The Gnaoua tribe and its music has its origins in an area known by then as Sudan. This place corresponds with a large part of the South Sahara and Central and Western Africa, it is not the current Sudan. The tribe was brought to Morocco during slavery times and bought and sold by Arabs, Berbers and Europeans.
They brought with them their culture, their customs and traditions. This heritage has extended throughout time, contributing with many colorful strokes to Moroccan culture. This can be observed specifically in Essaouira, where the Gnaouas have integrated fully in society. Music is the most valuable resource for the Gnaoua people. It is the way in which they communicate with the world.
In this spiritual sense the tribe increased its importance during the forced migration to Morocco. They crossed the desert on foot, feet and hands chained. In this circumstances the Gnaoua sang to soothe their suffering and in search of peace. The sound of the chains imitated the sound of the instruments and, while being their cause of suffering it was also their relief. By following the regular rhythm, they liberated their minds.
With the passing of time the musical tradition has been conserved and inherited from generation to generation, together with their social customs and particular traditions. The songs speak of religion (they make allusion to the Prophet and Allah), of freedom, of the ancestors and of the ancestral home in Sudan.
The music has a strong link with the Gnaouas religion and spirituality. It is played during religious ceremonies and cultural parties, same as centuries ago. The instruments include the Ganga (big drum), the Tangagat (small drum), the Iquarquachins(small castanets) and the Hajhouj (a 3 string instrument with low tones).
The town’s annual festival is called “Sadaka” (meaning, “a religious offering”), and it occurs during three days every June or July. In the weeks preceding the festival, the Gnaouas ask their neighbors, the Berbers, and other nearby villages, for donations (in the form of sugar, tea, food or money). The first day of the festival a lamb is sacrificed and the collected donations are used to prepare a huge cous-cous for all the people in assistance.
Music is played non-stop night and day for three days. The “Sadaka” is meant to cure sick people and to obtain the Baraka, a divine blessing, through music and dance. Some people can enter a state of transitory trance, thanks to the incessant rhythm of the drums and the chants. It is a religious experience that is also practiced in other parts of Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean.
Nowadays, thousands of people arrive to this festival, among them the Gnaoua that are dispersed around the kingdom, to celebrate their common heritage in Khamlia, as well as people from other ethnic groups interested in such a cultural ceremony.