Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Part of Me in Morocco: Gnaouan Music and It's Ethiopian Influence

One thing that has stood out for me on a few occasions are the Gnaouan people of Morocco. The Gnaouan are a group of individuals in Morocco that seem to hold an important part in the musical culture of the land. I am sure they are also looked to in other cultural media, but we, as American tourist, have been privy to the musical aspect of the culture of the Gnaouan. What is fascinating to me is the resemblance that the Gnaouans have to a popular part of the Ethiopian musical tradition.
Though I was born in the United States, my parents migrated to the US 3 years before I was born. So much of my social life was based on a fusion of American everyday life with Ethiopian cultural representations. While I played basketball, video games, and ate McDonald's much of the time like any typical American kid in the 80's, I also ate injera, knew how to dance iskista, and understood a language looked at confusedly by the non-Ethiopians around me.
Now, traveling through Morocco and absorbing all that it has to offer, one of the aspects that seems to tug at my soul is that of the Gnaouan and their music. We visited a group of Gnaouans in a small brick and clay room, a structure that we drove what I would guess was between 30 - 45 minutes from our hotel to reach, passing very few small, organized communities. (An example of the communities we passed was a home of a family that we stopped to drop small tokens of what we thought they might enjoy. The home had a maximum of 3 other small properties a good few hundred feet from each other...and that was it. There was not another structure in site for as long as the eye could see).
When we walked in to the small structure, the 4 men and one teenage boy that made up the Gnaouan performers had already started. We sat down and were treated to tea by another gentleman who was not part of the performing, dressed in traditional Gnaouan attire. It resembled the Nech Libs that is traditional for men to wear in many Ethiopian communities of old, and even now during holidays, celebrations, and I imagine in some parts of Ethiopia as well.
The next thing that struck me as very familiar was, sometime during the middle of their time-honored dance, they began to move their shoulders up and down. This is not a dance that I have found typical in most of Africa. In Ethiopia, however, a very popular dance that we have is called Iskista. It is one that requires the dancer to move only the shoulders (and you are free to move it just about however you want to the beat).
When this first song ended, the next obvious sign of resemblance to Ethiopian culture was one of the instruments played by one of the Gnaouan men. It is a big bassed drum called a Tbel. Though I have seen smaller versions played in parts of west Africa, its size, sound, and the tempo at which it was played reminded me of the same drum found in the Ethiopian churches.
Along with these two examples, our stay in Essaouira, a gorgeous city along the waters of the Atlantic, provided a third example. While waiting for our food at an out door restaurant in the medina of Essaouira, we were serenaded by 3 Gnaouans. One of the instruments played by one of the Gnaouans was strikingly similar to an instrument in Ethiopia called a Masinqo. Made up of seemingly the same parts (a bow, and what can be described as a one string violin), the melodic sound that flowed from the instrument was identical to that of the Masinqo. To top it off, one of the other performers, for a few seconds, broke out into the same shoulder dance that we witnessed with the Gnaouans in the small home.
In asking questions (something I do often), I learned (unofficially) that the Gnaouans originated in east Africa. At some point in their history they began migrating north and west, eventually settling in modern-day Morocco, as well as other regions of north and west Africa. It seems clear, though I will have to do actual research, that the Gnaouans have strong ties to Ethiopia, at least musically. While it seems they kept a few of the traditions in that light, we see many other aspects of the Gnaouan musical culture that do not resemble Ethiopia as I know it. The Krakebs (iron castinets, a potentially Spanish influence), the language of the song (entirely Arabic), and some of the dances all suggest the modern-day Gnaouans have been impacted by their environment over time. What I find captivating every time I watch them perform is that it also holds historic roots in what I find has had a strong impact in my life. Who would have known that I would find a specific part of me in Morocco.

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