One of the charms of visiting different cultures is exploring the hidden nooks and crannies and discovering areas of well used and tarnished, but living, cultural landscapes. One of those areas could once be found in the old harbour area of Tangiers, a centuries old sanctuary of buccaneering. The harbour once contained a boat repair yard which was a veritable graveyard for unrepairable boats and a busy, noise filled area for boats actually being repaired. All boats would be monolithic chunks of sculpted wood designed to survive the uncompromising seas, tides and weathers around the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean sea.
All the boats contained veritable scars and welts from their travails; battered and split wooden hulls, scratched and striated coats of paint demonstrating different levels of decay. The repair process was arduous and time-consuming, though boat owners, chandlers and carpenters never seemed in a hurry. There was a timelessness and the yard seemed exactly the same irrespective of the number of times visited or the months between each visit.
My last visit there was several years ago where I met a friend Liesbeth and we ate mackerel from one of the small cafes that lined its walls. As we ate, the bite from the sea salt on the breeze merged with the smell of wood and tarps, and the the heavy smell of diesel. What sprang out from this semi-industrial landscape was the adornment of colours and writings on the hulls of many of the boats. It was like a picture gallery.
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?
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.
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.