In many communities that were previously enslaved, there is a deep appreciation and connection to the culture and music that attests their enslavement, facilitates a connection with their ancestors and God, and brings healing to their community. For the Gnawa people, descendants of slaves in Morocco and Algeria, their entrancing music is deeply ingrained in tradition and is commemorated for bringing about great spiritual healing. During my visit to the Sahara, I sat with a cup of mint tea listening to the intertwining sounds of the drums, castanets and the rich mellow voices of the Gnawa men as they maneuvered their instruments to create a melodic flowing sound.
As I sipped my mint tea amongst others, it wasn’t long before my body succumbed to the claps of the castanets and the sounds of their voices allowing the people in the room to disappear around me. It was then that I fully understood why many define Gnawa music as a spiritual entrancement. The Gnawa people utilize their music to call upon the aid of ancestral saints to protect people from evil spirits and various problems, such as helping persons recover from an illness or a misfortune. As the Gnawa people began to integrate into Moroccan society as well as Islam, they adopted Bilal as one of their ancestors. Bilal is a companion of the Prophet and is the first Black person to convert to Islam. The name of Bilal is ingrained into the lyrics of Gnawa music. Gnawa music is often defined by the Black West Africans belief of being able to reach God only through the spiritual manifestations of the world which serves as an intermediary between the Divine. It is also a cultural representation and display of the displacement and misery of Black slaves stemming from West Africa, which explains its heavy connection to tradition.
Many people draw similarities between Gnawa music and the spiritual dances and music of many groups throughout the African Diaspora due to their desire for ancestral and spiritual connections. For instance, we have begun to compare
Gnawa music to that of Blues, Jazz and Gospel music in America, which has spread over time and gained popularity but still remains underappreciated in many aspects. We also must recognize that the Gnawa people deviate from a lot of the Diaspora because they have maintained their individualized culture despite displacement due to slavery by cultivating their own boundaries and means of integration into the religious, social and spiritual aspects of Moroccan society. In this way, there are a multitude of similarities between the Gnawa people and the creolization of Louisiana by freed Black slaves. The Gnawa people faced and still face many forms of discrimination, but they are not left questioning who they are or where they fit within the sphere of Moroccan society. Their music and spiritual perspectives have greatly impacted popular Moroccan music and allow people from all over the world a view into the history of Black people and our African roots through musical interpretation and spiritual alignment.