The Gnawa are a syncretic sect inflected by elements of Mystical Islam and North African local religious themes. In the West they have become well known for their public music, based in rugged hypnotic pentatonic vamps played on the guembri, a kind of proto-lute with a rubbery twang, and accompanied by percussion, singing and the clatter of metal clappers called krakebs.
It’s literally entrancing music. Gnawa music is embedded in holistic cultural practices but the Gnawa have also hit the road to great acclaim, playing ensemble music for audiences worldwide. The American jazz musician, the musical and physical giant Randy Weston has integrated Gnawa music in his own compositions. I first heard the Gnawa sound via Weston, and also had the great pleasure of hearing him lecture on the Gnawa. After the lecture we shared a moment talking about the picture of trance music in North and South Africa. This made for a memorable afternoon and set me off to investigate the musical culture of North Africa and the Sahel.
There are lots of good resources on the web. Number one is Gnawa Stories
Shamanic practitioner Nicholas Breeze Wood provides a concise overview of the Gnawa music ceremony in Acrobat form.
I’ve incorporated a section on Berber and Gnawa music in my Rhythm River programs.