Asmâa Hamzaoui: Pioneering Female Presence in Gnawa Music



by NOUMAN RASOOL

Asmâa Hamzaoui: Pioneering Female Presence in Gnawa Music
© Gnaoua Culture/YouTube

Gnawa music, a spiritual tradition rooted in Morocco, was developed by descendants of enslaved individuals from sub-Saharan Africa. It beautifully weaves ritual poetry, traditional music, and dance, with the Gnawa master taking the spotlight, playing the ghembri—a guitar-like instrument.

Historically, in this staunchly patriarchal milieu, only men held the revered title of Gnawa master. However, Asmâa Hamzaoui's emergence turned the tables. Rachid al-Hamzaoui, Asmâa's father and a Gnawa master, once dreamt of passing down the ghembri legacy to a son.

Yet, destiny had different plans. With no sons, his especially talented daughter Asmâa took the mantle, revolutionizing the Gnawa landscape. Today, she's celebrated as a leading figure in a musical culture that's transitioning from the shadows of street performances into global recognition.

Hamzaoui's Historic Festival Debut

In 2012, Hamzaoui graced the stage at the renowned Gnawa music festival in Essaouira—the epicenter of Gnawa culture. "Being the first woman on stage, playing Gnawa and symbolizing women, was a tremendous responsibility.

I had to do justice to my father's teachings," she expressed during a recent festival appearance. There's limited data on the exact number of Gnawa individuals in Morocco, but their presence dates back to the 16th Century slave trade.

In 2019, Unesco recognized Gnawa's rich heritage, designating their music and culture as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity". The organization highlighted its Sufi roots, its invocations of ancestors, and its fusion of African, Arab-Muslim, and native Berber influences.

However, with its rising popularity, traditionalists, like Naji al-Sudani, a respected maâlem (master musician), are concerned. The newer generations, drawn to the limelight, risk deviating from Gnawa's spiritual essence.

Al-Sudani emphasizes the value of humility, reverence for elders, and the time-honored process of becoming a true maâlem. But in modern Morocco, economic challenges are real. For artists like Hamzaoui, the music represents both spiritual upliftment and a potential escape from economic strain.

"Supporting our parents and households financially is a reality for my sister and me," she explains. Over the years, the Essaouira festival has expanded its horizons, welcoming cross-genre fusions. Suleiman Hakim, an iconic African-American artist, has frequently attended since its inception in 1998.

Familiar with jazz and blues, Hakim finds parallels between these genres and Gnawa, hinting at a shared ancestral legacy. The festival draws a diverse crowd, ranging from Gnawa purists to intrigued tourists. Fehd Benchemsi, a renowned Moroccan artist, remarked, "The festival has evolved, but many, like myself, return to connect with the Gnawa masters.

It’s a pilgrimage." Indeed, a growing number of young Moroccans, even those outside the Gnawa lineage, are drawn to its spiritual depth and celebratory fervor. This shift underscores Morocco's deep ties to sub-Saharan Africa and heralds the revival of a once-marginalized community in a dominantly Arab society.