8. Inhabiting Culture

What does it mean to possess culture? What is possessed? Who is the owner? How is ownership declared, recognized, and experienced?

In the appropriation of sound and meaning it is not surprising that signs be emptied of some of their associations and infused with others. What is noteworthy is which meanings are repressed and which taken up as metonyms of cultural identity. The exhibits at Dar Gnawa remind us that we inhabit our senses differently. Sometimes we are in possession of them, and sometimes they possess us. Certainly the question of power and agency arises in relation to these different senses – audition, specularity, the tactility and deliberateness of writing – though it would be facile to assume that being possessed by a spirit, a culture, a genre of music, an image or an idea necessarily implies domination by the same. Rather, we must analyze the relations of desire inherent in these (subjectifying and objectifying) encounters and the way cultural forms inhabit bodies and imaginations in different degrees of depth and compatibility, in a kind of elective affinity.

Dar Gnawa exhibits not only the process of being possessed by several cultures somatically, but it also makes claims to the possession of culture, objectifying a notion of tagnawit, Gnawa-ness, by designating the specific Gnawa traditions as practiced in Tangier in a written and official form. Here, in the luha, Abdullah El-Gourd is unabashedly proprietary. Creating the index, he authors the tradition and inserts it into a local as well as a global history. We might posit that a codification of regional tradition is taking place in response to the centrifugal forces of transnationalism (Erlmann 1993; 1996). Interestingly, however, the production of difference at the site of the local in Dar Gnawa has created a construction of similarity at the level of the global, the intercultural collaboration of Abdullah El-Gourd and Randy Weston emphasizing the links of common history and a system of shared aesthetics. Yet Abdullah El-Gourd’s genealogical claims to authenticity encompass much more than a single musical trajectory, going back to the 18 African countries that surround the luha, to the Moroccan masters who taught him, but also to the masters of jazz in the United States. There is no essentialism here (Kelly 1998, 2001). Rather, identity is a matter of "links" that are not spurious but determined by the possessing spirits. Some people are linked (martabit) to the spirits and color of blue, others to red, green, white, yellow, black. Affiliations are determined by desire, by the attractions that some spirits have to some people. Identity is not in the blood so much as it is in propensity.

Does the local, the particular Gnawa aesthetic, become a fetish for export in the case of Dar Gnawa? Or is it, rather, the international, and especially the African-American heritage which has been imported, festishized and put on display for a local audience? I would suggest that both of these interpretations are too facile to account for the performances and displays at Dar Gnawa. The Gnawa have always experienced otherness in the bones, so to speak. Theirs is a hybrid tradition, composed of a diverse pantheon of spirits with whom they have a corporeal and spiritual relation. Following Gilroy (1993:73), this makes them modern before even the advent of modernism. They are used to this relation to multiplicity. For them, it is not unusual to give passage to a different modality of being, or for a possessing spirit to reorient one’s sense of taste, touch, smell, one’s way of hearing and speaking, singing and moving, even one’s way of interpreting the world. This is what it means to inhabit a realm that includes not only human beings but the mluk, the possessing spirits, whether they are saints who were once embodied or spirits who have always lived in a parallel realm. The Gnawa and their followers are adept at this kind of habitus exchange. Perhaps this is why their display of culture is so inclusive of other traditions: the soundscape at Dar Gnawa is as various as the pantheon of spirits, each coming from a different culture, each embodying their own history. The Gnawa recognize and respect the state of being possessed by difference (with all the power relations that implies), while nonetheless never losing the ability to return to the cultural self as they themselves define and "come to terms" with it.

Spirits inhabit our bodies, whether it is the spirit of Thelonius Monk or Moses. They take root not just in our consciousnesses, but in the muscles of our fingers as we imitate their key strokes and movements, in our breathing patterns as we sway to their rhythms, their particular beat (dukka). We taste them in the infusion of odors that they demand be released into the air. We breathe them in. Sometimes they cause us to expire, but always to experience, in Randy Weston’s words, "another dimension." The same is true of cultural imaginations. Cultural memories live in the body as presence. We are possessed by the repetitions that we perform each day, by the sounds that reside in our soundscape. But we are also always involved in the coming to terms with cultural identity, the codification and objectification not only of other cultures, but of our own. Embracing this dual possession of culture, and this multiple relation to music and history, the Gnawa participate in a global economy of aesthetic tastes and styles, while creating their particular relation to history and the ancestors.

Forward | M&A contents page