Spirits of Islam resound in a synagogue

Moroccan Gnawa rituals revolve around the possession of trancers by a pantheon of spirits represented by different colours. From black sub-Saharan Africa the Gnawa tradition of music and trance migrated north into Morocco where its animistic origins fused with elements of Islam. On previous visits to the Moroccan town of Essaouira I have attended a Gnawa lila and visited the abandoned mellah- Jewish quarter. Now my research prior to returning to Essaouira again has uncovered a little-known and unexpected Gnawa ritual for Jewish spirits that is believed to have been widely practised before the Jews departed from Morocco*.

Known as the sebtiyyin, the ritual for Jewish spirits is rarely performed today. Although some of the possessing spirits, such as the blue spirit Sidi Musa and white Lalla Aisha, are shared, the sebtiyyin embraces a repertoire very different to orthodox Gnawa. Specifically Jewish spirits such as Da'ud (King David) are introduced as is iconography from Judaism. My header image is taken from a rare 2017 performance of Jewish Gnawa repertoire in the B'nai Israel Synagogue, Baltimore. Watch the complete performance on video via this link.

* Primary source for this post is the newly-published and recommended The Gnawa Lions: Authenticity and Opportunity in Moroccan Ritual Music by Christopher Witulski supplemented by Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace by Deborah Kapchan, Memory, Music and Religion: Morocco's Mystical Chanters by Earle H. Waugh, and the very difficult to find The Gnawa and Mohamed Tabal by Abdelkader Mana published in Morocco

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