We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.
Little Gidding T.S. Elliott
It may seem incongruous to entitle a page about Islamic and African culture with a quote originating from the heart of English literature. There are however substantial reasons for doing so which relate mainly to my own cultural orientation and state of mind. I need to extricate myself a little from affiliation with Morocco.
I have now spent a long time in Morocco, travelling down from the north and visiting interesting sites along the way. My main focus has been visiting Sufi shrines and tombs often associated with zaouias as well as exploring the role of healing illness through music. The two areas are however inter-connected; it is predominantly the Sufi brotherhoods through networks of zaouias which perform traditional healing music. An important addition to this group is the Gnaoua who have no Sufi heritage. Instead they bring ritual and belief from middle Africa and transpose their animist culture into the melange which is multi-ethnic Islamic Morocco. Essentially they perform the same healing role as the Sufi brotherhoods.
The underlying assumption shared across these groups is that invisible spirits range widely throughout society, mostly replicating the lifestyle of humans in their own dimension. Some spirits are considered capricious and hostile and are believed to decide to inhabit or occupy humans which can cause illness, or ‘malady’. The presence of these spirits are given validity by references regarding their creation in the Qu’ran; they are formed from ‘smokeless fire’ whereas humans are formed from ‘clay’. The Qu’ran provides further details about hierarchies of spirits which suggest differentials in terms of associated strengths and powers. Although the more powerful have individual names and significant personality traits, these spirits are collectively called Djinns ( masculine ) and Djnniyya ( female ); and their presence and capability of possession is found right across the Islamic world.
A further assumption shared across these groups is that music, ritual, prayer and animal sacrifice can propitiate the djinn and, inter alia, bring remedy and peace to the afflicted. These are traditional methods of treating illness within a Moroccan society where educaton, money or access to conventional medicine has largely been historically minimised. With modernity now in Morocco, things should have changed. Have they?
Filali Mostafa paints in a small studio in Jotiya, close to the surging waves of the Atlantic ocean. Sourounded by the detritis of a flea market, his paintings of ordered simplicity and detail could not be further away from the unmitigated chaos of the landscape outside of his door.
It is easy to mistake simplicity for lack of content. Filali’s work consistently portrays important themes within Moroccan culture; berber design, jewish symbolism, the marriage ceremony, and superstitions which he believes he remains a victim of.
I had tried on three previous occasions to visit Sidna Blal, the zaouia des Gnawa, but the formidable woman who seemed to live there steadfastly refused all my entreaties to enter. Today I visited with this woman’s son, Youssef, a guimbri player training to achieve Maâlem status like his three uncles Mahmoud, Abdellah and Mokhtar Gania. These are perhaps three of the most famous of all Maâlem from Essaouira.
Youssef’s mother Zaida was a sister to these Maâlem; he said there were originally 7 brothers and 2 sisters in total however all had died except Mohktar and his mother. He said his family had originated from slaves appropriated from Mali.
We waited for his mother at the entrance, the local shopkeeper providing tea. Eventually Zaida Gania arrived and putting out her hand for Youssef to kiss, unlocked the 2 padlocks to allow entry through the heavy door and into the shrine.
In 2016 I wrote an article called The Sacred and the Profane, describing the two forms of Gnaoua music ( see http://sannyassa.co.uk/sacred-profane-gnaoua-world-music-festival-essaouira-2016/ ).
In that article I identified the paradox that lay ahead for the Gnaouia; to survive it had to become more popular, but by becoming popular it denied its sacred form and would slowly kill itself. Today, profane ( or popular ) Gnaoua can be heard throughout Essaouira. I was told that there are now 1000 malleem musicians in the city and private Gnaoua parties are common.
Correspondingly, the sacred form of Gnaoua is now rare. When held, it is mostly found in zaouias, for example that of Sidna Bilal, in Essaouira, or the zaouia of another brotherhood, such as the Hamadcha. It is mostly private and deals exclusively with the interaction between maleem and the jnoun. Of the 1000 malleem reputedly in Essaouira, I have also been told there are less than 10 who are sufficiently skilled or capable of conducting a truly sacred ritual.
The Gnaoua have long sacrificed the absolute sacredality of its music and have evolved public performances which they called xxxxxx. Traditionally a form of healing music where the Mallem ( master musician ) supported by several other musicians and a clairvoyant, negotiated with jinn ( spirits ), fusion with other forms of music brought abouxxxxxxx. Early forms of this fusion was with American jazz players and some rock and blues musicians. The latter included Robert Plant and Jimmy Page who developed a special interest in north African music, attending concerts and festivals.
Famously members of British rock band Led Zeppelin, Page and Plant played with Gnaouia musicians in and around Marrakech in 1993.