Gnawa Music: Moroccan Trance

This week is all about Gnawa music from Morocco, which is a spiritual music that combines Islam with traditional West African rhythms and religions.

Gnawa music is a type of trance music, and it’s gotten a lot of recognition in the west from the electronic dance music (EDM) scene, jazz musicians, and rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Robert Plant.

This week’s podcast episode covers:

  • The history and origins of Gnawa music,
  • Gnawa instruments and what they play, and
  • Investigates the links between African-American music, Gnawa music and West- African music.

We also hear from Moroccan musician and Gnawa Master Simo Lagnawi, who shares some insights into Gnawa music, as well as providing audio for this week’s episode.

In the blog post below we go into greater depth on the origins of the Gnawa people, and how slavery brought them together.

As a special bonus, check out the two videos below of Simo Lagnawi, one is a backstage solo performance exclusively for Roving Sounds, and the other is a small sample of his live show with Gnawa London.

If you’re enjoying this episode you can join our mailing list and I’ll send you some live tracks from Gnawa London that only subscribers will receive.



Roving Sounds Radio Show #3 - Gnawa : Morrocan Trance Music

by Roving Sounds

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Show Notes

Simo Lagnawi

Simo Lagnawi is a fantastic musician from Morocco and a Gnawa master. He is also an ambassador for Gnawa Culture in the UK. Simo generously provided all the music we heard in this week’s episode as well as insightful information about Gnawa culture and traditions.

You can check out more of Simo’s group Gnawa London at their facebook page.

Simo’s albums are also for sale on iTunes.

Essaouira Festival Page

The annual Gnawa extravaganza in Morocco, featuring traditional acts and collaborations with western acts.

Boiler Room Videos

Intimate Gnawa videos from dance music company Boiler Room.

More Gnawa Reading

This post goes into a lot of detail about the Gnawa people and their place in Morocco. It was really helpful in the research for this episode

Who do you know who would like this post? Share it with them now and spread some knowledge!

Who are the Gnawa People?

The Gnawa are an ethnic group in Morocco, that have their origins in slave trade of the Muslim Empire (661-750 AD), who conquered North Africa.

Prior to Muslim Arrival (Before 640 AD)

North Africa is located (logically) at the very top of the African continent, and is very closely positioned to Europe and the Middle East. However it’s separated from West Africa to the south by the Sahara desert, which is around 9.2 million km square of uninhabitable land. The native inhabitants of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are the Berber people, who are believed to have lived their for over 10,000 years. The Berber’s have olive skin, and are close in colour to people from the Egypt and the middle east. This is in stark contrast to their southern neighbours in West Africa, groups like the Hausa, Fulani and Bambara who typically have very dark skin. Prior to the arrival of the Muslim Empire there were tensions between the Berbers and West Africans, and slavery is thought to have existed in both directions.

Arrival of Muslim Empire (around 640-700 AD)

When the conquering Muslim Empire claimed North Africa and started staking its influence in the region, the dynamic changed. Because the Muslim Empire was expanding and claiming territory and a fast rate, it needed many slaves to sustain this growth. So they turned to West-Africa, seeing it as a great source of slaves, and started importing people into cities like Essaouira and Marrakech, where the slave trade was based. These people were brought from all over West Africa, and so they were made up of many different ethnic groups. This map gives you a good idea of how many different ethnicities there are in West Africa. So all these different people were brought together by slavery and began living together in communities, and gradually they developed a sense of unity and identity because of their shared circumstances. They were given the name Gnawa, which comes from the Berber word Aguinaw meaning black skin, and treated as one ethnic ethnic group.

Gnawa Culture

Gnawa culture is a hybrid of their West-African heritage, North-African surroundings, and Islamic faith . Their spiritualism and animism (spirits in animals and inanimate objects) has its roots in West-African traditional religions. Gnawa believe that one cannot communicate directly with god, but rather indirectly through various spirits. These spirits are reached through the Lila ritual, which we talk about in the podcast. These believes co-exist with the Islamic faith, and the Gnawa are seen as a sect or cult of Islam, with their own values and customs, under the same umbrella. A central figure in the Gnawa interpretation of Islam is Bilal, the an ex-slave who was held in extremely high esteem by Muhammad. The Gnawa take Bilal to be proof of their legitimacy as muslims, and their place in the faith.