In the early 1990s, while working in a record store in Washington, D.C., I unpacked a new release called Gnawa Music of Marrakech: Night Spirit Masters. The record featured Bill Laswell's field recordings of a trance-inducing sound that was entirely new to me. Although I didn't recognize the musicians' names, the spectral, hypnotic, bass-heavy sound they made was mesmerizing. I was hooked.

Thanks to liner notes by novelist and composer Paul Bowles, who lived in Morocco for 50 years and whose recordings of Moroccan music were up for a Grammy this year, I soon learned that Gnawa music is the soundtrack to one of North Africa's great spiritual and cultural traditions. In Morocco, Gnawa music and rituals have been practiced for centuries by descendants of enslaved people—also known as Gnawa—brought from Mauritania, Mali, and elsewhere in West Africa since the 12th century. These communities kept their traditions alive by adapting them to fit Islamic practices that first arrived in Morocco in the late seventh century.

American listeners often remark that Gnawa music shares some musical DNA with the blues, with repeating call-and-response vocals and a stripped-down instrumentation, in this case built around the three-stringed sintir instead of the guitar. It also shares some similarities to the music of Haiti's voudoun tradition, with whole repertoires of songs reserved for ritual ceremonies called lilas that feature spirit possession, healing, and other syncretic, African rites.

Artists outside of Morocco have long picked up on these correspondences, too. In addition to Bowles, the Jamaican-American poet and novelist Claude McKay championed Gnawa music during the Harlem Renaissance, and a "who's who" of American jazz musicians—most famously Randy Weston, Ornette Coleman, and Pharoah Sanders—as well as British rockers Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant have listed Gnawa music as an inspiration. But the relationship has not always been mutual: Gnawa music in Morocco remains stubbornly, proudly rooted in its own tradition. 

Though many of the genre's master musicians, known as maalems, record and collaborate with foreign artists regularly, their core repertoire remains intact. Aspiring maalems can spend decades memorizing hundreds of songs, as well as the precise order of their ritual use and their traditional healing properties. Gnawa music isn't completely immune to modernity, though. Female performers like Asmâa Hamzaoui are beginning to join the ranks, following in the footsteps the groundbreaking Algerian iconoclast Hasna el Becharia, while the biggest maalems are now household names in Morocco. Their defiantly un-autotuned voices ring out on radios in medinas and souks all over the country, alongside hits by Beyoncé and the latest Arabic chaabi pop songs. Not bad for music that was marginalized and snubbed by elite society in Morocco just a generation ago.


Above: Asmâa Hamzaoui performs "Youbati." Published March 18, 2016, by

This unprecedented status can be credited, in part, to the Moroccan Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Essaouira, or the Gnawa World Music Festival, which celebrates its 20th year this summer. Since 1997, the breezy, Atlantic port town of Essaouira, Morocco, has hosted the biggest annual gathering of Gnawis—as the musicians and their faithful are called—in the world. Gnawa troupes come from all over Morocco to perform at the festival, decked out in shimmering, multicolored tunics and sashes and hats embroidered with white cowrie shells. In the opening procession they carry the standards and flags of their orders, and sing as they march, the maalems putting their choruses (known as kouyous) through their paces. The air throbs with blaring horns, pounding drums, and the ubiquitous clatter of iron qraqeb castanets. I remember my first year there—on assignment for National Geographic in 2012—as a colorful, chaotic crush of tourists, locals, and Gnawis packed into Essaouira's medina quarter, navigating their way between the festival's three main stages.

In addition to the main stages, the festival hosts various smaller events in the shaded courtyards of the city's hostel-like riyads. The most dramatic venue is the Borj Bab Marrakech, a circular stone tower built by the French into the city's defensive walls in the 19th century. Its wide, flat roof is big enough to accommodate a small stage, while leaving room for a sizable crowd to stretch out on blankets under the stars and enjoy some of the festival's more meditative acts.

Above: Hamid El Kasri performs "Lalla Aicha." Published March 13, 2011, by Gnawa Music.

The festival gives far-flung communities from all over North Africa an opportunity to reconnect and to showcase their regional styles and repertoires in a secular context. It also draws plenty of non-Moroccan performers, with an emphasis on jazz musicians as well as artists from other parts of Africa. Christian Scott, Kenny Garrett, Marcus Miller, Oumou Sangaré, and Baaba Maal have all graced the festival's stage in recent years.

Jazz giant Randy Weston deserves special mention as someone who has been a key ambassador between the New York jazz scene and the Gnawa community since the late 1960s. He lived in Tangier from 1967 to 1972 and was one of the first American musicians to play the Gnaoua World Music Festival. He's introduced, mentored, and recorded with dozens of young Moroccan acts here in New York, and last year he made a triumphant return to the festival.


Gnawa Music: A Personal Journey
Photo by Cait McCarthy
Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer and Innov Gnawa performing at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center

Speaking of New York, the buzz around Gnawa music has been steadily growing in recent years due in large part to Innov Gnawa, a Brooklyn-based traditional Gnawa ensemble led by Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafar of Fez, as well as artists like Hoba Hoba Spirit, Gnawa Diffusion, and Ifrikya Spirit, who have all made their New York City debuts at the David Rubenstein Atrium. Next month, on March 16, the Atrium is partnering with the Gnawa World Music Festival to present a special evening of concerts in honor of the festival's 20th anniversary. As part of this celebration, which is free and open to the public, the Atrium will host Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane for their United States debuts. New York City's own Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer will join as a guest. Jazz will also play a crucial role in the program, with one of the shows featuring Will Calhoun as musical director.

After the mini festival in New York, I’ll start planning my next trip to Essaouira. In the four festivals that I’ve attended so far, I've been lucky enough to experience some spectacular sets: Malian superstar Salif Keita, Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, and Moroccan rockers Hoba Hoba Spirit, to name a few. I’ve seen fantastic fusions such as Pakistani qawwalis Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad performing alongside the Moroccan Sufi troupe Issaoua de Meknes, and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa absolutely rocking with the late Maalem Mahmoud Guinea.


Above: Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane and Toyour Gnawa. Published August 21, 2014, by Festival Culturel International de la Musique Diwane.

What keeps me coming back are the great maalems: Mokhtar Gania, Mustapha Baqbou, Omar Hayat, Hamid El Kasri, and more. They're the true backbone of the festival, and the reason it exists in the first place. Though their traditional lila repertoires are almost never performed onstage—you can always find unofficial lilas happening if you know who to ask—the maalems perform alternative set lists that keep audiences rapt and coming back year after year, myself included.

Still, I know I've barely scratched the surface of Gnawa music's complex, deeply rooted culture. This journey is far from over.

Tom Pryor is a music journalist and former editor of Nat Geo Music at the National Geographic Society. His writing on Moroccan, African, and international music has appeared in Billboard, NPR, Afropop Worldwide, MTV, and elsewhere.