Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Another side of Moroccan Culture: Gnaoua and the Layla Rituals

Gnaoua (ga-na-wa) is a musical and cultural tradition that comes out of the West African slave trade. The sleepy beach town of Essaouira in southern Morocco is known for its Gnaouan culture, which came about because it once was a major (slave) trade port on the Western coast of Africa. Today, Essaouira hosts a huge Gnaoua music and culture festival every June to honor its heritage. Many Western musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens (now Youssef Islam) and Eric Clapton spent time in Essaouira and hung out with Gnaouan musicians.  The title of Eric Clapton's famous song "Layla" was inspired by observing one of these cermonies during his time spent in Essaouira. While Gnaouan's religious beliefs are rooted in Islam, it is a very spiritual interpretation - venerating spirits and martyrs during particular rituals. The Gnaoua tradition hold many paralells to Voodoo and Santeria, which makes sense, if you consider the Golden Triangle of trade and slavery between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Voodoo and Santeria are both practiced in the region of the Carribbean, but are considered to have come over from Africa by the slave trade.



The traditional costumes and instruments used in the Gnaoua tradition distinguish it from all other coexisting cultures in Morocco. The first thing you notice is how much the costumes are influenced aesthetically by sub-Saharan culture and tradition. Many of the musicians and performers have darker skin and long dreaded hair, their robes are made of brightly colored fabric (typically red, green, yellow, and/or white) and traditional hats are decorated with colored beads and cowrie shells.

The hat pictured below is an example of the style of hat that Gnaouis wear while performing. They bob their head around and manage to swing the tassle around their head as they play (I say 'manage' because it is harder than it looks - trust me!). Swinging the tassle around as their head sways from side to side gives the impression to the audience that they are being entranced by the music.


The Hajhouj
This instrument is an integral part of any Gnaoua music group. It is a three-stringed acoustic instrument with a deep haunting sound. The strings are made with animal intestines (usually goat or sheep), the base is made out of wood, and the front of the instrument is covered with animal hide (usually camel or goat). The hajhouj is played very similar to a guitar, except with its added ability of acting simultaneously as percussion. Instead of strumming or plucking across the strings as you would a guitar or bass, players of the hajhouj strum or pluck downwards so their fingertips tap the animal hide, creating a percussive sound.



An interesting fact about the hajhouj : if you turn it on its side it resembles a slave ship

Percussion - Karkabo


The Karkabo percussion used in Gnaoua music is played in a similar way to Spanish castanets, placing the two pieces between your thumb and pointer finger. The sound of the metal clacking together is meant to conjure up the sound of slave chains.

The Layla Rituals

The Layla rituals, literally meaning night rituals, take place during the month before Ramadan. Laylas are a spiritually cathartic ritual that begins when the sun sets and ends at sunrise. People who believe they are ill due to a spiritual imbalance come to the Layla to be healed. Every night, a woman hosts the ritual in her home and invites a maalem (master, teacher) of Gnaoua to come with his musicians and lead the ceremony. 

During the layla, participants go on a spiritual journey where each transition is marked by different colors, incense, music style, and spirits evoked. Every person feels that they have a personal connection to a particular color and/or spirit, and when that color/spirit is evoked, they respond in a particular way, which I will elaborate on below.

White:  The color to start off the Layla, open the doors into the spirit world, and invite the spirits in. The musicians sing about marabouts, or saints, who believed in human equality and who spread the word of Islam. Both of these qualities are fundamental to the Gnaoua tradition because of its roots in both the West African slave trade and the Islamic faith. 

Green: During the green color, the spirits have been invited but no activity has happened yet. One of the major spirits that the lyrics evoke during this color is Moulay Abdelkader Jilali, who is a descendant of the prophet Mohammed. 

Light Blue: Color of the water spirits. During this section, the music evokes Sidi Moussa, the master of the water. We sing to Sidi Moussa to acknowledge that he provides us with water, and to show our respect. During this color, those who believe to be possessed by this spirit do a dance that looks like they are swimming to the rhythm of the music. 

Here is a clip from a Gnaoua group playing the song for Sidi Moussa:


Dark Blue: Color of the sky spirits, particularly Bou Yandi, the master of the sky spirits.  Those who are possessed by sky spirits begin to jump up into the air as if they are flying to the rhythm of the music.

Red: This color is known for its violent behavior, and logically it represents blood. Sidi Hamou is the major spirit of blood. When the music begins for this color, those that feel they are possessed by this color do a full bow facing into the circle in front of the musicians and then proceed by taking out knives and begin slashing themselves and dancing to the rhythm of the music. Oddly enough, it is believed that even though they are cutting themselves and they are bleeding, there will be no sign of it ever happening once the layla is over and the sun comes up.

Green: The color green returns for a second time, but with a different significance. This section of the layla ceremony is used as a way for everyone to relax after the intensity of the red color and to honor certain people/spirits who have or continue to do good in the world. Two popular venerated saints for this color are Moulay Abdellah and Moulay Abdelrahim. 

Black: This color is the spirit of the forests, which contains so many spirits that they split the color into two sections. The first section is for "big" spirits and the second is for "small" spirits. The first "big" spirit that is mentioned is Lalla Mimouna, who is the guardian of the door. We must appeal to her first if we want the door opened to the forest spirit world. Dancers who feel they are connected with the spirit Sidi Mimoun hold lit candles and dance around while brushing their skin with the flames. After the "big" spirits, the music moves onto the "small" spirits, which are numerous. One aspect that separates this color from the others is the way the music is played. During Black, the musicians follow the lead of the dancers, speeding up the rhythm as the dancing accelerates. The music doesn't stop until the dancers cannot dance anymore and collapse on the ground. 

Lalla Aicha: While she is associated with the Black/Forest spirits, her importance lets her stand alone. Lalla Aicha was a beautiful woman who lived in Morocco during the 15th century when the Portugese expansion led to their occupation of the country. It is believed that Lalla Aicha only left the house at night, when she would seduce and then kill Portugese soldiers. 

Here is a clip of a Gnaoua group playing the song for Lalla Aicha:


Yellow: As the sun starts to make its first light on the horizon it is time to begin Yellow, which is the color for feminine spirits, such as Lalla Mira and Lalla Maliki. 

Finally, as dawn approaches, all the guests, participants, and musicians come together for a large prayer, where they ask God to continue to protect them and their country. When morning comes, everyone packs up, says their goodbyes, and goes home to catch up on sleep.

The information in this blog post about Layla ceremonies was taken from a presentation on Gnaoua culture done at my work. Fareed, an incredibly talented Gnaoua and jazz musician, came to talk to our students about his culture and perform a few songs. He is the singer and bassist of a gnaoua/rock/jazz fusion band called "Mayara". You really can hear the blend of cultural influences in their sound - African, Carribbean, Arab...

Here is a music video of one of their songs, "Haly Gnaoui":