The Struggle to Save a House of Music, and Its Legacy

10:46 AM Aida Alami 0 Comments


TANGIER, Morocco — For more than a half-century, a Moorish-style house in the old city of Tangier considered one of Morocco’s cultural gems drew musicians and other artists from around the world seeking to learn about the Sufi music and rituals of the descendants of slaves in the country.

But the one-of-a-kind center for traditional Gnawa music was abandoned early this year because it was in danger of collapse, and long delays to restore it as part of a government rehabilitation plan for this city on Morocco’s northern coast put its future in peril.

The battle to save Dar Gnawa, or the Gnawa House, has shed light on just how precious and precarious traditional talents are in the North African kingdom.

Abdellah El Gourd, 75 and a world-renowned master of Gnawa music, has lived in the historic house since he was 5. Over the past decades, he hosted and collaborated with an array of acclaimed jazz musicians from around the globe.

“Dar Gnawa is not only an institution that celebrates the music of former slaves in North Africa, but it is also a focal point for the rise of jazz on the African continent,” said Hisham Aidi, a professor of international relations at Columbia University who grew up in the old city of Tangier and has been part of efforts to save the space.

“As teenagers, we would stop by Dar Gnawa after school, and you never knew who you would find there. It could be saxophonist Archie Shepp, poet Ted Joans or a European musician playing with El Gourd’s troupe,” he added. “We had no idea who these artists were, but we were captivated by the performances.”

Gnawa music is a tradition that originated with enslaved West Africans who were taken north to Morocco. It is among the rituals they held onto, praising saints and spirits with rhythmic song, dance and trance possession.

The instruments involved are few and simple: a three-string fretless lute known as the gimbri or sintir, which is strummed, accompanied by large metal castanets called qraqeb, whose clacking create trance-inducing rhythms. The music is sometimes played during all-night healing ceremonies where exorcisms are performed on the sick to expel the djinn, or evil spirits, believed to cause illness.

The laid-back town of Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast hosts an annual Gnawa festival, which has been attended in past years by notable international musicians such as Ziggy Marley. In 2019, UNESCO added Gnawa to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

In 1980, the Gnawa House became the first officially recognized center devoted to celebrating and preserving the genre. But long before that, it served as a meeting place for artists starting in the 1960s.

Unlike other Moroccan cities, Tangier did not have many cultural centers for young artists, so Mr. El Gourd took it upon himself to create a space that he hoped would ensure his art form would not disappear. Over the years, the house became one of the few places in the country to practice and learn Gnawa music.


you can read the rest of the story on the New York Times' website.


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