By Alexander Jusdanis
By Alexander Jusdanis
Rabat – Asmâa Hamzaoui made her Gnaoua and World Music Festival debut Friday night, playing a midnight show with her group Bnat Timbouktu at Essaouira’s Dar Loubane.
The small riad in a corner of the medina was quickly filled to standing-room-only after Hamzaoui and her all-women group took the floor. The young Gnawia’s hands danced on the ginbri’s thick gut strings with ecstatic ease, supporting her group as they sang through the Gnawa repertoire at one octave higher than usual. Joined at the climax by French multi-instrumentalist Loy Ehrlich on ribab, the Bnat’s comfort and power forced the audience off of their comforting poofs to clap, dance, and shout along.
The 20-year-old Hamzaoui and Bnat Timbouktu represent a new generation of young women Gnawa music performers – mastering the brotherhood’s musical instruments, the ginbri (a wood-and-skin bass) and the qraqab (double castanets), has until recently been the domain of men.
Women have always played a central role in Gnawa traditions, however. Most intimate Gnawa ceremonies are organized and hosted by women, and women make up most of those dancing. However, as concert performances like those of the festival gain increasing relevance for the livelihood of Gnawa musicians, the key role played by women in the tradition has become overlooked.
Ethnomusicologist Deborah Kapchan warns in her book ‘Travelling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace’ that while men “participate in the larger heritage of the African diaspora (in musical collaborations, festivals, and other mediated events), the local and largely feminine-controlled ritual life is indeed fading away.”
Hamzaoui told Yobladi, however, that taking up the ginbri was a simple, self-evident decision. “My dad is a Gnawi Maalem. I’ve loved this music since my childhood. I was always stuck to it. At six, I had the right to touch the ginbri.”
While women have always held crucial positions in Gnawa ceremonies, Hamzaoui said her intent to play a new role was not always welcomed. “The main difficulties I encountered came from the ignorance of the Gnawi culture and the presence of amateurs. They didn’t accept that a woman would take up their instrument, play, and be comfortable.”
As Friday night’s concert shows, Hamzoui does not appear fazed by potential any “ignorance.”
“While I interpret,” the young Gnawia says, “I am in my element.”