Silky darkness of the Maghreb night is the forge, and the Gnawa are blacksmiths turned alchemists. As the bass notes of the guembri penetrate the subconscious, they reverberate in the nervous system and induce a trance. Seven colours represent the saints in the Gnawa pantheon, and that white blur above is the cloth covering an ecstatic trancer at a Gnawa lila. White is the colour of the spirit company of Mulay Abdelkader Jilali, and during his veneration white benjoin incense burns. A Gnawa lila is a ritual of possession during which trancers, like the one above, fall into a trance and assume the identity of spirits from the pantheon.
Gnawa music has become yet another commercial property, and concerts by Gnawa musicians are now commonplace. But my photos, which were grabbed discretely in impossibly low light with no flash, were not taken at a concert. Due to my work with mystical traditions - I broadcast the Gnawa spirit ritual of the Sons of the Forest in 2008 - I was recently invited to the real thing, an all-night Gnawa lila. This was held in the 18th century Zawiya Sidna Bilal in Essaouira, Morocco seen below, which is the only Gnawa zawiya (lodge) in Morocco. The Gnawa, who practice a form of folk Islam, migrated from black sub-Saharan Africa. They claim descent from Bilal ibn Rabah who was the only black companion of the Prophet, and inhabit a parallel spiritual universe, as the ethnologist Bertrand Hell explains:
The Gnawa call themselves the people of the khla, the hidden part of creation where the genies reign. They are in fact and in essence marginals playing the game of the strange stranger (in the double sense that is contained in the Arabic term gharib). Gatekeepers of a counter world, the Gnawa move in the night and on the limits of the licit. Marked by a fundamental ambiguity, they are transgressors who can handle blood with impunity and can control the most dangerous of forces. Embodying a “troubling strangeness,” these descendants of black slaves see themselves as invested with the most powerful supernatural powersCanadian composer and sound ecologist R. Murray Schafer declared that art should be dangerous, and a Gnawa lila is one of the more dangerous art forms. The cavorting of the ecstatic trancers made moshing look tame, and the Gnawa equivalent of paramedics were on hand to cart their inert forms away and revive them. And there's no chance of faking it, because the trancers are administered a pinch of tobacco - if they really are trancing and in another world they don't sneeze, if they sneeze they are faking it.
Some of the lila was deemed too dangerous for me. The ritual is preceded by a torchlit procession through the town's narrow alleys - see photo below. My host entertained me away from the zawiya until I had seen the procession pass,and I was puzzled as to why we kept talking for thirty minutes instead of following the procession to the start of the lila. It was only later I discovered that immediately before the lila, these "transgressors who can handle blood with impunity" offer a sacrifice in the courtyard of the zawiya to propitiate the spirits. By tradition it should have been a black bull, but I suspect a smaller creature was despatched before I arrived. Later in the night as the lila reached the black segment which invokes the malignant spirits of the sons of the forest, some of the trancers started to wield ugly looking knives. At that point my host suggested that as it was very late it was probably time for me to leave...
When I first looked at my almost abstract photos, I was struck by their similarity to the kinetic art that Norman Perryman improvises to classical music, and I don't think that resemblance is a coincidence. Norman's art explores synaesthesia - the multi-sensory experience caused by crosstalk between the hearing, seeing and smelling sensory channels. A Gnawa lila with its trance inducing rhythms, colours and scents - an incense brazier can be seen in the background in two photos - is the ultimate synaesthetic experience. There is much that Western classical music can learn from the Gnawa; because a lila is a multi-sensory healing ceremony, and similarly a classical concert should be a healing ceremony that placates the spirit. New technology means that we live in a multi-sensory environment, yet despite the visionary work of Scriabin and others classical music remains a strictly mono-sensory experience. William Goldman, the Hollywood script writer, explained that the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment either tells us lies or tells us comforting truisms that we know already, while art tells us uncomfortable truths we probably don't want to hear. By that definition too much classical music today is entertainment, but by the same definition a Gnawa lila is most definitely art. And if anyone still doubts the relevance of a synaesthetic ritual to Western classical music they should look closely at my blurred photos - the audience for the lila is strikingly young.
The Gnawa and Mohammed Tabal by Abdelkader Mana
Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace by Deborah Kapchan.
Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing by Judith Becker
Thanks go again to Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb for his time and wisdom. Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2016. Also on Facebook and Twitter.