4. The Encounter

"Gnawa always had their trades," Abdullah El-Gourd was quick to tell me. "Not like now. Then you were a carpenter, a metal smith, a mason, everyone had their job. And you were also a Gnawi. Now people make being a Gnawi into a profession. It’s even on their carte nationale (national identity cards). It wasn’t until 1993 when I retired that I began to go out [on tour]…

"Well, I was working at Voice of America and at the same time I was playing with the Gnawa. I was at this time a muhib, a lover of the music and trance (al-hal), not a master. And I knew an English teacher. And this English teacher heard Randy [Weston] play, he met Randy Weston and introduced us."

Jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston was on a tour of several African nations at this time, a project funded by the State Department with the intention of introducing African-American artists to their roots in living African traditions." A young Moroccan teacher brought me and Abdullah El-Gourd together," Randy Weston said, speaking of the same person. " ‘If you're interested in African traditional music, you have to hear the Gnawa,' he told me. He was like a spirit, because neither Abdullah nor I remember his name or know what happened to him. …"

That Abdullah El-Gourd was working at Voice of America has more than just ironic import. It was his association with English speakers in this international city that opened the door to a meeting with Randy Weston, for whom Abdullah became, in a sense, the "voice of the Gnawa," a representative of a link with Africa that, although it had traveled across the Sahara, had not been broken by the Atlantic crossing. That was more than thirty years ago. It was an encounter that changed the lives of both men.

Abdullah El-Gourd, a ritual musician, became more of an artist or fannan, while jazz artist Randy Weston’s career veered toward ritual music. Both men found a common thread in the histories of slavery, for unlike other countries in Africa which were sources for the slave trade, Morocco (like the United States) was a destination for slave routes, particularly under the Arab and Berber sultanates that ruled between the 15th and 16th centuries and who brought conquered people from Timbuktu to Morocco, but also by the Portuguese who used Morocco as a stopover port from West Africa (Laroui 1982; Pacques 1991). The Gnawa culture grew up behind the palace walls and among enclaves of slaves and former slaves in the cities and villages of pre-Independence Morocco.

Randy Weston told me that it was Abdullah El-Gourd’s desire to educate others about Gnawa culture that led him to introduce Mr. Weston to the old masters, a privilege usually reserved for insiders and initiates. "Abdullah was wonderful," Mr. Weston remarked, "because he was always interested in documenting his people when I first met him. So he introduced me to the old masters." Today, more than thirty years after this initial meeting, both Randy Weston and Abdullah El-Gourd have recorded the story of their cultural encounter–-Weston in more than 46 albums and compact discs, among which Abdullah El-Gourd appears on two. Abdullah El-Gourd has also documented the effects of this cultural alchemy by transforming his home into both into an institute of Gnawa culture and a studio/salon where local artists come everyday to listen to music, to play music and to talk music.

Dar Gnawa is a space for the display of tagnawit -- Gnawa-ness, also loosely translated as Gnawa ethnicity, or Gnawa identity. The word tagnawit is actually a Berber syntactical construction that has been incorporated into Moroccan Arabic syntax. Thus huwa Gnawi means "he is a Gnawa" whereas to say ‘and-u tagnawit is to say that "he possesses [the qualities, or attributes of] Gnawa-ness". Tagnawit is the word used to differentiate "authentic" Gnawa identity from the inauthentic. For the Gnawa, those possessing tagnawit are most often born into a Gnawa milieu and come up through the ranks, learning the ritual in all its complexity by observation, participation and slow initiation, until it’s "in the bones", whereas those who do not possess tagnawit are the popularizers (Nass Marrakech, Orchestra de Barbès) who, for purposes of commercialization, have adopted the Gnawa identity and music but know little of its deeper ritual significance and its history. Discussion of who possesses tagnawit are common among Gnawa musicians and practitioners. It is a discourse intimately connected to notions of identity and authenticity and there are often fierce debates around the matter. For the Gnawa, this distinction also points to a relation to place and time. For Moroccans, "Real Gnawa" (al-gnawi al-haqiqi) are located in a particular regional tradition (whether it is that of Marrakech, Casablanca, Rabat, or another city) and they have put in their time at plenty of all-night rituals, or lilat.

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