The Gnaoua people long ago brought with them a culture of trance-like, organic music, which remains alive in Morocco today. Gnaoua music has grown with varying nuances among the Berber and Arabic peoples of Morocco and across different regions. Gnaoua truly lives in the hearts of the people, especially in Khamlia.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about Khamlia is how the music is so ingrained in the culture. Even the smallest child will play some beats on a djembe, and if you spend some time with the locals, you will see that people of all ages sing and play together for fun. The love and connection to music here is reminiscent of Irish traditional music, that enjoyment and coming together that creates something beautiful which is born of skill, pride of place and identity.
Some say Gnaoua has its roots in slavery - the knocking together of chained feet, the ticarcashin (castanetts); the beatings, the deep bass of the genga. Others say that the songs come from a spiritual background, that of Islamic Sufism. A look at the history of Gnaoua indicates that there is truth in both theories, as the Gnaoua people first came to Morocco as slaves and later became influenced by Islamic Sufism. Gnaoua holds a special place in ritual ceremonies such as weddings. There are songs for celebration, mourning, dancing and spiritual communion with upbeat, trance-like rhythms.
Gnaoua instruments are the genga (large bass drum), tegenegat , ticarcashin (castanetts) and hajhouj (bass guitar like). Although you will find the djembe in Dar Gnaoua Bambara, it is actually not a traditional Gnaoua instrument. It came to Morocco from West African countries like Senegal, Mali and Ghana. However, the people of Khamlia have adopted this instrument as their own, and you will find even the smallest children tapping out rhythms. The traditional Berber aganza is a flat drum similar to an Irish bodhrán in shape, but slightly smaller and played with the hands. The aganza plays an important part at several stages throughout a Berber wedding ceremony, and is played by both men and women.
Khamlia boasts not one, but two music centres, Dar Gnaoua Bambara and Dar Gnaoua Zaid. In both places you will be met with a welcoming cup of traditional Moroccan tea, followed by a performance of traditional Gnaoua by talented musicians who have lived with the music since childhood. Whichever music school you decide to visit, be sure to take home a CD!
There are two major festivals of Gnaoua in Morocco - one in the coastal city of Essaouira, the other, more intimate in the town of Khamlia. Khamlia Festival of Gnaoua takes place every summer in July or August - the date changes every year, so please feel free to contact us if you are interested in attending.
Musicians who visit Khamlia will enjoy learning a new style or trying out the traditional instruments like the djembe or more challenging hajouj, but anyone can enjoy and appreciate the music that comes from the heart. Gnaoua is not only seen and heard, it is felt. It speaks of the history and rich cultural heritage of the Berber people, the spirit of Islam, celebration and slavery.