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.
Built in the 18th century the zaouia is a small discrete building located in the Bni Anear district in the west of the medina at the foot of the ramparts fronting the sea. ‘Zaouïa’ is the generic term describing a religious and learning centre normally sheltering the tomb of a saint. Followers gather there, pray there and study religious scriptures. Although there is no saint’s tomb in Sidna Blal, the zaouia is the only permanent sanctuary for the Gnaouias in the whole of Morocco. Similarly, the oldest Gnaoua brotherhood in Morocco resides in Essaouira; its zaouia is Sidna Blal.
The name Sidna Blal pays homage to a freed black slave and companion of the prophet Mohamed; Sidba Bilal was the first muezzin of Islam.
Today we didn’t have long; the zaouia doesnt normally open on a Saturday, and Youssef had asked his mother to open especially for me, under the condition that some ‘baraka’ would be forthcoming. It was all a rush. The zaouia was generally similar to others I had seen; the major differences were in the colour design and the ceramics. Although the colours were darker and more austere than other zaouias, and the use of reds and browns more sombre, unusually there was a pattern of colours above the patio obscuring the windows there. Youssef was to tell me more about this later.
The blue and green zellige of the fountain seemed more discordant against the red and brown of the tiled walls and floors than the ceramic style in most zaouias I have seen. Youssef said this spot is where animal sacrifices are conducted at the beginning of a Lila ( an all night spiritual ritual intended to heal participants of illnesses caused by jinn possession ), pointing to the cord hanging down from the wooden bar coming out of the wall. He said that sacrifices still occur, sheep, goat and bulls, but only at major festivals and said the next festival was that of Sha’ban, just before Ramadan. He said they had sacrificed a ‘toro’ at last years festival, the purpose of which, as always, was to attract the Jinn ( spirits ) by the gesture of sacrifice. The meat later feeds the crowd assembled there.
He showed me the large arcade directly opposite the entrance and explained that is where musicians sit at festivals and rituals. During a Lila, the floor is covered with lavish carpets and cushions. The Maâlem guimbri player, the master of ceremonies, sits in the middle against the wall, with qraqeb players either side. Some of the qraqeb players are also dancers. In front of the musicians the moqadma and those seeking healing participate in the succession of rituals, using linen sheets of different colours and a variety of incense which, together with the drone of the guimbri and clack of the qraqebs, induce trance. The trance can be regarded as a form of ‘hadra’, or ‘presence with Allah; another term for the trance state is ‘hal’. It is whilst in this state that the guimbri of the Maâlem communicates with and entreats the jinn.
According to tradition, the Gnaoua heal by their music, summoning spirits to soothe and heal the suffering.
Youssef called me upstairs and on the first floor he pointed out the row of colours ( white, blue, red, green, black, yellow ) covering the windows of the gallery. He said these were the colours of the m’luk, or the 7 king jinns which are attracted by the sacrifice of an animal. During the lila (also called a derdeba), the seven spirits are evoked through around 100 chants. Because the m’luk must be invoked in a certain order the Lila follows a regulated path throughout the night, each stage marked by a particular sensory ritual of sound (music, song), sight (colors), smell (incense), and movement (dance). When a melk ( singular of m’luk ) is invoked, the Gnawa play its corresponding music, sing its corresponding invocations, dress the “trancers” in the appropriate colors, and burn the corresponding incense.
Youssef leads me further along concrete stairs until we reach the terrace, a large grey space overlooking the rocky foreshore and the Atlantic ocean. Here Youssef points out the small beach below, surrounded by the rocks, where, besides the crashing waves, the Gnaoua used to undertake their rituals, songs and dances in times before they were given their sanctuary, the zaouia.
The terrace is a large area, and looks partially back towards the waterfront properties of the Scala. There is discarded debris and detritis from building works and unwanted furnishings all around. In the midst of the waste items Youssef points out what seems to be the ruffled remnants of an old skin beside a carpet; he said it was the remains of the bull of last year’s sacrifice.
He pointed out that a favoured viewing point of the Lila was looking down from the top of the terrace onto the music and activities below. From here the patio appeared diminutive but distance provided an ideal opportunity to see the geometric pattern of the tiled flooring for the first time. As the only zaouïa of a Gnaoua brotherhood in Morocco, it is an important part of the cultural heritage of both the city and the country. To prevent its deterioration, some souiris and patrons in 2006 founded the Dar Gnaoui association. The association renovated and rehabilitated the zaouia, restoring its colors and functionality. Since this time the Dar Gnaoui association has worked for safeguarding the cultural heritage of the Gnaoua and the zaouia Sidna Bilal.
We returned to the first floor and saw the space where Youssef said was used for eating at festivals. This was a large unadorned cement space again with some detritis laying around, and a space partially separated by a white sheet.
We hurried downstairs to meet his mother Zaida Gania, my former nemesis who had kept me from entering the temple for so long. She had been a formidable and worthy adversary, unfailingly not responding to customary offers of ‘baraka’, impervious to persuasion.
Youssef explained that many people had abused the zaouia previously by drinking and being otherwise anti-social and disrespectful whilst on the premises. The zaouia is now only open to the public on festival days when a ceremony or ritual is being performed. The remainder of the time a metal barrier is in place at the doorway and Zaida defends the rule with conviction.
Smiling warmly she again shook my hand. I tried to look behind her into the room which, to the left, seemed to contain all the paraphernalia of the rituals and festivity; colourful carpets, cloths, banners and a plethora of receptacles and other utensils. She firmly said no; the room was only for the moqadma and for women. Behind Zaida, and to the right, was a kitchen which feeds substantial numbers of celebrants at a festival.
Zaida had become the moqadma in 1997, following the death of Najib Soudani’s father, Hajjoub “Goubani” Soudani. Unlike the former moqadem, whose family lived in the zaouia, Zaida’s family live outside of the medina. She returns only to do her work there. The responsibilities of a moqadma are considerable. As well as assisting at rituals and ceremonies, where a full understanding of the Lila ritual, assisting the Maâlem with each variation of colour, incense and song, as well as a natural affinity with the M’luk, is required, the role also extends to the daily responsibility for the zaouia.
Sometimes moqadmas are married to Maâlem guimbri players and mostly work uniquely together. Zaida’s husband is a musician but not a Maâlem; he is a proficient ghaita player playing locally himself, though he also plays and supports at Gnaoua festivals, as do all Gania family members. Without being attached uniquely to a Maâlem, Zaida assists a number of Maâlems at festivals.
Youssef also explained that women also come to the zaouia for healing outside of major rituals and Zaida will offer treatments undertaking traditional methods. These may involve Shawafa, rituals regarded as ‘magic’, intended to expel spirits which cause ‘malady’. Whereas at other zaouias men seem to play a predominant role, it is quickly apparent at Sidna Blal that it is a woman’s world. This is further signified by the formation of an all woman’s Sufi chanting and drumming group called Haddarat Zaida Gania.
My time had expired all too soon and both Zaida and Youssef are keen to close up and depart. Before they do so it is agreed I can return for another visit during the week. It seems my baraka was well received.
I thank them very much for their kindness and walk back out into a normal world.
Gnaoua and Slavery
The tradition of Gnaoua music dates back to the 16th century. Slaves from Sudan were brought to the Haha territory ( a Berber tribe south of Essaouira ) where they worked there at the local sugar factories. In 1760, with the construction of the harbour and the medina in Mogador ( original name of Essaouira, Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah brought further slaves from Senegal, Sudan and Ghana. Gnaouia songs tell about the painful march through the Sahara desert and the sufferings of slavery.
Other slaves came to Essaouira via the Timbuctoo caravans or were enrolled by the French army in the beginning of the 20th century,
Another black brotherhood is the Ganga, to the east of Essaouira. The Ganga were named after a big drum .Most of the Ganga did work on the Saadien sugar plantations during the reign of Ahmed Al Mansour in the 16th century.
The grande caids in the region of Essaouira had about 400 black slaves, bought and sold within the markets of Mogadoe and Marrakech.
On his English friendly website here, Maalem Hicham Merchane writes :
The Gnawa originally used their music, songs and dance to heal the pain of their captivity. Gnawa lyrics contain many references to the privations of exile and slavery. Some songs express the trauma of being displaced and the deep hurt of losing their homes. This is well illustrated in the following songs:
They brought from the Sudan
The nobles of this country brought us
They brought us to serve them
They brought us to bow to them
The Sudan, oh! Sudan
The Sudan, the land of my people
I was enslaved, I was sold,
I was taken away from my loved ones