2. The Performance Context

Last summer I found myself in Tangier, the northern-most Moroccan city that juts out of the African continent towards Gibraltar and Spain, separating the Atlantic from the Mediterranean Sea (4). I was there to visit Abdullah El-Gourd, a master Gnawa musician, I had met Abdullah when he was on tour in the United States with African-American composer and pianist, Randy Weston and his ensemble. The two of them had been collaborating for thirty years, ever since Weston visited Tangier for the first time in 1969, when El-Gourd was still an electrical engineer for Voice of America radio broadcasting, then based in Tangier. As a ma‘llem, or spirit master, Abdullah El-Gourd is unique in that he not only leads a ritual life in Tangier, but has an active professional relationship with Weston, who also lived in Tangier in the late sixties and early seventies. While there, Weston had a music club called "African Rhythms," frequented by people like Evelyn Waugh and Paul and Jane Bowles, but also by Moroccan musicians and literati. Although he left in 1975, Weston has continued playing with the Gnawa in international venues, and with Abdullah El-Gourd in particular. I was in Tangier to understand how these two men, their two musical traditions and their histories intertwined. Further, I was interested in how both Abdullah El-Gourd and Randy Weston, while each possessing their own relation to slavery, music and innovation, came to be possessed by a historical narrative that animated and defined them both. Walking up the steep steps from the Tangier port and entering the narrow streets of the medina, I found the house quickly. It was indistinguishable from the others. It wasn’t until I entered that I found the sign designating the location. "Dar Gnawa," it said, "Commemorating the Memory of God’s Mercy" (dar gnawa tuhiyyu dhikra at-tarahhum) : Dar Gnawa.

"Dar Gnawa: Commemorating the Memory of God’s Mercy"

And indeed both commemoration and memory were created and displayed here. But of what and for whom?

El-Gourd had transformed his traditional medina ryad into a museum of sorts, an institute for the instruction, practice and promotion of Gnawa culture. After welcoming me, Abdullah El-Gourd waved his arms in the direction of the photos on the walls, and the instruments – an electric organ, an African djembe drum, bongos, a conga drum, -- all instruments that are not found in Gnawa lilat (pl.).

On the second floor Abdullah There were also Moroccan instruments, of course, including several ginbris El-Gourd escorted me into his office. A sophisticated music system stood on a table in the corner, the speakers pointed out the window to the courtyard below.

The plastered walls, painted a light green, were decorated with a poster from a recent Gnawa tour with Randy Weston. Other promotional materials lay on an old wooden desk. There were videos, a few books, magazine articles, compact disk and tape collections, a fax machine, a Master’s thesis that a beur, a French-born Moroccan, with roots in Tangier had written about Abdullah El-Gourd in the 1990s. There were also large yellow diagrams on poster board that showed spatial choreographies for the Gnawa, maps for the movements of the dancers.

Poster of Tour with Randy Weston, Johnny Copeland and the Gnawa.
Their c.d. covers are at the bottom of the poster

"What are those?" I asked.

"They’re for when we do performances," he said, using the French word spectacles, "so everyone knows what to do." Spectacles – or frajat in Arabic -- are performances done for tourists at hotels in Morocco and at festivals and concerts abroad. Lilat, on the other hand, literally "nights," are the ceremonial rituals of healing the possessed.

Transforming his house into a display for the musical heritage of the Gnawa, Abdullah El-Gourd has come to possess the until-now purely oral cultural history of the Gnawa in sound, image and word, but he is also possessed by these media of documentation; they inhabit and determine him in ways that both grant and deny him agency.

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