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Ancient Gnawa music — dubbed Moroccan Blues — finds new audiences in Europe, America

Gnawa’s musical legacy in Morocco
Gnawa music, legacy of enslaved Black Africans, surges in popularity | 60 Minutes 22:11

Most people have never heard of Gnawa. Originally you weren't supposed to. For centuries, the music was only played in secret ceremonies by enslaved Black Africans brought to Morocco. Gnawa—an indigenous word for black people— is music born of the suffering of slavery. For many African Americans those rhythms are familiar. What we know as the American Blues evolved from this swirl of ancient African and Islamic rituals. Centuries later, Gnawa is exploding in popularity. Today, hundreds of thousands of music fans make the trek to the ground zero of Gnawa music: the annual festival in Essaouira on Morocco's Atlantic coast. 480 musicians. 16 countries. 50 concerts. How could we say no?

As the sun set over the Moroccan town of Essaouira, the huge crowd grew more impatient. They'd been waiting all day for maalem Hamid El Kasri, a 21st century Gnawa superstar whose playlist dates from the 11th century. El Kasri's back-up singers came on first, wearing the same ornate silk robes and tasseled fezzes the Gnawans have worn for hundreds of years. Finally, the maalem—or master musician—appeared and strapped on his gimbri.

The mother of all basses, the gimbri is made from wood, camel skin, and strung with goat gut. El Kasri started slowly. One of Morocco's top maalems, Hamid El Kasri helped make Gnawa a contemporary force. Soon, he picked up the pace. The Arabic lyrics date from the Middle Ages. And this crowd knew every word.

The music built to a crescendo. It was a pyramid of sound…driven by the pulsating beat of the krakebs—metal castanets—that are played at astonishing speed. This is the musical legacy of enslaved Black Africans brought to Morocco in medieval times. But the story doesn't end here. It's music that traveled out into the Atlantic from the slave ports of Africa and helped give rise to the American blues.

Bob Wisdom: This was a point of departure. It was a place where dramatically Black Americans have a tie to that we don't really know about.

Bill Whitaker and Bob Wisdom
Bill Whitaker and Bob Wisdom 60 Minutes

Robert Wisdom is an actor and a Gnawa superfan. You may know him from "The Wire" or the hit show "Barry," but today, he was just Bob. We met on Essaouira's ramparts built stone by stone by enslaved Africans in the seventeen hundreds.

Bill Whitaker: You can trace the blues to here?

Bob Wisdom: You can trace the blues—you can trace the blues to the Black cultures from Senegal, Gambia, Mali, who then traveled North into Morocco, the Black races. When you come here and hear the Gnawa you feel the same thing that we feel with the old-time Blues.

Bill Whitaker: You feel the Blues.

Bob Wisdom: You feel the Blues and that's what Gnawa does.

It's music that seems to rise from the very stones of this ancient walled city. Once a lucrative trading post, slave markets were closed as recently as 1912. Today, fishing boats and tourists crowd the old harbor, a postcard of carefree leisure. But for actor Bob Wisdom, it's the music of Gnawa—embedded in a painful past—that is the town's true spirit.

Bob Wisdom: When I come here, there's a living-ness about this music. It is alive as well as it's ancient. And so all of this music is passed on orally, so it's changing all the time. And it's the same with our blues.

Bill Whitaker: You have called it a portal to the past?

Bob Wisdom: Mmm

Bill Whitaker: What do you mean by that?

Bob Wisdom: It gives us a reminder of of identity, who we are in the larger sense. You know, the the Africanness in our blood.

Wisdom has seen Essaouira's festival grow from a cult following in 1998 to attracting up to 500,000 fans, including Western musicians who want a run at the Moroccan blues. The opening day parade was a free-wheeling mardi gras as more than 200 Gnawa musicians wound their way through the maze of streets. Wisdom greeted old friends, as we watched flying footwork and acrobatics that could rival a circus.

On stage, you could feel the shared mojo between Moroccan and American blues. We saw stylized line steps that reminded us of motown, deep knee drops that James Brown would envy. American percussionist Sulaiman Hakim told us the similarities didn't end there. He told us the gospel-like call and response so key to gnawa was the same as he'd grown up with in Los Angeles.

Sulaiman Hakim: In blues, or funk there is a call and response. So automatically the first time I heard Gnawas, I said, "Wow this sounds like music from back home." And the way that they start turning their heads, it's just like the dances that was done back in the 30s and 40s when you see Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and everybody was dancing, how our parents and grandparents were dan—it's the same thing.

A musical globetrotter, Sulaiman Hakim started his career with legendary jazz drummer and composer Max Roach. But he told us the Gnawa maalems could go toe to toe with anyone. What set the music apart was the castanets.

Castenets are the heartbeat of Gnawa music 60 Minutes

Sulaiman Hakim: You only hear this in—in Morocco. They have what we call a six-way feeling to it [makes sound to emulate music.] As a musician you're totally wiped away by this pulsation. And it just grabbed me like this. Well you can see, I—I'm a nervous wreck about it. It's—it's just unbelievable. And then..

Bill Whitaker: It still does that to you?

Sulaiman Hakim: It still does it.

Sulaiman Hakim: And when the tempo starts to pick up...

Bill Whitaker: We're taking off.

Sulaiman Hakim: We're takin' off.

The castanets—or krakebs—are the heartbeat of Gnawa. Their origin story, passed down through generations, says that the krakebs were forged from the shackles of slaves. It's impossible to know. But many, including Hakim, told us they were in awe of the Gnawa for using music to defuse a painful past.

Sulaiman Hakim: Krakebs are the instruments like that but actually it was this. [gestures] It was used to keep 'em under control.

Bill Whitaker: We've seen those horrible pictures of people

Sulaiman Hakim: Yeah if you look at 'em there, there are two pieces like this that, that you click together. And if you take one of 'em and put it here, and here, it's a neck piece. And they converted them, unbelievably, into an instrument.

Bill Whitaker: They turned something horrible into something beautiful.

Sulaiman Hakim: Beautiful. Doesn't that remind you of somethin'?

Hakim told us the early American blues—like this recording from the 1930s—is cut from the same cloth. And the full-throated lyrics of Gnawa, songs searching for freedom and hope, would have resonated as much in 11th century Morocco as they did on the plantations of the Deep South.

Sulaiman Hakim: There's always been a way to pass a message—a message. And to be able to express itself of all the pain and agony and the glory that has happened within the continental United States and the Gnawas are the same way.

Today, Gnawa has inspired Moroccan bands who enjoy rock star status that would have astounded their musical ancestors. Gnawa has become the top entertainment in Morocco, Essaouira's annual festival its locus.

Morocco has long seduced western musicians. Jazz legend Randy Weston fell under Gnawa's spell in the 1960s. Rock 'n' roll giant Robert Plant was another convert.

So too was Carlos Santana, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Frank Zappa, all of whom made the trek to Morocco. Even Madonna paid tribute on her latest album.

Jimi Hendrix has enduring popularity in Essaouira
Jimi Hendrix has enduring popularity in Essaouira  60 Minutes

But no musician is as celebrated in Morocco as Jimi Hendrix. He rocked up in Essaouira in 1969, where the story goes, he jammed with the Gnawa, fell in love with a local beauty, and wrote the hit "Castles Made of Sand." Decades later, actor Bob Wisdom told us the Hendrix legend lives on.

Bob Wisdom: Everybody in town will tell you that they hung out with him. That's not so (both laugh).

Bob Wisdom: I've seen one person who had a picture of Jimi. Now I don't know if it's a real picture, I'll be honest.

Bill Whitaker: It's like George Washington slept here.

Bob Wisdom: Exactly.

Bill Whitaker: It's like Jimi Hendrix, I knew Jimi, I knew Jimi Hendrix.

Bob Wisdom: I knew Jimi, everybody knew Jimi. You go in the medina and it's like "oh yes yes, Jimi Hendrix my friend, my friend."

In fact, Hendrix didn't even have a guitar when he showed up. And "Castles Made of Sand"—sorry, romance fans—was recorded two years earlier. But why spoil the story? In the Medina's winding alleys, it didn't take much to find the spirit of Jimi.

And if you close your eyes, he's here at his name-sake café, blaring out from fuzzy speakers that sound like they too survived the 60s. Tall tales from a short stay. But Gnawa will do that to you.

The idea that music could be a potent healing force is now attracting serious scientific study, centuries after Morocco's Gnawa masters turned to music as medicine. Gnawa is the music of enslaved Black Africans, who were marched across the Sahara to Morocco centuries ago. Often dubbed the Moroccan Blues, the original music was sacred, praising saints and spirits. Today, Gnawa is enjoying a secular boom. The Gnawa festival—held every June in Essaouira—now attracts hundreds of thousands of fans. And as Gnawa's popularity grows, so too does the appetite for a taste of the mystic.

Away from the mosh pit of the main stage, in a quiet courtyard, we'd come to hear one of Morocco's best known Gnawa masters—or maalems—Mokhtar Gania. Tracing its ancestors to Senegal, the Gania family are as close to Essaouira royalty as you can get.

Mokhtar Gania
Mokhtar Gania 60 Minutes

With his rich baritone voice—often compared to B.B. King—we watched as the maalem strummed his way through the Gnawa liturgy. As always, the castanets drove the beat. The repeated rhythms designed to send people into a trance—a sort of ecstasy—as a way of communicating with the spirits. We watched as one after another, the music moved the unlikeliest of dancers. One swooped like a bird. Another headbanged wildly. One musician told us, it was like a passport to another dimension. 

This was just a glimpse of the sacred. Traditional Gnawa trance ceremonies are usually private, elaborate dusk-to-dawn rituals. They're called lilas. The maalem acts as a musical medium, calling on the spirits to help cure various ills.

Jaleel Shaw: It's like church. It's a very spiritual music where everyone's really part of the experience.

Saxophonist Jaleel Shaw told us he'd never heard of Gnawa music before he was invited to the festival. But when he saw people go into trance, it reminded him of worshippers speaking in tongues at the pentecostal church he'd grown up with in Philadelphia.

Bill Whitaker: You see a connection?

Jaleel Shaw: Absolutely. My experience with Pentecostal church is shouting, or what they call catching the Holy Ghost. So when I went to church, services would go on and on and on if someone caught the Holy Ghost. If someone caught the spirit.

Actor Bob Wisdom told us he'd gone into trance once and he'll never forget it.

Bob Wisdom: The trance is a little scary, you know, because you wanna hold on. You don't wanna let go into it. It's the unknown. It's enough that I don't understand the language but to go into another dimension of of possession…

Bill Whitaker: It's powerful.

Bob Wisdom: It's very powerful.

Wisdom told us the healing rituals of the lilas were like medicine, driven by the hypnotic rhythms of the castanets.

Bob Wisdom: Any American-trained musician will say "oh my god" because the the time is so irregular to how we hear but it builds to hold this spiritual force that they're generating in the lila to call the spirits. That's when you get that little shiver in the ceremony. I guess that's a long way to say, I just like being on the edge of time.

Bill Whitaker: That's what this feels like to you?

Bob Wisdom: Yeah. It's like being on the edge of time.

So while we were stuck in this dimension, we decided to find out more about the gimbri and the powerful medicine it seems to unleash in the hands of the right maalem. We went to see Mokhtar Gania.

A gimbri
A gimbri 60 Minutes

Even without his red and gold finery, the maalem welcomed us into his house with a traditional prayer.

He told us this is one of the oldest gimbris he made. Hand-carved from ebony and the skin from a camel's neck. Turns out the gimbri can also be a drum, the maalem's thumb: their secret weapon. Gania told us it takes a lifetime of study to become a maalem. But as Gnawa has evolved, so too have its ancient instruments. The maalem electrified this gimbri, added frets and decoration.

Bill Whitaker: That is the blues.

Mokhtar Gania: Yeah.

And Gania's newest creation? A rhinestone-crusted gimbri that belongs to the 21st century.

Bill Whitaker: This one looks like a rockstars.

Maalem Gania told us he can wring more notes from this gimbri but the songs stay the same. 

Bill Whitaker: Some of the songs you sing are centuries old. Why do they still connect with young people today?

Mokhtar Gania (translated): That's easy.

He told us:

Mokhtar Gania (translated): Gnawa may be ancient, but it comes straight from the heart. They are very spiritual. Music is not just written for the ear. In Gnawa music, we start with the spirits. 

Bill Whitaker: So when you hear American artists like um Louis Armstrong or James Brown, do you hear Gnawa in their music?

Mokhtar Gania (translated): James Brown is Gnawa. 

He told us:

Mokhtar Gania (translated): And Gnawa is James Brown. 

We headed back to the main stage. We watched a young boy hone his dance steps in a cloud of incense while his Gnawan brothers looked on. Musician Jaleel Shaw told us it was like watching history sing and dance across that stage. He said he felt like an ambassador for American music and the debt owed to the enslaved Black Africans who first expressed themselves in that music. 

Bill Whitaker: Does that history come into play when you're listening to this music?

Jaleel Shaw: Absolutely. That—that—that history comes into play every time I pick up my instrument. The blues comes from the slave songs, slave songs come from

Bill Whitaker: Comes from this.

Jaleel Shaw: From this. That's why I play.

Bill Whitaker: Do you make that connection intellectually or – 

Jaleel Shaw: Intellectually. Spiritually. I feel it. I'm a descendant.

That night, as the sun sank into the atlantic, a different spirit surged into the streets as the old healing music evolved again. Les Amazones d'Afrique—a trio of divas from Mali—joined Asma Hamzoui, one of the few female maalems in Morocco.

Morocco practices a moderate Islam, and it's a sign of Gnawa's resilience that women are now being welcomed into the master ranks.

Sulaiman Hakim: Without music, there is no life. Music is the heartbeat of—of existence. You cannot point to me one society on this planet that exists without music.

Musician Sulaiman Hakim told us every time he played this festival, he discovered something new in the Gnawa playbook. And he predicted it would influence a new generation of musicians.

Sulaiman Hakim: It's gonna open up a whole 'nother world. And then you will see that in the next ten—ten years from now, 20 years we'll be here Bill, don't worry about it

Bill Whitaker: We'll still be here (laughing)

Sulaiman Hakim: We'll still be here to hear this. It's, it's gonna be outrageous.

Bill Whitaker: And Gnawa is steppin' in?

Sulaiman Hakim: Gnawa is there to stay.

The truth of those words was right in front of us: Hoba Hoba Spirit, Morocco's answer to the Rolling Stones. They arrived on stage well after midnight to a frenzied crowd, pogo-ing with abandon. This was music from the streets, the songs often angry and disaffected. They're a thumb in the eye of authority and young Moroccans love them. The band's leader, Reda Allali told us Gnawa was their inspiration, the castanets a nod to the past. "Call it African folk," he wrote "call it Gnawa blues, it's just rock 'n' roll sung by a Moroccan soul." 

Produced by Heather Abbott. Associate producer, LaCrai Scott. Broadcast associate, Mariah B. Campbell. Edited by April Wilson. 

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