Gnawa music is a traditional music from Morocco that has its roots in the ancient spiritual and religious practices of the Gnawa people, a group of West Africans brought over as slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries. The use of the guembri, a three-stringed bass instrument, and the qraqeb, metal castanets characterizes the music. The music is typically accompanied by singing. Gnawa has a strong trance-inducing quality. It is a powerful tool for spiritual healing and divine communication.


Gnawa music is a unique genre that has its roots in the history of slavery in Morocco. The origins of Gnawa can be traced back to the transatlantic slave trade, where enslaved people from West Africa were brought to Morocco to work on plantations and in households.

Many of these enslaved people were from present-day Mali and spoke the Bambara language.
In the early days of Gnawa, slaves would find ways to sing songs in their native language in locations where they might be heard by a relative or loved one, from whom they’ve been separated, in hopes of reuniting with them. 
The Amazigh (indigenous) and Arab populations of Morocco didn’t understand these languages and dismissed them as gibberish. The Amazigh word for “gibberish” or “unintelligible” is “agnaw” (singular) “gnawa” (plural). This is the most accepted story of how the term first came into use.
Over time, these different ‘unintelligible’ songs fused into one shared history - one of forced displacement and spiritual yearning.
With time, the song lyrics became completely indecipherable by Gnawa musicians themselves, on the account that translations had been handed down through oral tradition.  Gnawa refers to indecipherable language as “Bambara” - citing its Malian Bambara origins. 
For decades, possibly centuries, Gnawa musicians sang in Bambara, understanding less and less of the literal meaning of the words. But as Gnawa musicians became more and more integrated into a Moroccan society which identified more and more as Arab and Muslim, they evolved more and more into a Muslim (Sufi) order.
Eventually (in the 20th century), Gnawa musicians began to replace more and more of the song lyrics with Arabic / Sufi devotional lyrics.
Gbawa music is closely tied to the Gnawa's religious and healing rituals, known as the "Lila," which involves a night-long ceremony where participants enter a trance state through the playing of Gnawa music. The Lila is led by a "mqedma" or "she who presents" and a "maellem" or "master" who sings lead vocals and plays the guembri, a traditional Gnawa instrument.
The Lila ceremony typically begins with the "DbiHa," which involves sacrificing a lamb and is a commemoration of the biblical story of Abraham being tested by God to sacrifice his own son.
The Gnawa people believe that the spirits of their ancestors are present during the Lila ceremony and can be contacted through the music. The trance state induced by the music and the ritual is believed to allow the participant to connect with these spirits and receive healing and guidance. Gnawa music is also believed to have the power to expel negative spirits and energies.
In present-day Morocco, Gnawa music is widely appreciated and celebrated. It is often performed at festivals and ceremonies, such as the annual Gnawa Music Festival in Essaouira, which attracts thousands of visitors and performers from around the world. The music is also commonly heard in the streets, as Gnawa musicians often perform in public spaces, such as markets and squares.
In recent years, Gnawa music has gained international recognition and has been the subject of numerous studies and research. Many musicians and bands have emerged, bringing Gnawa music to a global audience, and blending it with other genres like Jazz, Funk, and Rock.

Form and Style

The musical form and style of Gnawa music is characterized by its use of hypnotic rhythms, repetitive melodies, and call-and-response vocals. The music is typically performed by a small ensemble, led by a "m'allem" (master) who sings lead vocals and plays the guembri, a three-stringed bass instrument. The ensemble also typically includes qraqeb, metal castanets that provide the music's percussive foundation, and other instruments such as the qraqeb (metal castanets). Some forms include the tebel (tambourine), the ghaita (double-reed instrument), and the gasba (flute).

Singing Style

The singing style of Gnawa music is characterized by its use of a high-pitched, nasal voice, often accompanied by a deep, guttural growl. The lead vocalist, known as the m'allem, is responsible for singing the main melody and lyrics, while the other musicians in the ensemble provide vocal harmonies and responses. The singing style is heavily influenced by the vocal traditions of West Africa, particularly the Bambara language, which is often used in Gnawa songs. The singing style is also heavily influenced by Sufi devotional music, with the lyrics often expressing themes of spiritual longing, devotion, and connection to the divine. Additionally, the singing style is influenced by the call-and-response format, in which the lead vocalist sings a phrase and is then echoed by the other musicians in the ensemble. This creates a dynamic and interactive musical experience that is integral to the Gnawa spiritual ritual.


Gnawa music is a deeply spiritual and ritualistic genre, deeply rooted in the history and culture of the Gnawa communities, and it continues to be an important part of their cultural and spiritual practices. It is a powerful and evocative form of music that has the ability to transport listeners to a different realm and provide them with a sense of connection to the spiritual world.


Gnawa music is heavily influenced by the cultures and traditions of the people who brought it to Morocco, particularly the West and Central African cultures of the Bambara, Fula, and Wolof peoples. The use of the guembri, a three-stringed bass instrument, and the krakebs, metal castanets, are both elements borrowed from West African musical traditions. The use of call-and-response singing, as well as the use of music in healing rituals, are also influenced by West African spiritual practices. The Gnawa people also have strong connections to Sufism, a mystical Islamic belief system, which is reflected in their use of prayer and invocation in their music and rituals. Additionally, the Gnawa have been heavily influenced by the Arab and Berber cultures of Morocco, which can be seen in the use of Arabic lyrics and the incorporation of elements of Moroccan traditional music into their songs.


The timbre of Gnawa music is characterized by its use of traditional instruments such as the guembri (a three-stringed bass instrument), krakebs (metal castanets), and various percussion instruments. The guembri is considered to be the most important instrument in the genre and is played in a repetitive, trance-inducing style. The krakebs add a percussive element to the music, while other percussion instruments such as tbel (a small drum) and darbouka (a goblet-shaped drum) are used to provide a driving rhythm. The singing style is typically in a high-pitched, nasal tone, and often includes call-and-response patterns between the lead singer and the chorus. The overall sound of Gnawa music is often described as otherworldly and mystical, with a strong emphasis on rhythm and percussion.


The melodic structure of Gnawa music is typically characterized by a cyclical pattern that repeats over a number of bars, typically between 8 and 12 bars in length. The music is typically built around a single melody played on the guembri, and is accompanied by a complex rhythm played on a variety of percussion instruments. The rhythm is characterized by a strong beat, typically played on a large drum called the tebel, and a number of smaller drums and percussion instruments. The rhythm is typically syncopated and features a number of polyrhythms, with the drums and percussion instruments playing off of each other to create a complex, layered sound. The singing style is characterized by a powerful, emotive delivery, with the vocalist often using a number of vocal techniques such as vibrato, glissando, and melisma to convey the spiritual themes and messages of the music.

Key Instruments