UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Music of the Gnawa of Morocco : evolving spaces and times Sum, Maisie


The Gnawa are a sub-Saharan-Berber-Islamic society found throughout Morocco with origins in sub-Saharan Africa and slavery. Their music invokes supernatural entities during an all-night ritual for purposes such as healing. Despite being marginalized for their ritual beliefs and practices, Gnawa music has become popular and is increasingly performed in secular contexts alongside sacred rituals. The aims of my dissertation are threefold: to analyze the Gnawa ritual with regard to structure, process and function; to investigate how Gnawa music is context-sensitive; and building on the first two points, to assess the impact of global forces on Gnawa ritual and music, and on its practitioners. My research imparts a musical dimension to the study of the Gnawa sacred ritual and to its secularized form, and engages in comparative analysis of improvised musical practices which articulate a dialogue with an evolving tradition. The inquiry draws primarily from my affiliation with a hereditary Gnawa family. In the first part I examine the world of the Gnawa and their music. This elucidates the habitus that informs the perception of social situations and gives meaning to the musical expression of ritual musicians. The second part investigates patterns and behaviors embedded in sonic structures of varied performances and correlates subtle differences in musical variations to performative intent. By first investigating the interaction between music and dance in a sacred ritual, then analyzing contrasting performances, I demonstrate how the Gnawa musical system operates as a referent to context and to mental activity (cognitive processes). Drawing on discourse of the African diaspora, I challenge the notion that the shift from the practice of ritual music for the local community to the performance of ritual music in festivals worldwide supports a concurrent shift towards desecration. Instead, Gnawa ritual musicians establish distinct spheres of practice which delineate the sacred from the secular.

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