Marrakech shopkeepers are teaching Gnawa music

By Shirley Chan

MARRAKECH, Morocco – Jemaa el Fnaa isn’t the only place to discover Gnawa music in Marrakech anymore.

“[Tourists] come to Marrakech, they go to the big square – the only place you can see Gnawa,” said Simo Alkhadi, shopkeeper and founder of Gnaoua Academy. “[Gnawa musicians] don’t give them a while to listen to the music, they come directly and ask for the money.”

In the bustling souks beyond the famous square, two shopkeepers are teaching Gnawa music in their shops.

A hand-painted sign of Gnaoua Academy is displayed at the front of Simo Alkhadi’s shop Marrakech Fox Hole. Photo by Shirley Chan
A hand-painted sign of Gnaoua Academy is displayed at the front of Simo Alkhadi’s shop Marrakech Fox Hole. Photo by Shirley Chan

Gnawa music is a genre of traditional Moroccan music  that originated with the enslaved sub-Saharan Africans who were brought to Morocco and eventually integrated into Berber culture. It originated in the present-day tourism capital of Marrakech and coastal city of Essaouira, both cities which are historically known for slave trade with the trans-Saharan countries.

In October, Simo Alkhadi, 30, started an association called Gnaoua Academy at his recently renovated arts and crafts shop Marrakech Fox Hole.

Alkhadi relocated from northern Morocco to Marrakech at the age of 21 to find more work while playing music, including Gnawa, on the side. He developed a passion for Gnawa music as a child, but music in general isn’t taught in Moroccan schools so he wasn’t formally taught to play Gnawa music. He learned through playing with Gnawa masters.

Alkhadi, 30, poses in front of his handmade metalwork art and other merchandise in his shop. Photo by Shirley Chan
Alkhadi, 30, poses in front of his handmade metalwork art and other merchandise in his shop. Photo by Shirley Chan

Two local Gnawa masters teach lessons twice a week. One performs at a local hotel and the other sells Gnawa instruments in the medina. They teach an average of 10 students per lesson.

To become a Gnawa master one must memorize the hundreds of Gnawa songs. The collection of  music isn’t written down so all of the songs must be taught and memorized.

“They are free to know about this music – to come and listen,” said Alkhadi, who opens his shop to anyone to enjoy Gnawa music during his nightly jam sessions.

 The space in the back of Marrakech Fox Hole is used for the Gnawa lessons on Mondays and Wednesdays. Photo by Shirley Chan

The space in the back of Marrakech Fox Hole is used for the Gnawa lessons on Mondays and Wednesdays. Photo by Shirley Chan

On the other side of the square, a dark alleyway in the Kessabine Souk lined with traditional Berber instruments leads to Bob Magic Music, a music shop that has welcomed musical legends like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.

“Here we have chance to learn with many [people],” said Tber Moulay Mustapha, the shopkeeper and musician, who utilizes his music shop to not only make and sell Berber instruments, but also to teach Gnawa music to the many customers.

He added that he marks busy days at the shop not as days when sales are high, but rather days when he teaches Gnawa music to many customers.

Traditional Berber and Gnawa instruments line the walls of Bob Magic Music. Photo by Shirley Chan
Traditional Berber and Gnawa instruments line the walls of Bob Magic Music. Photo by Shirley Chan

Thirty years ago, Mustapha chose music over higher education by working for his father at Bob Magic Music. In Morocco, teenagers are faced with the choice to pursue higher education at the age of 15.

Bob Magic Music is a family business passed down from Mustapha’s grandfather. Today, he and his brothers maintain the shop.

The walls of the shop are covered with Berber instruments, which are handmade on-site, and any white space is plastered with family photos. Childhood photographs show Mustapha making and playing his first handmade guembri, or three-stringed bass lute.

Mustapha makes all the traditional instruments in his shop, a skill handed down from his father. From carving the wood for the base of the instruments, applying fish or camel skin to using camel intestines for the strings.

Now, at the age of 45, Mustapha recalled memories of teaching Robert Plant and Mick Jagger how to play traditional Berber instruments, such as guembris or qraqabs. All the while, he added rap artist Andre 3000 to the list as he shows off their photo together on his phone.

A photo of Mustapha making an instrument as a child is displayed among a collection of family photos in the shop. Photo by Shirley Chan
A photo of Mustapha making an instrument as a child is displayed among a collection of family photos in the shop. Photo by Shirley Chan

“It’s a tradition – it’s a music you pass on to others,” said Youssouf Amine Elalamy, a Moroccan writer and critic of Moroccan art and culture.

Gnawa masters don’t teach the music to others because most want to keep it within their traditional musician groups and families to keep the music pure.

“If you look at the young music scene, you can see Gnawa influence,” Elalamy said. “It has become part of the Moroccan musical identity.”

Despite its popularity, it isn’t common to find Moroccan youths playing traditional Gnawa music in its purest form. Many Moroccans listen to Gnawa music, but find other ways to recreate it.

“It has become so popular in Morocco to do fusion between local traditional music and international music,” said Loubna Zaki, 25, a staff member at a local art space and hostel called Priscilla Queen of the Medina.

Many masters believe that the  fusion mixes aren’t real Gnawa  and that traditional Gnawa will disappear as fusion becomes more popular.

Mustapha learned how to perform Gnawa from his father who learned from Mustapha’s grandfather. None of which were masters, but merely enthusiasts.

Two musician passes from previous Gnaoua World Music Festivals hang as a memento in the shop. Mustapha and his family and friends perform through Morocco in a 22-person band. Photo by Shirley Chan
Two musician passes from previous Gnaoua World Music Festivals hang as a memento in the shop. Mustapha and his family and friends perform through Morocco in a 22-person band. Photo by Shirley Chan

Traditional Gnawa music can be commonly heard in Jemaa el Fnaa Square and in Essaouira, where the annual Gnawa World Music Festival takes place. The festival hosted 20,000 attendees in the first year to 500,000 attendees in the past year, making it the second largest music festival in Africa and one of the largest in the world.

Gnawa music can be easily found in many forms, but to learn it in its purest form is a rare opportunity that shopkeepers like Alkhadi and Mustapha are willing to offer.  

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