The Gnawa (or GnaouaGhanawaGhanawiGnawi) people originated from North and West Africa; to be precise the ancient Ghanaian Empire of Ouagadougou (present day Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Burkino Faso and 85% of Mali (pre Gnawi/Mali Wars)).

This name Gnawa is taken from one of the indigenous languages of the Sahara Desert called Tamazight. The phonology of this term according to the grammatical principles of Tamazight is as follows: Gnawi (singular), Gnawa (collective) and Gnawn (plural rarely used).

The Gnawa are an ethnic group whom, with the passing of time became a part of the Sufi order in Morocco. This kingdom bordered Morocco and Algeria’s southern borders, and had a 300 year blood war with Morocco, prior to both countries forging a long lasting peace accord (conducted between the Monarchs of both countries alone with a scribe). Evidence of this is found is the tribal oral tradition of both countries (Soussi, Riffi, & Ashanti tribes). The result of which saw unprecedented levels of marriages between the Gnawis (ancient Ghanaians) and Soussis of Morocco. A small percentage of this community (Gnawa/Ghanawa) were given to Morocco’s monarch (Mulay: to mean Emperor) as workers as a token and seal of the aforementioned accord. They traveled to Morocco by way of tribal caravans during (and external to) the hours of trade Trans-Saharan trade.

In Saharan countries, there is a term Al-Maghreb Al-Qadeem aka Old Maghreb (Ancient Trans-Saharan trading sphere of influence, cross culturalization and trade; primarily consisting of over 20 countries such as: present day Morocco (Taghaza), Algeria (Djayr), Tunisia (Tunis), Libya (Libu), Egypt (Kemet), Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Ancient Ghana (Ouagadougou), Niger andNigeria were once one region, Burkino Faso, The Western Sahara (also Taghaza), South Africa, Sudan (Nubia), Somalia, Ethiopia (Kush), Eritrea etc.) and Al-Maghreb Al-Jadeed (New Maghreb)(only consisting of present day Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya). The other term (more ancient in use) in chelha is Tamazgha referring to the above.

The word Agnaw (plural: ignawn), literally means ‘deaf and dumb’, this pejorative word refers to those who are considered intellectually unsophisticated. Also this linguistic pattern is solely used to refer to languages and inanimate objects – not for civilizations. With exceptions of Amazigh (Singular) and Imazighn (Plural) to mean noble and free. This isn’t to be confused with the Gnawi/Ghanaian term Gnawi (to mean noble).

The ancient languages of the Gnawa People are: Bambara, Ga, Akan, Wolof, Tamahaq, Tamasheq, Chree etc. The King of Ancient Gnawi/Ghanaian Empire (Ouagadougou) was the Asantehene(King of the Ashanti Empire). This is confirmed by the name given to Ancient the ruler of the Empire.

Chelha refers to the Gnawi as Gnawa/Gnawi (singular) and Gnawn (plural). This term refers to Africans who originated from the Ancient Ghanawi/Ghanaian Empire aka Ouagadougou (not to be confused with the present day capital of Burkino Faso). A percentage of the Gnawis / Ghanawis who migrated, were given as slaves to Morocco’s Mulay (Emperor) as a part of the Gnawi-Maghrebi tribal pact post Gnawi-Maghrebi Wars. It has been suggested that the Gnawis didn’t speak Tamazight (dominant ancient language of the Sahara), however the Gnawis spoke their own form of Tamazight aka Gnawi or Tagnawit or even shorter Ga. Tamazight referring to language and Tifinagh referring to a culture’s alphabet, there are various forms of Tamazight and Tifinagh throughout Africa. One common stereotype of Imazighen is that they, Imazighen, are solely light complexioned, never mixed with their fellow Africans and were of Arab extraction. when in fact the further south of the Sahara, the darker the complexion and the further north of the Sahara the lighter the complexion. Imazighen, while most times, olive-skinned in appearance, can oftentimes come in darker hues.

Another theory is that “Agnaw” was derived from the name of a city in the 11th century, in what is now western Mali, called Gana. In fact the name Ghana (to mean noble) is an ancient African name to which the Ashanti Kingdom espoused for their country’s namesake and its ancient capital was Kumbi Saleh. It has often been said that there was no connection between the Ancient Ghanaian Empire Ouagadougou (which bordered Ancient Morocco, Algeria, Niger and Ancient Sudan) and Present Day Republic of Ghana in West Africa. In fact the connection between the two is the Ashanti Kingdom.

From the Amazigh word Agnaw (Gnawa in Darija Moroccan colloquial Arabic) or from the Malian city Gana, the European words Guinea (English), Guinée (French), and Guinee (Dutch), were possibly likely derived. Most Ghanaians and other ancient kingdoms associated with them, would seriously debate this. As The Ancient Gnawi/Ghanaian Empire Ougadougou was renowned throughout Africa.


The Gnawa population is generally believed to originate from the Sahelian region of West and Central Africa, which had long and extensive trading and political ties with the Maghreb and Algeria specifically, including gold and slave trades.

Popular history particularly incorrectly credits the Moroccan Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur’s alleged ‘conquest’ in 1591 of part of the Songhai Empire, in particular Timbuktu, with bringing large numbers of captives and slaves back across the Sahara to form the Gnawa. However, the slave and gold trade with Southern Saharan African Nations had existed for centuries prior to al-Mansur’s alleged ‘conquest’. As was previously stated the Gnawa/Ghanawa were and still are a people whom .

While adopting Islam, Gnawa continued to celebrate ritual possession during rituals where they are devoted to the practice of the dances of possession and fright. This rite of possession is calledJedba (Arabic: جدبة‎), and proceeds the night (laila, ليلة) that is animated jointly by a master musician (maâlem, معلم) accompanied by his troupe. Gnawa music mixes classical Islamic Sufism with pre-Islamic African traditions, whether local or sub-Saharan.

Many modern Western scholars see parallels between African American music such as the blues, that is rooted in African-American American slave songs, and Gnawa music as well as Sufitariqa. This influence also resonates from other spiritual Saharan groups such as the Bori[disambiguation needed] in Nigeria, the Stambouli in Tunisia, the Sambani in Libya, the Bilali in Algeria and those outside Africa such as the Voodoo religion or the Candomblé in Brazil. These similarities in the artistic and scriptural representations are seen by many scholars as reflecting a shared experience of many African diasporic groups.

Gnawa and music

Main article: Gnawa music

The term Gnawa musicians generally refers to people who also practice healing rituals, with apparent ties to pre-Islamic African animism rites. In Moroccan popular culture, Gnawas, through their ceremonies, are considered to be experts in the magical treatment of scorpion stings and psychic disorders. They heal diseases by the use of colors, condensed cultural imagery, perfumes and fright.

Gnawas play deeply hypnotic trance music, marked by low-toned, rhythmic sintir melodies, call-and-response singing, hand clapping and cymbals called krakeb (plural of karkaba). Gnawa ceremonies use music and dance to evoke ancestral saints who can drive out evil, cure psychological ills, or remedy scorpion stings.

Gnawa music has won an international profile and appeal. Many Western musicians including Bill Laswell, Brian Jones, Randy Weston, Adam Rudolph, Tucker Martine, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, have drawn on and collaborated with Gnawa musicians. Some traditionalists regard modern collaborations as a mixed blessing, leaving or modifying sacred traditions for more explicitly commercial goals. International recording artists such as Hassan Hakmoun have introduced Gnawa music and dance to Western audiences through their recordings and concert performances.

The centre for Gnawa music is Essaouira in the south of Morocco where the Gnaoua World Music Festival is held annually. The Gnawa of Marrakesh hold their annual festival at the sanctuary ofMoulay Brahim in the Atlas Mountains. The Gnawa of Khamlia hold their annual festival in August at the village Khamlia in Erg Chebbi.

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