A gaggle of older men in djellabas were sitting outside of the main entrance into the zaouia of Moulay Abdel Hussein, the grandfather of Moulay Brahim who’s tomb and zaouia resides a little further south in the foothills of the Atlas mountains. Both grandfather and grandson and their zaouias, play significant roles in a ritual which forms part of the living history of the Sidna Bilal Gnaoua brotherhood; a history which is primarily contained in the very music and rituals it performs.
“You will fly over the ocean,” he continued, “by the power of baraka, the blessing of Sidi Moulay Brahim, tair lajbal, indicating the spirit bird that flies over the Atlas Mountains”
Memoir of a Berber by Hassan Ouakrim
Late on my final afternoon in Meknes in early June 2019 I decided to investigate an interesting religious building I had seen whilst travelling to the holy pilgrimage town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun by bus several days earlier. This building was situated next to a cemetery on the main ring road which surrounds Meknes close to Bab Berdaine.
I walked under Bab Berdaine and out of the Medina. From the ring road the view was uninterrupted across countryside as far as the range of hills in the distance where, on the invisible side and out of sight, Moulay Idriss’ mausoleum nestled within a valley. The landscape was burnished by the early June sun. Beside me, as I walked, cars, motor cycles and buses slowly filed by, their noise destroying an otherwise peaceful afternoon.
Despite its less traditional interpretation of Muslim faith, Morocco remains a devout country. Mosques remain the centres where Islam is worshipped, but a series of other religious institutions, called Zaouias, have an immersive spiritual and civic role. These are often formed around a particular saint or Sidi and maintained by that person’s family.
A variety of spiritual, cultural and civic activities occur at these centres. Reflecting the spiritual nature of traditional Gnawa music, two Zawiyas hosted a number of concerts over the Gnawa festival. These events started at 11pm and lasted about 3 hours. They took the form of shorter ‘lilas’, where music, incense, dance and trance encourages personal transformation and relief from either illness or spirit-possession. Possession by djinns ( bad spirits ) remains a commonly held belief today.
These photographs depict members of the Zaouia Aïssaoua preparing for the procession and opening of the 19th Gnaoua and World Music Festival, commencing 12th May 2016 at Essaouira. I had visited most of the zouias in Essaouri several days earlier and this particular brotherhood was the most welcoming of all, inviting me back to watch their preparations.