Essaouira Mogador is a town at the Atlantic coast of Morocco

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Morocco's gnaoua (or gnawa ) tradition is the music where Arab and black sub-Saharan Africa meet. With its special mix of African magic and Islamic rituals. Gnaoua rituals combines both music and acrobatic dancing to create trance and healing.

The Gnawa religious brotherhood are the descendants of West African slaves who were brought northward (Guinea, Mali ) but they claim their spiritual descent from Bilal al-Habashi, the Ethiopian who served as the Prophet Muhammad's first muezzin, a person who calls the Muslim faithful to prayer.


Musicians parading in the medina on the opening day of the Gnaoua Festival.

Festival d´Essaouira Gnaoua
Musique du monde 2017

Festival Gnaoua 2017 poster

See more posters here



A boy playes the  qarqba´s

The Gnaoua festival of Essaouira
is hold every year in June.

The 23rd edition of the Festival Gnaoua
should have been from 25 June to 28 June in 2020
but due to the Covid 19 pandemic it was cancelled
and while waiting for the 23rd edition of the Gnaoua Festival in 2023 they invented the year 2022 the GNAOUA FESTIVAL TOUR. See the calendar of the
Essaouira Festival of Gnaoua and World Music



Inscribed in 2019 (14.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Gnawa Old and young


Maalem Mahmoud Guinea and the dancing boy
The Gnaoua festival 2009

The most important gnaoua ritual is the Lila (also called a derdeba), an all-night, healing trance ceremony led by a maâlem, or master musician. Here the seven spirits are evoked through around 100 chants. The first part of the Lila is profan and tells about the history of the ancestors (Oulad Banbara-children of the Banbara)
Especially in the Muslim month of Sha'aban, which is just before Ramadan, there are "leelahs" held in the gnawa community.
Their ecstatic dances remind of the voodoo cult. Gnaoua music has a great socio-psychological importance, as it is supposed to heal diseases.

Festival Gnoua

African roots

The tradition of Gnaoua music dates back to the 16th century, when Sudanese slaves were brought to the Haha territory (an Berber tribe). They worked at the sugar factories. In 1760, with the construction of the harbour and the medina, Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah brought a lot of Black slaves from Senegal, Sudan and Ghana to Essaouira. Their songs tell about the painful march through the Sahara desert and the sufferings of slavery “Ouled Banbara”.A part of the Gnaoua of Essaouira comes from the Senegalese of the colonial times.

In the west lives the Gnaoua (Sidna Bilal). Some of their ancesters had worked with the construction of the town in 18th century.Others came here vy the Tombouctou caravanes or was enrolled by the French army in the beginning of the 20th century, They animate the rites of possession, organize moussems(The month of Chaâbane) and go for pilgrimage to Moulay Brahim on the Mouloud.


Another black brotherhood is the Ganga, in the east, named after the big drum .Most of the Ganga did work on the Saadien sugarplantations during the reign of Ahmed Al Mansour 16th century.
The grande caids in the region of Essaouira had about 400 black.slaves.


Gnaoua musician with his guembri

In Morocco, a Gnaoua group always consists of the master (maâlem) and the musicians. The instruments they use are the guembri (gimbri,sintir,hajhuj), a long lute with three strings, the qraqeb (qarqba,karkabas), large, metal castanets and the tabal (, "ganga"), a cylindrical, wooden drum.

Gnaoua musician with qraqebs



The name gnaoua (gnawa) appears to originate from the Saharan Berber dialect word aguinaw (or agenaou) , meaning "black (men). This word in turn is possibly derived from the name of a city significant in the 11th century, in what is now western Mali, called Gana, in Arabic Ghana or Jenna and in Portuguese and later French Guinea or Jenné.

"During religious ceremonies , Gnaouas have been known to impale themselves on swords or beat their heads with iron balls without sustaining visible external injury .........
the musicians invoke the entities, the «mlouk» or «melk»(sing.)."

The mluk (sing. melk) are abstract entities that gather a number of similar jinn (genie spirits). The participants enter a trance state (jedba) in which they may perform spectacular dances. By means of these dances, participants negotiate their relationships with the mluk either placating them if they have been offended or strengthening an existing relationship. The mluk are evoked by seven musical patterns, seven melodic and rhythmic cells, who set up the seven suites that form the repertoire of dance and music of the Gnawa ritual. During these seven suites, seven different types of incense are burned and the dancers are covered by veils of seven different colours.

Each of the seven families of mluk is populated by many "characters" identifiable by the music and by the footsteps of the dance. Each melk is accompanied by its specific colour, incense, rhythm and dance. These entities, treated like "presences" (called hadra, Arabic: حضرة) that the consciousness meets in ecstatic space and time, are related to mental complexes, human characters, and behaviors. The aim of the ritual is to reintegrate and to balance the main powers of the human body, made by the same energy that supports the perceptible phenomena and divine creative activity.



The Gnaoua Brotherhood (Zaouia of Sidna Bilal/ Boulal) reside in the Zaouia, which is located in the west part of the medina, Bni Antar.

Zaouia  Sidnas Blal


Zaouia Sidna Blal


See also
The Gnaoua Festival



Mahmoud Guinia

El Maaâllem Mahmoud Guinia

an Essaouira ICON!


Gnawa Postcard

From: The Casas-Rodríguez Postcard Collection

Gnaoua plate

A Gnaoua plate

The Gnaoua magazine

Three years after arriving in Tangier, Cohen produced the now classic one-shot magazine Gnaoua in 1964. According to his introduction: “GNAOUA after Black African sect in Morocco known for ecstatic dancing and procession trances...Each spirit which possesses the dancer has a specific gesture and musical phrase associated with it. The object is EXCORCISM.” Gnaoua was a reflection of the expatriate Beat community in Tangier with which Cohen was associated. Its contributors included William S. Burroughs, Ian Sommerville, Brion Gysin, Harold Norse, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, J. Sheeper (Irving Rosenthal), Jack Smith, Stuart Gordon, and Alfred Jarry (translated by George Andrews).

The archive comprises all aspects of Gnaoua’s production, including artwork, manuscripts, correspondence, mailing list, plates, and proofs.

In 1964, Cohen visited Amsterdam on route to Antwerp to arrange the printing of Gnaoua. While there, he met the Dutch poet, writer, and “lifelong hippie” Simon Vinkenoog, who would become a close friend and translator of Cohen’s poetry.

Cohen’s Gnaoua Press published The Founding Pig by Aymon de Roussy de Sales in 1966 (included in the archive is a copy of the book inscribed by the author, along with the mock-up containing original artwork of the entire book), and the underground classic The Hashish Cookbook (1967) by Panama Rose (Rosalind Schwartz).

While living in Tangier, Cohen met Living Theatre member and writer Mel Clay. The two experimented making cut-ups together. It was through Clay that Cohen formed his close relationship with The Living Theatre that resulted in his living and traveling with member Petra Vogt and producing Marty Topp’s film, Paradise Now: The Living Theatre in Amerika. In 1968, Cohen was arrested and fined $10 for obstructing a police officer trying to shut down The Living Theatre at Yale University.

Source: The Ira Cohen Archive Granary Books

Jimi Hendrix plays a gunbri

Jimi Hendrix with a guenbri. Jimi spent 11 days in Essaouira in July 1969
and he is a legend and many myths about Jimy Hendrix is a vital part in Essaouiran culture.
Read more about what is thrue about it here.


Liens en français

Les Gnaouas


Gnawa musique


English links:

Gnawa at Diabat

Malleem Najib Soudani : Gnawa of Essaouira

The seven colors of Gnawa

Pilgrimage : Moulay Brahim and the Gnaoua

Khamlia Gnawa Music Rituals


Gnaua, gnaoua,gnawa,


Music Gnaoua

External Links


Gnawa Music

The Gnaoua Festival

Official site

Listen to:

Mustapha Bakbou A 1980