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.