During the 1960s Morocco's Gnawa musicians were sought out by rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant, and the Rolling Stones's Brian Jones, and African-American jazz musicians like Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders, and Archie Shepp.
Since then, the Gnawa have since become icons of Moroccan pop music. The Essaouira Festival, otherwise known as the Gnawa Festival, has attracted tens of thousands of people each June since 1988. New York-based musician Hassan Hakmoun has marketed Gnawa music to the West, combining Gnawa music with jazz and American pop.
Author Deborah Kapchan's experiences with the Gnawa began in 1994 when she lived for a year in Rabat, Morocco, on a research grant. She began to attend ritual ceremonies regularly with the master Si Mohammed Chaouqi. She draws from her experience attending trance ceremonies and from her considerable erudition (her works cited include 600 books).
Kapchan is Professor of Performance Studies in The Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She previously directed the Center for Intercultural Studies in Folklore and Ethnomusicology at the University of Texas--Austin. A citizen of the world, Kapchan is equally comfortable speaking Arabic or English, and living in New York, Paris, or Marrakech.
Many people think of "trance" music as a genre that overlaps New Age and World Music. It is marketed and sold as a quasi mystical-spiritual path for healing one's psyche.
But in some parts of the world Trance is not at all a quiet, internal experience. It's a loud, intense, sometimes violent ceremony of dance and music in which a person seeks to purge his or her demons by dancing, fainting and sometimes abusing oneself with sharp objects and fire. "There were those who seemed to be forcibly thrown to the floor by a power within, their limbs flailing, their heads whipped violently from left to right, their eyes rolling back in their heads, gasps and gags emitting from their throats," Kapchan writes. She wanted to know how these `trancers' put themselves in altered states of being with such relative ease. And once women have become acquainted with the spirits that reside within them, how do they go on to embrace and access their spirits' powers and clairvoyance at will?
The very style that makes musicians like Hassan Hakmoun attractive (what some have called the "jadba beat," the trance beat) has been emptied of its ritual significance and its healing power in order to be circulated on the world music market, Kapchan notes. (I personally have found this trend pervasive within "world music," no matter the country of origin.)
Kapchan says the changes that are created by performing for new audiences and in new contexts--changes such as a shortening of the ritual songs, as well as alterations in the profession of a ceremony that was once sacred--are circling back to influence the ritual practices in Morocco. The Gnawa have become professionalized and are aware that their very identity is a commodity.