Gnawa Music

Gnawa Sidi Mimoun
Gnawa Sidi Mimoun
Gnawa is a term used to define both a Moroccan music style and a Muslim religious brotherhood that invokes God and many prophets. The patron saint of the Gnawa is Bilal al Habashi, an Ethiopian who was the first African to convert to Islam and Prophet Mohammed’s first muezzin (caller to prayer). The Gnawa also recognize and respect all Muslim saints.

The origin of Gnawa music originally comes from West Africa, south of the Sahara. Over 500 years ago, slavery, conscription and trade brought people from West Africa to North Africa, which was then Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania. When they got to the north, they brought their music with them which was called Gnawa. Since these different groups all played the same type of music, they call themselves the Gnawa people. Gnawa song texts contain many references to the privations of exile and slavery.Gnawa music is based on pentatonic melodies and the syncopated rhythms led by the propulsive drive of a bass lute called sintir, metal castanets known as karkabas (also known as k’rkbs and qaraqeb) and chanting.

The Gnawa are most visible as entertainers. Each afternoon on Jamaa el-Fna, the large entertainment town square in Marrakech, groups of Gnawa perform acrobatic dances to the accompaniment of large side drums (tbel or ganga) and the karkabas. The sound of the drums also rousts any spirits (jnun) that may have settled in the neighborhood.

p>Gnawa music is very powerful spiritual music and it is primarily used for healing. The Gnawa carry out trance ceremonies (derdeba) in order to heal people who are very sick. The goal may be to purge an evil spirit that has brought the illness, infertility, stress or some other affliction or the purpose may be to prolong a positive relationship with a spirit that has brought prosperity, good fortune, or some other baraka (blessing).

The derdeba is performed all night long in order to carry out the healing and purification. The musicians and devotees warm up for the derdeba with entertainment music played on the sintir. When they are ready to begin the ceremony, all the participants gather outside, in front of the house where the derdeba is to take place. The drums and karkabas announce to neighbors and spirits alike that the derdeba is about to begin. The crowd then walks back inside the house in a candlelight procession. The m’allem (lead musician or maestro) again plays the sintir, and the group sings and plays a series of songs to dedicate the robes to be worn during the ceremony, while the other participants share dates and milk.

The complete ceremony includes seven sections, each controlled by a different saint or family of spirits. Each section is associated with clothing of a particular color. The ritual sends some of the participants into a trance or a spirit may first possess a devotee, and then express through the dancer’s mouth its desire for the appropriate tune. The trance state is accelerated by the proper combination of spices and incense that must be burned, and the dancer must be dressed in the spirit’s preferred color.

A complete derdeba may last all night, well past dawn on the following day. As the trance ceremony ends, the musicians return to lighter music to relax the spectators.

Gnawa Artists

Click here to find out about Gnawa artists that you can find on our Web site. For Moroccan artists in general, click on Morocco.

Gnawa Web sites


Essaouira, festival gnaoua (Créon Music, 2003)

Héritage musical des gnaoua d’Essaouira (Sono Disc, 2002)

Hadra des gnaoua d’Essaouira (Ocora, 2003)

Trance: Balinese Barong, Gnawa Music of Morocco, Zkir from Chinese Turkestan – The Musical Expeditions Series/Audio CD and Book (Ellipsis Arts). Compiled by David Lewiston.


Hell, Bertrand. Le tourbillon des génies, au Maroc avec les gnaoua. Published by Flammarion, France, 2002. Pages : 371.
ISBN : 208211581X.

Chlyeh, Abdelhafid. Les gnaouas au Maroc. Published by le Fennec- la Pensée Sauvage, 1998. ISBN : 9981-838-85-3.

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.