common practice which irritated Mounji to no end. ‘He’s the maalem! You have to give him value!’

… Isn’t it ironic that the forces of globalisation, modern technology, mass media, and capitalism are all said to kill traditional practices like gnaoua, yet are often the same tools we use to try to save them?

Back at the lila, the music has started, and some in attendance have gathered in front the musicians to dance. ‘Ugh, my ass hurts’, says one woman in blue as she gets up and starts moving. Mounji is sitting next to me, streaming Maalem Bakbou and his group on Facebook Live. Filming the dancers generally isn’t allowed, so he instead focuses on the musicians, whose faces are soon crowded out by ‘likes’, ‘loves’, and even two ‘ha ha’s floating across the screen. ‘People used to say that if you took pictures of gnaoua trance, they’d come out black’, he tells me later. ‘But actually, it was just that people didn’t want to dance and then find out they were in someone’s documentary.’

Gradually, the repeated chorus calls and the high crashing of the qraqab expand to fill the room and my eardrums. My eyes start losing focus, but I can see that the floor has filled with the feet of dancers. Some are starting to scream, which is totally normal, and a young man is holding two handfuls of candles up to his face. The woman in blue is now on the floor, writhing to the beat. The slap of a flailing arm on my face wakes me up, and I turn back to Mounji, hoping that he’s been able to capture at least something of this moment – but his data has run out.

At around four in the morning, just as things are getting heated, we three get up to leave. We have to be in Marrakech the next day for another lila, and it’s a four-hour drive from where we are in Salé. As he’s pulling out of the driveway, Mounji lights a cigarette and finds some music on YouTube to keep us awake. Expecting more gnaoua, my ears instead meet the music of the American Gods trailer that’s been flooding the Internet for weeks, followed five seconds later by the straightforwardly titled Best Trap Reggae Mix 2017. We speed past the shrine to the Sidi Moussa, the blue spirit, and onto the main road south. Mounji starts complaining about some of the dancers at the lila who were apparently overdoing it. They weren’t really in trance, he says, but rather just making a show of how ‘connected’ they were to the spirits. He assures me this has always happened, but, as gnaoua becomes more popular and publicised, he’s been seeing it more often. Instead of shunning the camera, some dancers now specifically ask Mounji to film them in trance.

According to Mounji, the musicians are guilty of faking, too. ‘A lot of people contact us, asking to make a video for them. I ask them, “Who is your maalem? You don’t have a maalem? Why do you want to a make a video? Go play guitar!”’ Growing mainstream acceptance of gnaoua music has led to an influx of musicians claiming to represent the culture without having passed through the years, even decades, of apprenticeships under older maalems. ‘Their master is Maalem YouTube!’ He laments that young musicians used to learn purely for the love of trance. ‘Now, it’s for the love of money.’ Before, gnaoua maalems came together to bestow authority on apprentices who’d paid their dues. But, while the Gnaoua’s popularity has increased, their overall profits have not, and Mounji tells me that most maalems have become competitive and jealous. ‘One day, I’ll write a book about the war of the Gnaoua.’ But in the meantime, Mounji says that he makes sure only to highlight musicians who are serious about studying and perpetuating the gnaoua tradition.

This leads me to ask Mounji the obvious question: could it be that this influx of publicity is actually hurting the Gnaoua? That the community would have been better off left alone, without all the flashy fusion recordings and festival appearances? Beyond the endlessly rehashed dualism of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, isn’t it ironic that the forces of globalisation, modern technology, mass media, and capitalism are all said to kill traditional practices like gnaoua, yet are often the same tools we use to try to save them? But the sun is just coming up and I haven’t gotten any sleep, so I don’t phrase it quite as eloquently. ‘So,’ I ask, ‘all this technology with gnaoua now … good or bad?’

Mounji seems to understand what I’m getting at. ‘Actually, we can’t know.’ He pauses. ‘We can’t lie to ourselves. We are in the digital era. People are following the era. The culture must follow the era. Today, if you are not on social media, you will not be known, and some other guys will be known, and they will make money.’

He brings up the example of Hamid El Kasri, the public face of gnaoua, who is derided by purists for ‘selling out’ – i.e. playing with non-traditional instruments and singing too coherently. Mounji takes a more optimistic stance. ‘He’s democratised gnaoua’, he says, because all Moroccans can understand El Kasri’s take on the tradition, not only insiders. He insists that a ‘democratisation’ of the music is positive and will ultimately bring more money and prestige to gnaoua musicians as a whole. ‘Now, there’s more and more value [being] added to the Gnaoua. They can live. They can’t live very well, but they can live.’

We continue along the highway, the black asphalt of which is now bleached by the sun overhead. We’ve long passed the forests surrounding Rabat and Casablanca, and are now cutting through the orange rock desert north of Marrakech. Sijilmassi, Mounji’s largely silent partner, is asleep in the back, while Mounji fumbles with his phone to change the music. He puts on an orthodox treatment of the song to the popular red spirit ‘Leila Aicha’. Mounji gazes onto the horizon. ‘The culture is more and more losing its charm because of new things coming to the music. The Gnaoua follow the law of supply and demand, so, maybe one day, if they sing in English, it will be an evolution of gnaoua. But is it gnaoua or not?’ The gumbri and qraqab are abruptly joined by a thumping four-on-the-floor club beat. The song is called Leila Aicha – Harlem Shake Mix. Mounji speeds up, singing along.

Cover image: Hassan Hajjaj – Ba Bohot (detail; courtesy the artist and the Institut du Monde Arabe).

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About the Author

Alexander Jusdanis
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Alexander Jusdanis is an editor and writer living in Rabat. As a Fulbright researcher, he studied the interpretation of cultural change and the instrumentalisation of tradition in Essaouira's Gnaoua community. He tweets at @xanijusdani.