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CONSTRUCTING A DIASPORIC IDENTITY: TRACING THE ORIGINS OF THE GNAWA SPIRITUAL GROUP IN MOROCCO*

  • CHOUKI EL HAMEL (a1)
Abstract

This article reconstructs the forgotten past of the Gnawa who, over many generations, productively negotiated their forced presence in Morocco to create acceptance and group solidarity. The diaspora of black West Africans in Morocco, the majority of whom were forcefully transported across the Sahara and sold in different parts of Morocco, shares some important traits with the African trans-Atlantic diaspora, but differs at the same time. There are two crucial differences: the internal African diaspora in Morocco has primarily a musical significance and it lacks the desire to return to the original homeland. This diaspora is constructed positively around the right to belong to the culture of Islam, unlike the construction of the African American diasporic double consciousness. Black consciousness in Morocco exists in analogy to the Berber consciousness or the Arab notion of collective identity; it does not constitute a contradiction with itself. Black Moroccans perceive themselves first and foremost to be Muslim Moroccans and only perceive themselves secondarily as participants in a different tradition.

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1 In Morocco, Gnawa music and its spiritual order are visible mainly where black people live in large numbers – large enough to form a distinctive community like those found in Marrakesh, Essaouira and Fez. These three cities are known to have had slave markets connected to the trans-Saharan slave trade. However, even in remote areas where blacks migrated in relatively small numbers, they founded communal centers where their culture is celebrated. For information on slavery in Morocco, see Mohammed Ennaji, Soldats, domestiques et concubines. L'esclavage au Maroc au XIXe siècle (Casablanca, 1994); and John Ralph Willis (ed.), Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa, vol. i: Islam and the Ideology of Slavery (Totowa, 1985).

2 Palmer, Colin A., ‘Defining and studying the modern African diaspora’, Journal of Negro History, 85 (Winter, 2000), 2732.

3 See Michael A. Gomez, Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (Cambridge, 2004).

4 Lovejoy, Paul E., ‘The African diaspora: revisionist interpretations of ethnicity, culture, and religion under slavery’, Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation, 2 (1997), 123.

5 Eve Troutt Powell, A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan (Berkeley, 2003).

6 See the excellent work of Deborah Kapchan, Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace (Middletown, 2007).

7 Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental and African Slave Trades (Cambridge, 1990).

8 Timothy Cleaveland, Becoming Walata: A History of Saharan Social Formation and Transformation (Heinemann, 2002).

9 Becker, Cynthia, ‘“We are real slaves, real Ismkhan’: memories of the trans-Saharan slave trade in the Tafilalet of south-eastern Morocco', Journal of North African Studies, 7 (2002), 97121.

10 Bouazza Benachir, Négritudes du Maroc et du Maghreb (Paris, 2003).

11 It is also known colloquially as al-Ala (the instrument) as opposed to Sama‘ which is a musical genre using only human voices. For more information on Andalusian music, see Ahmed Aydoun, Musiques du Maroc (Casablanca, 2001).

12 The Berbers usually refer to themselves linguistically and ethnically as Imazighen. The term ‘Berber’ is a foreign word, most likely of Roman origin.

13 On the connection of Gnawa to memory, Bilal and Islam, see Earle Waugh, Memory, Music, and Religion: Morocco's Mystical Chanters (Columbia, 2005), 107–20.

14 Sophie Ferchiou, ‘The possession cults of Tunisia: a religious system functioning as a system of reference and a social field for performing actions’, in I. M. Lewis, Ahmed Al-Sa and Sayyid Hurreiz (eds.), Women's Medicine: The Zar-Bori Cult in Africa and Beyond (Edinburgh, 1991).

15 Among the scholars who have written excellent books discussing the impact of Islam on the cults of possession are Janice Patricia Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan (Madison, 1989); Adeline Marie Masquelier, Prayer Has Spoiled Everything: Possession, Power, and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger (Durham, 2001); and A. J. N. Tremearne, The Ban of the Bori: Demons and Demon-Dancing in West and North Africa (London, 1968).

16 For more information, see Yvonne Daniel, Dancing Wisdom: Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Candomblé (Urbana, 2005); and Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the Caribbean (New Brunswick, 1997).

17 For more information, see D. Jacques-Meunié, Le Maroc saharien dès origines à 1670 (Paris, 1982); and Hsain Ilahiane, ‘The power of the dagger, the seeds of the Koran, and the sweat of the ploughman: ethnic stratification and agricultural intensification in the Ziz Valley, southeast Morocco’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Arizona, 1998).

18 The term ‘Haratin’ (sing. ‘Hartani’) means different categories such as ‘free “blacks”’, ‘freed “black” slaves’ and ‘mixed-race’. See Ilahiane, ‘The power of the dagger’; David Hart, Tribe and Society in Rural Morocco (London, 2000), 173; and Chouki El Hamel, ‘Blacks and slavery in Morocco: the question of the Haratin at the end of the seventeenth century’, in Michael Gomez (ed.), Diasporic Africa. A Reader (New York, 2006), 188–90.

19 Viviana Pâques, ‘Le monde des Gnawa’, in Jean Poirier and François Raveau (eds.), L'autre et l'ailleurs: hommage à Roger Bastide (Paris, 1976), 171.

20 Jean-Marie Lesage, ‘Gnawa’, in Encyclopédie berbère (Aix en Provence, 1999), xxi, 3165.

21 Something like the French ‘r’.

22 J. D. Fage, Ghana: A Historical Interpretation (Madison, 1959), 39–40.

23 Al-Hasan al-Wezaz al-Fasi, known as Leo Africanus, The History and Description of Africa: and of the Notable Things Therein Contained, ed. and trans. Robert Brown and John Pory (3 vols.) (London, 1896), iii, 822. I have also used the Arabic translation which I believe is more accurate, especially as the two Moroccan translators have made many annotations where Leo Africanus's memory has failed him. The Arabic translation is entitled: Wasf Ifriqiya, trans. Muhammad Hajji and Mohammed Lakhdar (Beirut, 1982), 162.

24 See, for instance, the sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer Duarte Pereira, Esmeraldo de situ orbis, ed. and trans. George H. T. Kimble (London, 1937), 2–3.

25 ‘Abd ar-Rahman as-Sa‘di, Tarikh as-Sudan, ed. and trans. O. Houdas (Paris, 1964), 12 of the Arabic text and 23 of the translation.

26 According to René Basset (1855–1924), a French specialist in North African languages, ‘nègre, gennoui , pl. gennoun of the root G N’. See René Basset, Mission au Sénégal (Paris, 1909), 147.

27 Ibid. 237.

28 Charles de Foucauld, Dictionnaire touareg–français (Paris, 1951), i, 458.

29 Muhammad Az-Zuhri in J. F. P. Hopkins and Nehemia Levtzion (eds.), Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge, 1981), 98. See also the Arabic version: Muhammad Zuhri, Kitab al-Jughrafiyya, ed. Muhammad Hajj Sadiq (Dimashq, 1968), 182.

30 ‘Ali Al-Jaziri, ‘al-Maqsad al-Mahmud fi Takhlis al-'Uqud’ (Rabat: Bibliothèque Royale, ms. 5221), 230.

31 Yaqut al-Hamawi in Hopkins and Levtzion (eds.), Corpus, 173.

32 Hasan ibn al-Qattan, Nuzum al-Juman li-Tartib ma Salafa min Akhbar az-Zaman, annotated by Mahmud ‘Ali Makki (Beirut, 1990), 158.

33 Gomes Eannes de Azurara, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, trans. Charles R. Beazley and Edgar Prestage (New York, 1963), 177.

34 Muhammad al-Masmudi, al-Watha'iq as-Sijilmasiyya, ed. Musatafa an-Naji (Rabat, 1988), 28.

35 Interview with Mokhtar Gania, Essaouira, 20 June 2005. For more information see Viviana Pâques, La religion des esclaves: recherches sur la confrérie marocaine des Gnawa (Bergamo, 1991), 263–71.

36 Two Arab historians from Morocco: al-Hasan al-Wazzan generally known as Leo Africanus (died in 1550s) and Ahmad an-Nasiri (died in 1897).

37 Muhammad ad-Du'ayyif (1752–1818) noted that ‘Ismgan’ means ‘Haratin’ in the tongue of the Berber people of Sus. Muhammad ibn 'Abd as-Salam ad-Du'ayyif, Tarikh ad-Du'ayyif: Tarikh ad-Dawla as-Sa'ida (Rabat, 1986), 89. See also the article of Cynthia Becker, ‘“We are Real Slaves, Real Ismkhan”’.

38 The fourteenth-century historian of North Africa Ibn ‘Idhari in Hopkins and Levtzion (eds.), Corpus, 229.

39 Ahmad An-Nasiri, al-Istiqsa' li-Akhbar Duwal al-Maghrib al-Aqsa (Casablanca, 1997), II, 47.

40 Ibn Abi Zar‘ al-Fasi, al-Anis al-Mutrib bi-Rawd al-Qirtas, ed. ‘Abd al-Wahhab b. al-Mansur (Rabat, 1999), 316.

41 Michel Abitbol, Tombouctou et les Arma (Paris, 1979), 78.

42 See El Hamel, ‘Blacks and slavery in Morocco’.

43 For more information, see John Hunwick and Eve Trout Powell (eds.), The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Princeton, 2002); and Ennaji, Soldats. There are also unpublished works such as Allan Meyers, The ‘‘Abid 'l-Buhari: slave soldiers and statecraft in Morocco, 1672–1790’ (Ph.D. thesis, Cornell University, 1974).

44 For more information, see the work of Bertrand Hell, a French anthropologist who specializes in the cults of possession, mainly in Morocco. I refer, in particular, to his article entitled: ‘L'expérience du corps et des émotions dans les cultes de possession’, in Y. Tardan-Masquelier (ed.), Le corps médiateur (Paris, 2006), 87–106.

45 Abdelhafid Chlyeh, Les Gnaoua du Maroc: itinéraires initiatiques, transe et possession (Casablanca, 1998), 17–32. Chlyeh uses the word ‘pilgrimage’. This is not accurate, because pilgrimage (Hajj in Arabic) is reserved specifically for the performance of the Fifth Pillar of Islam: pilgrimage to Mecca.

46 For more information about ritual practices of the Gnawa, see Pâques, La religion des esclaves.

47 Viviana Pâques, ‘The Gnawa of Morocco: the Derdeba ceremony’, in Wolfgang Weissleder (ed.), The Nomadic Alternative: Modes and Models of Interaction in the African–Asian Deserts and Steppes (The Hague, 1978), 319–29. She describes the Gnawa as ‘sons of Sidna Bilal’ and as masters of possession rituals. She gives an interesting analysis of the symbolic elements of the Gnawa spiritual order.

48 On Bilal, see W. ‘Arafat, The Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden, 2001), CD-ROM Edition, v.1.1, article: Bilal.

49 Al-Bukhari, Sahih (Beirut, 2004), 214. It is important to note that Bilal was also a transmitter of the Prophet Muhammad's reports.

50 Such as the following lyrics:

Father Bilal man of God
The Prophet's servant, father Bilal.

51 This is a Mandé pronunciation of ‘ben Hamama’. Hamama was his mother.

52 D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (England, 1997), 2.

53 See Conrad, David C., ‘Islam in the Oral Traditions of Mali: Bilali and Surakata’, Journal of African History, 26 (1985), 3349.

54 On the culture of the griots, bards or jeliw (sing. jeli) among the Manding people of West Africa, see the interesting article by David C. Conrad, ‘Oral tradition & perceptions of history from the Manding peoples of West Africa’, in Emmanuel Akyeampong (ed.), Themes in West Africa's History (Athens OH, 2006), 73–96. See also Tamari, Tal, ‘The development of caste systems in West Africa’, Journal of African History, 32 (1991), 221–50.

55 Hale, Thomas A., ‘From the griot of roots to the roots of griot: a new look at the origins of a controversial African term for bard’, Oral Tradition, 12 (1997), 258.

56 Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (Reading, 1994), 159.

57 Viviana Pâques, ‘Couleurs et génies au Maghreb’, in A. Chlyeh (ed.), L'univers des Gnaoua (Casablanca, 1999), 60. See also Pâques, La religion des esclaves.

58 Edward Westermarck, Ritual and Belief in Morocco (New Hyde Park, 1968), i, 13.

59 Ibid. 379. ‘Sudanese’ derives from the Arabic term ‘as-Sudan’ (plural of Aswad); it means ‘black people’ and it was the general name in medieval Arabic sources for the region of sub-Saharan West Africa.

60 During his fieldwork, René Brunel noticed that the Gnawa perform some of their songs in the Bambara language. René Brunel, Essai sur la confrérie religieuse des Aissaouas au Maroc (Casablanca, 1988), 181.

61 Ibid. 10–11.

62 Ibid. 178.

63 Ibid. 186.

64 See Westermarck, Edward, ‘The nature of the Arab ginn, illustrated by the present beliefs of the people of Morocco’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 29 (1899), 252–69.

65 Vincent Crapanzano, The Hamadsha: A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry (Berkeley, 1973), 141.

66 The Gnawa of Essaouira use the term lila but the Gnawa of Marrakesh use the term derdeba.

67 This interview was conducted in the house of master Boubker Gania (also spelled and pronounced ‘Guinia’), Essaouira, on 7 July 2000, with myself and Professor Paul Lovejoy, Yacine Daddi Addoun (Ph.D. student) and Abdul Karim al-Asiri, author of the book ‘Alam at-Tuqus wa 'l-Alwan Dakhil al-Layla al-Gnawiyya (Essaouira, 1999). I also conducted another interview with Gania's son Mokhtar Gania, Essaouira, on 20 June 2005.

68 ‘Bambara’ is the name of the ethnic group and their language in present-day Mali.

69 Mluk (sing. malk) means ‘the possessors’; it derives from the verb ‘malaka’ (to possess or to own).

70 For more information see the work of the Moroccan scholar Abdelhai Diouri, Lahlou: nourriture sacrificielle des Gnaouas du Maroc (Madrid, 1990).

71 A few Moroccan scholars have recently embarked on the study of the Gnawa people, mainly in the disciplines of music, ethnotherapy and ethnology. Abdelhafid Chlyeh, who holds a Ph.D. in ethnology, is probably the best contributor to the study of the Gnawa.

72 See W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York, 1994), 155.

73 James H. Cone, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968–1998 (Boston, 1999), 16.

74 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave (New Haven, 2001), 20.

76 Earle Waugh, an American scholar of the Sufi and their rituals, thinks that many Gnawa songs are meant to preserve the memory of their historic migration. Waugh, Memory, 110.

77 Translation from al-Asiri, ‘Alam at-Tuqus, 33.

78 Ibid. 18.

79 Brunel, Essai sur la confrérie, 181–2.

80 William Wells Brown, From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown, ed. with intro. by William L. Andrews (Columbia, 2003), 48.

81 Interview, Master Gania, Essaouira, 7 July 2000.

82 This historical analysis is relevant to contemporary issues. This means that the historical lessons still hold true today. The legacy is still alive and, in order to establish a free society, taboos must be questioned.

83 William Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States, Principally Undertaken to Ascertain, by Positive Evidence, the Condition and Probable Prospects of British Emigrants; Including the Accounts of Mr. Birkbeck's Settlement in the Illinois (New York, 1969), 78.

84 Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History (New York, 1962), 146.

85 Palmer, ‘Defining’, 29.

86 Du Bois, The Souls, 2.

87 Mohamed Zaouit, in his doctoral thesis studying the fatawi (sing. fatwa) of Ahmad Baba regarding the legal status of ‘Blacks’ exported as slaves to North Africa, has succeeded in identifying the author of the letter. It was someone by the name of Sa'id Ibrahim al-Jirari who probably resided in Draa in southeast Morocco and the letter went by way of Touat to be delivered to Ahmad Baba in Timbuktu. See Mohamed Zaouit, ‘L'esclavage au Bilad as-Sudan au xvième siècle à travers deux consultations juridiques d'Ahmad Baba’ (thèse de doctorat, Paris-i Sorbonne, 1997), 66–8.

88 An-Nasiri, al-Istiqsa', v, 131.

89 Carleton S. Coon, ‘North Africa’, in Ralph Linton (ed.), Most of the World: The Peoples of Africa, Latin America and the East Today (New York, 1949), 431.

90 Paul Bowles made several recordings of Moroccan music that included Gnawa performances. One segment is entitled ‘Sudanese slave song in Arabic sung by a Gnawi’. See Paul Bowles, Christopher Wanklyn and Charles F. Gallagher, ‘Morocco, ca. 1959’. This sound recording was deposited at the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1962.

91 Randy Weston and other Western artists who admired the rhythmic richness of the Gnawa – such as Richard Horowitz, Henri Agnel, Pharoah Sanders, Adam Rudolph, Loy Ehrlich and Banning Eyre – helped raise the appreciation of Gnawa art, both inside and outside Morocco.

* I am grateful to my colleagues and friends for their comments, suggestions and contributions to improve this article. My thanks go to Robert Conrad, Tim Cleaveland, Philip Thorne, Yacine Daddi Addoun, Paul Lovejoy, Nichole Green, the editor Emmanuel Akyeampong and the anonymous reviewers of the Journal of African History. I am also grateful for the 2005 summer grant from the American Institute for Maghrib Studies which allowed me to make another research trip to Morocco to gather more information that was crucial in giving me additional insight into the experiences of enslaved black Africans in Morocco.

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