Gnawa (or Gnaoua) music is a rich repertoire of ancient African Islamic spiritual religious songs and rhythms. Its well preserved heritage combines ritual poetry with traditional music and dancing. The music is performed at ‘Lila’s’, entire communal nights of celebration, dedicated to prayer and healing, guided by the Gnawa Maalem and his group of musicians and dancers. Though many of the influences that formed this music can be traced to sub-Saharan West-Africa, its traditional practice is concentrated in Morocco and the Béchar Province in South-western Algeria.
The word ‘Gnawa’, plur. of Gnawi, is taken to be derived from the Hausa-Fulani word “Kanawa” for the residents of Kano, the capital of the Hausa-Fulani Emirate, which was a close ally of Morocco for centuries, religiously, economically, and in matters of defence. (Opinion of Essaouira Gnawa Maalems, Maalem Sadiq, Abdallah Guinia, and many others). Moroccan language often replaces “K” with “G”, which is how the Kanawa, or Hausa people, were called Gnawa in Morocco. The Gnawa’s history is closely related to the famous Moroccan royal “Black Guard”, which became today the Royal Guard of Morocco.
A short browsing of the Moroccan and Hausa contexts will suffice to show the connections between both cultures, religiously -as both are Malikite Moslems, with many Moroccan spiritual schools active in Hausaland- and artistically, with Gnawa music being the prime example of Hausa-sounding and typical Hausa articulation of music within Morocco, its local language, and traditions.
Gnawa music is one of the major musical currents in Morocco. Moroccans overwhelmingly love Gnawa music and Gnawas ‘Maalems’ are highly respected, and enjoy an aura of musical stardom.