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.
Essaouira is one of the primary locations in Morocco where Gnaoua music comes to a focus. The Gnaoua World and Music Festival, unique in Morocco and held annually in Essaouira, is indicative of the cultural significance that Gnaoua music has in Essaouira.
Gnaoua is the music of the former slaves appropriated from Niger and surrounding countries by Moulay Ismael. Having no written history, the songs and the music constitutes their living history. Whenever their songs are played, parts of their history and philosophies are retold.
I attended a night of Gnaoua music in nearby Diabat several nights ago. Below are some photographs from that night.
Downtown Mogadishu, circa 1991, amidst scenes depicting what appears to be the Somali Civil War, has temporarily been relocated to Essaouira. It is the location for a movie being made, so I am advised, by a South Korean film company.
By the large murals on the sides of houses the movie appears to be about the rule of Somalian dictator Siad Barre who came to power in 1969 following a coup. Subsequent to introducing radical change and instigating human rights abuses he was removed from power in the 1991 Civil War and died in exile in 1995.
It is ironic though that a south Korean film company is producing the film when Barre had such strong links with the north Korean government, sharing the ideals of a ‘one party Marxist-Lenninist state’.
More of his life can be read here and here
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.
The zaouia/koubba of Sidi Ishaq is located beautifully on the Atlantic coast. It is a short caleche ride along sandy tracks from the small town of Sidi Ishaq some 3 miles inland. The caleche park is situated in the centre of the town just off the R301 which dramatically follows the coast as far north as Safi.
The final stage of the journey, when the koubba can first be seen against the surf and the track drops down to the small sandy delta of the dried up river, is spectacular.
I can find no information about Sidi Ishaq, other than the shrine is a part of the Regraga annual pilgrimage throughout the Chiadme region.