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World Music Features

The Gnaoua begin their ceremony at sunset and don’t quit till it returns.

A Life En-Tranced: The Mythic Journey of Morocco’s Gnaoua

By Derek Beres
Published September 1, 2005

Morocco’s Gnawa (or Gnaoua) are a mystical sect that uses music to attain a transcendent state. They are also healers who exist in a world where imagination is fact.


Trance has become a rather suspect word in modern culture. While neo-hippies and clubheads attach it to forms of music to “take you beyond,” suburbanites couldn’t imagine anything more dangerous in a God-fearing citizenry. The idea of “losing oneself” is not kosher in a society based on hierarchical political/religious systems; when God is viewed as a constant judge nitpicking our every movement, this is an understandable reaction. But there’s little coincidence that the poetry/philosophy/music of the Middle and Far East are becoming so prominent in a culture deliriously dependent on pharmaceutical verification. We think of the great Sufi poet Rumi, whose sublime poetics now grace millions of calendars and self-help novels nationwide.

            What Rumi was hip to was mysticism, another oft-misconstrued concept. The Sufis of Islam are paralleled in every faith: Judaism’s Kabbalists, Christianity’s Mystics (and to some extent, Gnostics and Knights Templar), Zen Buddhists, Hinduism’s Sadhus, and Shamans, from Russian origins to Native Americans. In a very awkward nutshell, mystics commune with spirits and return with medicine, be it spiritual lessons, poetry, music, etc. There is the realm of alchemy we can turn to: the shifting of energies to transform material situations, people, events and places. But before entering that discussion, we turn to Morocco’s “mystical” sect, the Gnaoua.

            We put mystical in quotes because there is nothing unattainable—or, in hipster New Age rhetoric, “transcendent”—about it. Like the modern worker who focuses on a trade to master it, the mystic contemplates union with cosmic, as well as intensely personal, forces. Descendants of former African slaves arriving over five centuries ago, the Gnaoua use music as means of attaining this. Their main instruments—krakebs, metal clappers and the guembri, or sintir, a three-cord lute drum with low register—lead a rite of possession (derdeba) throughout the night (lila). Thus known as lila derdeba, the Gnaoua begin their ceremony at sunset and don’t quit till it returns.

            Already we find a Western counterpart in the African slaves brought to America, who used music to overcome brutal living/working conditions. Gospel, the fusion of homeland African religion and Christianity, has a similar effect as the lila derdeba, as well as kirtan (chanting) in India: through repetition one is entranced, giving up completely his or her self for the Self, that luminous entity sometimes referred to as God, or, as Carl Jung preferred, the Collective Unconscious. In this state, Gnaoua commune with mlouk, supernatural entities. Similar to the yogic samadhi, the latter clearing the mind of any thought, the former merging with mlouk. At root, both are unions (both “religion” and “yoga” mean “to bind”), the difference being one is done sitting in meditation while the other through dance.