In Morocco, the Gnawa are descendants of slaves who were deported to Maghreb from sub-Saharan countries (Senegal, Sudan, Ghana, Guinea, etc.). They are the heirs of great rituals and spiritual traditions that combine poetry, music, and dance. The ceremonies (‘lilas’) dedicated to prayer and healing are led by a maalem, i.e. a ‘master of music’.
In recent decades, these very sacred traditions have seen a more secular style of Gwani music emerge.
Asmaâ Hamzaoui, 26, is the leader of the group Bnat Timbouktou and one of the genre’s few – and youngest – female ambassadors.
She inherited her passion from her father, the famous maalem Rachid Hamzaoui. From a very young age, she learned to play the guembri, a sort of 3-string plucked lute, which she uses to accompany celebrations.
Since 2012, she has been leading her own group. Bnat Timbouktou remains largely faithful to traditions in terms of style, but topics such as distance, suffering, and the memory of Africa’s past are ever present.
Gradually, they have successfully grown their audience, to the point that they’ve landed a spot at the famous Essaouira Gnaoua World Music Festival in summer 2017.
This is no small feat, given there are so few Gnawa female players in Morocco and around the world: you can count them on one hand! Traditionally, women do not play during ceremonies and can only touch this instrument in private (which is particularly the case for the wife of a maalem, for example). Performing in public is still a widespread taboo.
But from the look of things, anyone thinking to stop Asmâa Hamzaoui from playing hasn’t come along yet.