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Gnawa Music, Called Moroccan Blues, Is Gaining Traction In The West

Gnawa music is often likened to American blues and gospel.

Gnawa music is a mixture of African rhythms and Islamic poetry created by enslaved West Africans brought to Morocco. For centuries, it was only played within the confines of spiritual ceremonies. But the once sacred genre has since found its way to the mainstream. 

“Gnawa” is a word used to define Black people of West African decent in Morocco.

In an interview with “60 Minutes,” American musician Sulaiman Hakim noted the similarities between Gnawa music and Black American gospel.

“In blues or funk there is a call-and-response,” Hakim said. “So automatically, the first time I heard Gnawas, I said, ‘Wow this sounds like music from back home.’” 

The Gnaoua and World Music Festival was created in 1998 to celebrate Gnawa music. The most recent festival, held in June 2023, featured 480 musicians that entertained audiences through a variety of musical genres including jazz, blues, pop, and of course Gnawa.

Fans from around the globe traveled to the coastal town of Essaouira, Morocco, to partake in the festivities. Among them was American actor Robert Wisdom of “The Wire” fame. Wisdom spoke with CBS’ “60 Minutes” about the cultural significance of Gnawa music. 

“You can trace the blues to the Black cultures from Senegal, Gambia, Mali, who then traveled North into Morocco, the Black races. When you come here and hear the Gnawa you feel the same thing that we feel with the old-time blues,“ the actor told correspondent Bill Whitaker. 

Wisdom said he has witnessed the festival evolve from a small cult following to crowds nearing 50,000 people.  

The festival opens with a Mardi Gras-style parade featuring musicians and dancers marching through the city dressed in brightly colored costumes.

Hamid El Kasri headlined this year’s festival. The beloved musician is credited for popularizing the Gnawa genre in mainstream society. 

The next Gnaoua festival is scheduled for June 22-24, 2024, in Essaouira.

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