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LIVE REPORT: Gnaoua Festival 2019
Yousif Nur , December 4th, 2019 15:10

Yousif Nur visits the second ever Gnaoua Festival in The Hague and finds hidebound ideas about female representation in this strictly codified, Islamic trance music are being challenged

Maalema Hind Ennaira by Rob Hogeslag

On a wintery night in The Hague, the opening ceremony of the 2nd edition of the Gnaoua Festival commences at the Paard venue, located slap-bang in the city centre. Performing this evening is Maalema (Master Musician) Hind Ennaira, a Moroccan woman playing her first gnaoua show outside of her native country, alongside desert rock group Bombino. 

Immediately during Ennaira's set I’m confronted with the clashing of karabebs (large metal castanets that are shaped like handcuffs) and the plucking of the guembri bass instrument (think of a bass guitar shaped almost like a cricket bat) that puts most watching into a trance-like state. The audience is transfixed on Hind and her all-male group throughout, with some nodding their heads vigorously, including myself, and some just standing perfectly still. 

What has me even more intrigued is that there’s a female performer of the guembri – something very seldom seen in gnaoua as it has been traditionally perceived as a male activity in Moroccan society.

Maalema Hind Ennaira is playing every night of the four-day festival, which also includes a jam session in a compact American bar called Route 66 in the suburbs of the capital city. The jam session is a free-for-all of gnaoua fusion songs, where anyone with an instrument can join in onstage and play. These include a keyboard player, a saxophonist, a drummer, washboard player, a Cajon drummer as well as people using the traditional gnaoua instruments of the karakebs and guembri.

The following evening, Mehdi Nassouli plays a traditional Lila ceremony, with his backing group sat on the floor surrounded by flags, cushions, burning frankincense and dancers at the front of the stage. Nassouli plays ritualistic songs about the Saints of Islam, Allah and his Prophets. At one point during songs, Mehdi explains how a guembri is made to a mostly native Dutch audience by stating that the base is made from the wood of a walnut tree, the three strings are from either sheep or goat guts (sometimes nylon) and the skin of the instrument is of that belonging to a camel. As this is at a theatre venue, it’s an unusual setting for a gnaoua show with everybody seated on chairs looking down onto the stage, whereas in its natural environment of Morocco, people would be sat on the floor in a riad watching in a darkened room.

Even though some of the venues are only half-full during the four day festival, there’s a real sense of togetherness and camaraderie among the Moroccan community that is present. Why wouldn’t there be? They’re celebrating their culture via food stalls, coming together and socialising and most of all, enjoying one of the things that’s truly theirs – gnaoua music. That’s especially the case on Saturday night at the close of the festival at the Zuidstheater on the outskirts, right beside the beach with Morocco’s most famous gnaoua star, Hamid El Kasry. The audience rises to their feet throughout his set, not letting up for even a moment to stop dancing to the rhythm of the castanets. 

As a small fringe festival, The Gnaoua Festival is heavily dependent on word-of-mouth promotion and the large Moroccan community in The Netherlands being aware of it. Moroccans represent 6% of The Hague, and 2.32% of the country overall, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Immigration of Moroccans began shortly after the Second World War as the Dutch government sought what they called ‘guest workers’ to take up mostly manual labour jobs, which were in high demand. This eventually led to them being given permanent status with 85% being of Berber descent and 15% Arab.

This rise of the Moroccan population has been met with dissent from the far right in the last few years, with politicians such as Geert Wilders branding Moroccan migrants as "scum", and making them the focal point of fear of his election campaign in 2017, by calling the streets of The Netherlands "unsafe"

Gnaoua parade in The Hague by Rob Hogeslag

The word gnaoua comes from the Berber term for a North African ethnic group, known originally as "The Black People". The term eventually also came to refer to music, a body of Islamic spiritual songs and rituals, as well as a people who were brought over from sub-Saharan Africa to Morocco as part of the slave trade, bringing their traditions with them. Their descendants tend to belong to the Sufi sect of Islam: centuries ago when they settled and had families, once slavery was abolished, most converted to Islam, but in one of its most mystical forms. In Europe, our collective knowledge is limited when it comes to African history, especially in the realm of culture. Usually, when we think about gnaoua music, it’s most likely linked to the annual festival in Essaouira, and the fusion collaborations with jazz musicians such as Randy Weston and Carlinhos Brown. However, we know little about the spiritual healing aspect, which is seen as sacred by the Sufi sect, that is believed by its adherents to heal, protect from evil spirits and even exorcise or cast away any demonic energies. 

A gnaoua lila (meaning night in Arabic) is the centrepiece of this ritual tradition as a Master and his group of musicians opens the gates to the jinn (or spirits) to help heal or cure anyone with sicknesses via the medium of music. This is an all-night event and usually takes in a private home where people often go into trances, shaking their head vigorously and being wrapped in different coloured cloths to take in their particular energies. These colours all represent a different thing, with red symbolising the blood, black is for the forest, dark blue for the sea, green for healing energy, light blue for the sky, white for peace and yellow represents the feminine. There are even some people that can stab themselves with knives and light themselves with candles seemingly without hurting themselves whatsoever.  

Gnaoua music and its rituals are a very spiritual practice within the Sufi sect of Islam. But to say that this is a male-exclusive area is a big misconception. Much in the same way that in the West that spaces in music, arts and culture that were once male-only preserves are now open to all genders, the truth is that gnaoua has always held women in high regard, in the form of Muqqademas, the conductors of a lila, for without them a ceremony doesn’t take place at all. They also organise every last detail from when meals should be cooked for the band, to where and what time they should meet at the Masters House, to where each musician should be sat so that everything runs smoothly. In contrast, there are indeed far fewer women picking up instruments in gnaoua music as in the past, they would play privately in their own homes as it was seen (and still is by many) as taboo to play in public owing to societal and religious codes that separate the genders from playing together.

That’s why it was so unusual for many to see someone like Maalema Hind Ennaira perform on stage with a male backing group on Wednesday evening. But because of the increasing popularity of gnaoua music throughout the world, including this festival in The Hague, rituals such as lilas and concerts are exposed to European audiences on stages where it’s unfamiliar territory, such as the Mehdi Nassouli Lila, where both he and Ennaira perform together onstage on Thursday night. 

Maalema Hind Ennaira and Khalil Mounji by Rob Hogeslag

I had the opportunity to give a lecture as part of Gnaoua Festival in The Hague to talk about my own journey discovering Gnaoua music, which began in the summer of 2017 when I visited the small fishing town of Essaouira, which sits right beside the Atlantic Ocean, three hours west of Marrakech to visit what was the 20th anniversary of Gnaoua Festival. I went in having no prior knowledge of the music or culture whatsoever and went only upon a recommendation from a Moroccan friend who went there annually. My first impression of Essaouira was that it was awash with market stalls on long and narrow winding streets, hippies and PA systems blasting out bass and castanets, of which I’d no idea what it was called. Allegedly, Jimi Hendrix also spent several days in Essaouira in the Sixties, learning to play the guembri and jamming with local musicians. His legendary visit is so well renowned; that there are pictures of him everywhere you look in the town. 

A few months later, I returned to Morocco – this time to Rabat where I discovered a female Gnaoua master by the name of Asma Hamzaoui. I was blown away by her vocals and unique way of playing the guembri. I knew I wanted to work with her in some capacity and I ended up making my first film documentary about her, which is currently in post-production. The film goes into depth by following her and her family around her hometown of Casablanca, as well as Tunis and Finland playing festivals on her debut European tour. I also discover what it’s like for her being one of the only female masters and what her hopes and dreams are for herself, and women in gnaoua in the future. Of the people I interviewed for this documentary, they included London-based Maalem, Simo Lagnawi, world-renowned Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj, and gnaoua star Hamid El Kasry. They were all unanimous in their opinions that Asma is a star in the making and that her potential is enormous through her voice, stage presence and guembri playing talents. They also went on record saying that there's space for women to share a stage and in fact, they bring a different voice and even a different interpretation of gnaoua music.

To conclude, will the growing prominence of the likes of Asma Hamzaoui and Maalema Hind Ennaira internationally give way to more female-led gnaoua groups back in Morocco? Women have always been essential to gnaoua in the past but it looks as if in the future there is also a good chance that they will be front and centre in the movement as well, especially if the talents of Asma and Hind are anything to go by.