Second Place – From Pan-Arabism to Pan-Africanism: Sonic Solidarities in Francophone North Africa, 1930-Present


Soit que l’on considère le Maroc du point de vue social, comme membre de la grande famille musulmane, soit que, par sa nature géographique, on l’intègre dans l’Afrique septentrionale, ce pays n’en occupe pas moins une place toute particulière.


– From a French primer to Moroccan music (1925)[1]



This paper will trace a shift in North African musical culture from the pan-Arab to the pan-African. It will open with a brief discussion of Andalusian music (al-‘ala), the music of Islamic Spain, and its relationship to Europe and the Hispanophone world. Then, the paper will turn to an extended discussion of Gnawa––a musical style brought to the Maghreb by West African slaves trafficked across the Sahara. This section will analyze the role of the desert as both a divisor and a connector between formerly colonized peoples and places. It will also trace the political life of pan-Arabism, from the death of Nasser to its modern iteration in Islamic fundamentalism. Finally, the paper will close with some reflections on similar geographies in Zanzibar and elsewhere, giving special attention to the role of music in the creation of a cartographic discourse.

This paper’s sonic approach to space is not as esoteric as it might at first seem. As political scientist Hisham D. Aidi explains, music has produced “a moral geography” in the Maghreb, one that is “anchored in North Africa but [that also] extend[s] east, south, and west.”[2] Although this understanding of the landscape rejects the essential features of formal, European cartography––in particular, an indexical relationship to the earth and crisp, defined borders––it does reveal a number of relationships that would be otherwise occluded. More specifically, the discursive and participatory nature of music gets at one facet that most top-down cartography cannot: how ordinary people discuss the land. How, in other words, do both individuals and collectives talk about geography? What is disputed between them? What genealogies and histories do they inscribe onto their landscape?

Sound is also a useful medium to dissect the fragmented and kaleidoscopic experience of postcolonialism in North Africa. As Achille Mbembe notes, colonial ruptures tended to produce a “deconstruction of images,” one that thrust the visual objects of empire into flux between colonial and post-colonial resonances. In order to parse these artifacts, Mbembe contends, one must treat them “not as [static forms of art] but as a compositional process[es] that [are] theatrical and marked by polyphonic dissonances.”[3] The emphasis on context and staging is key. Yet, because of the prominence of image vis-à-vis our other senses, the visual dimension of a performance can often be alienated from the tactile and the aural. As per Timothy Barringer:

The so-called “linguistic turn,” and its less ubiquitous successor, the “visual turn,” have seen historians and anthropologists take a renewed, critical interest in the structure and fabric of texts and images. To reincorporate questions of sensory experience, however – to include hearing and smell alongside sight, and to reposition the enquiry to take account of the response of the perceiving individual – requires a rethinking of cultural history in general, and the cultural history of empire in particular.[4]

Most musical performances intertwine and layer together various sensations in a way that is hard to capture with a simple vinyl track or a digital recording. This essay has attempted to get at the multifaceted experience of the geography that it discusses, drawing on film, image, recording and text. Much work still remains to be done before a complete integration of smell and taste can even be considered, however.

When considered solely from a visual perspective, Islamic lands can be rather difficult to circumscribe in cartographic terms. “There is no [official] theology of the land,” Hartford Seminary theologian Mahmoud Ayoub explains, “[and t]he Islamic view is that the whole earth belongs to God, and all of God’s broad earth is a masjid, a mosque.”[5] The system of land classifications that is usually mentioned in discussions of Islam and geography––that of dar al-Islam––is a later addition, as Manoucher Parvin and Maurie Sommer note:

Dar al-Islam [lit. The Land of Islam]…is not a term used in the Quran, but is a classical legal doctrine, treated in the shari’a…that relates to the Qur’anic injunction imposing the Muslim obligation of jihad, the conversion, subjection, or elimination of the non-Muslim.[6]

Moreover, this system has “a personal rather than [a] territorial cast,” and is more closely related to the individual believer than the terrain he or she occupies.[7] By contrast, the musical geographies discussed in this paper record both personal migrations and collective perceptions of the land. The sonic medium is also a useful one with which to chronicle the complicated genealogical histories of diasporas and their traditions. After all, the patchwork and pastiche of overlapped identities is more often engraved in the popular troubadours of ordinary folk than the legalistic pronouncements of the élite.

The first Arabic-speakers arrived in the Iberian Peninsula in 711, with invading Muslim armies from the south (see Figure 1). In Córdoba, a backwater once controlled by the Visigoths, these conquerors established a grand capital for their caliphate.[8] And, as the story goes, these rulers made good with their new neighbors, both Jewish and Christian, with whom they lived side-by-side in an open-minded, cosmopolitan society. (The realities of convivencia, or coexistence, in al-Andalus, as this state came to be called, are far more complex than is usually recognized.[9] But that is another matter.) Over the years, successive waves of Christian and Berber raiders shattered this once prosperous kingdom, reducing it to a constellation of city-states, and, in the end, “just a single spectacular city: Granada, which finally capitulated to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.”[10]

With the Reconquista of Spain by Christian monarchs, a veritable exodus of religious minorities began to flow out of the Iberian Peninsula. This forcible exile of Jews and Muslims transposed the Spanish landscape onto North Africa. Often, the pattern of resettlement was indexical as refugees plotted their cities, point by point, onto the new terrain. As per Aidi:

According to local lore, refugees from Cordoba brought their music to Tlemcen in western Algeria, refugees from Seville brought theirs to Tunis, and those from Valencia and Granada brought theirs to Fez and Tetuan.[11]

This overtly “Cartesian”[12] mentality persists even today, among a clan of Andalusian-identified Moroccans in Rabat. Most elsewhere, however, the exiles of the Umayyad Caliphate integrated themselves into the societies that they arrived into. Today, music remains the primary vestige of this migration, and the principal medium through which most Arabs experience the culture of al-Andalus.[13] “More than any other cultural form,” explains musicologist Dwight Reynolds, “Andalusian music has existed for Arabs as a tangible, living legacy of medieval Islamic Spain.”[14]

In Algeria and Tunisia, the largest waves of migrants came later, in the early 17th century, when the moriscos (Christian converts of Arab descent) were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. “By the time of the expulsion orders of 1609 and 1610,” recounts Reynolds, the migrants had few connections to the Maghreb and “in some cases met with rather rough fates.”[15] Confronted by this hostility, most recent arrivals chose to acquiesce to the dominant culture and take root in the soil rather than preserve a distinct identity. But their music remained.

“When we were evicted from Spain,” quips the Algerian musician, Maurice El Medioni, “we had this same music tucked away dans nos bagages.[16] This sense of cultural continuity is impressive, especially given that in Algeria,

French cultural policy…[suppressed] Andalusian heritage, seeing it as unhelpful evidence of the land’s civilizational pedigree, preferring to promote and catalogue traditions of local Amazigh communities and local Sufi orders – and as a way to distance the country from the Middle East.[17]

Was it actually the “same music” (cette même musique), however? El Medioni’s claim is somewhat dubious, given that the majority of Andalusian music played today in cafés and street corners today “cannot be traced [back] to medieval Iberia.”[18] However, the various styles of North African al-‘ala do share several characteristics that distinguish them from other kinds of music. In particular, this is a style that rejects hybridization with the various Maghrebi “regional musics marked by strong African features.”[19] In effect, it is the product of an imaginative culture whose geographic and sonic frontiers are primarily “Iberian and Middle Eastern” in scope.[20]

Although this was a diasporic music, grafted by migrants onto the skin of the Maghreb, Arab musicians quickly adopted it as their own. During the colonial period, however, the French government attempted to drive a wedge between the music and its composers. In part, this rested on the re-naming of these melodies in official discourse and decrees. As per Jonathan Shannon:

A number of Moroccan authors have suggested that the term Andalusian only came to be applied to [al-‘ala] music during the colonial period. According to one author, as a way of diminishing its Arab nature and to diminish the possibility that the Arabs could have created something of great civilization import.[21]

Upon gaining independence, hence, many states saw this music as central to their rehabilitation as a civilized, self-governing people. For Algerian nationalists, as Aidi explains,

Andalusi music bespoke a history that was suppressed by colonial rule; it embodied a tradition and identity and could inspire a nationalist consciousness: by anchoring Algerian national identity retroactively in Muslim Spain, the music could point toward an independent future.[22]

But what did it mean to link the country’s post-independence identity to a bygone past? What did this sonic geography look like? The visual culture of Andalusi nationalism is difficult to parse, in part, because of the fact that “these are very closely related regions, and…the strait of Gibraltar [is only an] eight mile stretch of water.”[23] Moreover, the Spanish colony in Río de Oro and the various outcropped colonies of the Spanish in the region “have meant that the role of Spain in the Moroccan and Algerian musical imagination is particularly complex, and is as real as it is imagined.”[24]

In Andalusian music, however, this affinity for Spain is clearly defined as a yearning for the past, one demarcated by the three semi-spatial sentiments that recur in Andalusian songs––exile (el ghorba), separation (el faraq), and nostalgia (el wahash).[25] Curiously, however, the new nationalist music did not just evoke the West with its distant history of convivencia: it also evoked the East and, in particular, the Islamic heartlands in Arabia and the Levant. This was in accordance with the tenets of pan-Arabism, as articulated and put forth primarily by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt.[26] As per the guiding light of post-independence Egyptian music, Umm Kulthum:

Music must represent our Eastern spirit. It is impossible to present to listeners of foreign tastes; they won’t accept it. Those who study European music learn it as one would learn a foreign language. Of course it is useful, but it would be foolish to expect that this European language become ours.[27]

The connections between a classical repertoire and pan-Arabism are less pronounced in the Maghreb. However, in Syria, where Andalusi music also took hold, the genre has been converted into a major symbol of pan-Arab solidarity.[28] Consider, for instance, the description of an Arab music festival from the digital daily, Syria-Online:

Two Syrian cities (Damascus and Aleppo) will [host] four Andalusian nights in which ancient music and songs from the days of the Moors in Spain will be presented…The Syrian-Moroccan-Spanish connection of this cultural festival is evident: the Umayyad Dynasty based in Damascus established the Umayyad rule in Andalusia, and Aleppo, capital of the north, became the bearer of the artistic traditions of this glorious past. Morocco became the refuge to the thousands of Spanish Muslims (Moors) who fled the Spanish inquisition after the Spanish re-conquest of Andalusia. Thus, musical traditions of Andalusia were preserved throughout centuries. Three [ensembles] from Aleppo, Morocco and Spain will perform in this festival, using period instruments and authentic styles.[29]

For pan-Arabists, the Andalusi past is not seated in a Christianized, re-conquered Córdoba. The Syria-Morocco-Spain connection evokes instead the power of the Damascene Umayyads, who ruled from the Islamic heartland in the Levant. In the Maghreb, where the nexuses with Spain are far stronger, Andalusi music is less associated with the East. Nevertheless, it is still an emblem of a culture and a time to which all Arabic speakers have access.

Even in Spain, the imaginative connection to al-Andalus is alive and kicking. In her survey of Spanish musical production over the entresiglos period (1874–1936), Laura Sanz García has traced the “commercialization of cuadros de costumbre and salon music that continued to identify Spain with Andalusia and Al-Andalus.”[30] This production ceased temporarily from 1936 to 1975, when the Franco regime began to promote a simplistic, Christian narrative of Spanish history.[31] But recently, there has been an intense interest in Spain’s Moorish past. This has produced a new crop of Andalusi-style artists and bands: Cálamus,[32] Radio Tarifa,[33] Diego El Cigala,[34] Alabína,[35] and many more.

Although traditional música andalusí has rarely made it onto South American shores, the dissemination of this music in Europe has made a couple of Hispano-Arab crossover compositions possible.[36] This was concomitant with a novel understanding of geography. In Brazil, for instance,

[Islam] came to be seen as a form of resistance to globalization, to empire. And many people decided to convert – especially people who historically vote left – Trotskyites, socialists – they saw Islam as a new Third Worldism.[37]

On the Maghrebi side, the arrival of Puerto Rican soldiers on North Africa shores in 1942 increased the sense of affinity between Latin American rhythms and Andalusian tunes. Maurice El Medioni, for instance, notes that he first learned to play Latinx music (what he calls “Descarga Oriental”) from a couple of puertorriqueños who were stationed in his town.[38]

For the many Jewish players of Andalusian music, by contrast, the postwar period was one of intense hardship and defeat. After all, countless Sephardim were exiled from their homes with the rise of nationalist governments in Algeria and Morocco.[39] Mustapha Tahmi, an Algerian musician who has recently been reunited with his former band (see Figure 2), recalls that all of his former friends scattered one after the other, “like doves at the sound of gunfire.”[40]Andalusi music could make the frontiers of their exile seem more permeable, transposing the original sense of yearning for Islamic Spain onto a newer nostalgia for the Maghreb. Certain Judeo-Arabic musicians also used their music and their professions to literally collapse the distances, returning to their homelands for concerts and recitals. Ahmed Bernaoui, another Algerian musician, would say of that time that “[t]he guitar was our passport,” permitting access to spaces not accessible to other Jewish émigrés.[41]

The majority of Jews exiled from Algeria moved to metropolitan France, where, because of the Crémieux Decree, they were considered white.[42] There, they adapted the traditional Andalusi style to a mode that would speak to their particular sense of displacement. As per Aidi:

Perhaps prior to 1962 there wasn’t anything distinctive about the Jewish contributions to Andalusi music, but the genre that emerged in France explicitly tried to deal with the contradictions of being a Jew of Arab heritage in a West that perceives the Jew as the antonym of the Arab.[43]

Back in North Africa, Andalusian music would continue to be the official soundtrack to pan-Arab solidarity and nationalism. Jewish contributions to its development, however, would be expunged from the official record. In the context of escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the Middle East, Judeo-Arabic Andalusi music has become a symbol of alterity––of the possibility of convivencia between Jews and Muslims. Salim Halali, in particular, has become an emblem for the Andalusian musical tradition, especially since the release of Les hommes libres (2011), a film that recounts his experience as a Jew in Nazi France.[44] His words echo a broader sense of statelessness among Judeo-Arabic musicians: “My heart knows no horizons or frontiers,” Salim would later say. “[Just play] a guitar and my soul changes…My homeland is love.”[45]

The popularity of Andalusi music as both a symbol of civilized, European ties and pan-Arab solidarity ultimately set the stage for the rise of the Gnawa in the sixties and seventies. With the appearance of this latter music on the Maghrebi musical scene, the North African ties with the Islamic heartlands of the East would be reconfigured, and the imagined solidarities extended to the Hispanophone world instead move downwards, to Mother Africa.









Figure 1.         Map of al-Andalus.

Reprinted from Wikimedia Commons.











Figure 2.         Cover of El Gusto’s 2011 album.

Reprinted from Safinez Bousbia.


Gnawa (or Gnaoua) refers to a Maghrebi people that claim to be the descendants of enslaved West Africans trafficked across the Sahara (see Figure 3). At the same time, the word denotes a distinct Sufi order, closely associated with this people. Although most of the members of the order “have no clear ancestral connection to Sahelian Africa,”[46] the best-loved and revered members of the brotherhood are indeed of sub-Saharan African descent. And while Gnawa rituals and practices are Islamic in name, most contain a heavy dose of animist traditions. As per Chouki El Hamel:

[Gnawa rites] combin[e] Islamic belief with pre-Islamic African traditions, whether local or sub-Saharan West African. Gnawa ‘spirit possession’ practices were not fundamentally outside of standard…Islamic Sufi practices, because, firstly, the notion of ‘a spirit world’ is accepted in Islam…and, secondly, [because] most Sufi orders sought a form of spirit possession through study and meditation.[47]

The principal sacrament of the Gnawa order is called the lila. It is an all-night ritual, punctuated and driven by a sequence of musical suites, each intended to call down a different spirit, who then possesses the dancers and invites the spectators to join him or her in religious ecstasy. In this ceremony, devotees will praise God and the Prophet Muhammad, but also call on “different [non-Muslim] saints and invok[e] the spirits of Bambara, Hausa and Fulani, an allusion to [their] ancestors from West Africa.”[48]

The Gnawa first attained global exposure in the fifties, in part because of their association with major American musical figures – Claude McKay, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and the like.[49] Of late, however, more people have been drawn to the melodies of this obscure Sufi order because of its circulation in underground music circles.[50] In particular, because of the “various blends of Gnawa jazz, Gnawa reggae, and Gnawa rock” that already saturate the European and North African music scenes and have begun to make their way into the States.[51] The Gnawa’s newfound “global status,”[52] however, has not come without controversy. By and large, this has taken the form of heated debates about the music’s origin:

Publicity on Gnawa music generally focus[es] on its African roots and downplay[s] the fact that lilas – the healing/trance rituals which are the main occasion for Gnawa music, consistently invoke Allah, the prophet Muhammad, his companions and family, and prominent Muslim saints, as well as the spirits (mulûk) of West African origin.[53]

This attempt to present Gnawa music as universalistic and “tribal” is grounded in the logic of the U.S. market. When devoid of its cosmopolitan Islamic basis, after all, this music can be advertised as yet another New Age product – the newest kumbaya straight from the mouths of the dispossessed. For American listeners, moreover, “any percussive local sound [in Gnawa music is] seen as…an ‘African retention,’” and thus similar to the traces of African music found in jazz and reggae.[54] The geographic implications of this phenomenon are manifold:

North Africa in this context is seen not as part of Africa, but as an extension of the African diaspora; if light-skinned Berbers perform Gnawa music, they are “appropriating” black music just as whites did in the U.S. And more broadly, the Sahara is seen as a divide akin to the Atlantic Ocean, separating Africa from her diasporas.[55]

Randy Weston, the jazz maestro who first popularized the Gnawa in the West, echoes these sentiments in his recent memoir, entitled African Rhythms. For him, the resonances between the trans-Saharan and the trans-Atlantic experience are both spiritual and musical. The comparison rests on the nature of a single spirit––Sidi Musa––whose color is blue like the Atlantic and whose namesake, Moses, parted the waters to lead an enslaved people out of Egypt.[56] It is not clear whether the Gnawa practitioners in North Africa understand their relationship to the diaspora in those same terms.

The treatment of the Sahara as a divisive ocean is not a recent phenomenon, however. It is at least as old as the name given to the climactic zone directly beneath the Sahara––the Sahel––which in the original Arabic (sahil) means coast.[57] This metaphor of exodus-over-water, moreover, remains a prominent trope in traditional Gnawa ceremonies, where devotees chant about the displacement and disorientation that their ancestors suffered. “The experience of slavery, of being uprooted” is, as Tim Abdellah Fuson contends, a central part of the initial suites in a Gnawa ceremony.[58]

This vision of dislocation is specific to the Maghreb. Elsewhere, because of the domestic nature of slavery in Islamic lands, “former slaves tended not to huddle in distinct communities, but rather meld into the larger society.”[59] Only in Morocco and Algeria, then, did freed slaves find vibrant enclaves in which to preserve their cultures. The continuous flow of human chattel to Morocco trickled to a stop at the end of the 19th century, but even today one can find “proud Black Africans” in Rabat who “openly acknowledg[e] their status as former slaves.”[60]

The colonial experience compounded the sense of distance between North Africans and their sub-Saharan brethren, as between Francophone colonies more broadly. The Malian author, Amadou Hampaté Bâ, discusses this subject in his magnum opus, The Fortunes of Wangrin:

[T]he degree of moral uprightness of an individual was judged, on the one hand, on the basis of how much he had contributed toward French penetration and, on the other, by the geographical position of his country of origin. Accordingly, Europeans were the most moral men, followed by the people of Martinique and Guadeloupe, the black Senegalese…[and,] at the very end of the line, the rest of the [West African] population.[61]

In this regime of distance, Algerians and other Maghrebis were the favored children of the metropole. It did not help that, by dint of their skin color, a number of them could pass as white. As Achille Mbembe notes, this racial-spatial mentality bled into the ethical pronouncements of the colonial state:

The physical distances that separated the races were largely understood to consecrate moral ones…[Ultimately,] race came to be inscribed…‘in such a way as to make the spatial pattern both a reflection of and an active moment in the reproduction of the moral order.’[62]

The evocation of a Gnawa past can hence be seen as a rapprochement between two lands that were torn asunder by a dominant imperial power. For darker-skinned North Africans, this music promises to undo the sins of racialization. For disillusioned urban youth, by contrast, it is a central piece in the jigsaw puzzle of decolonization. The aim for both, nevertheless, is to transform the Sahara from a chasm “[into] a bridge…between civilizations.”[63]

This particular interpretation first gained currency in the sixties and seventies, with the rise of a Casablancais Gnawa collective called Nass El Ghiwane (see Figure 4). “It was a time of great pan-Arabism and revolutionary politics,” Deborah Kapchan recounts, “and Moroccans were interested in a stable, progressive state.”[64] By the advent of the first pan-African congress in Algiers in 1969, however, it was commonly accepted that “[an] essential energy from Africa [was needed in order] to revitalize Morocco.”[65]

Although incubated in the realm of avant-garde political theater, Nass El Ghiwane ultimately became famous for their Gnawa-inspired music and their trenchant criticisms of the nationalist government. Their meteoric rise was in part conditioned by the politics of the fifties, when Andalusian-inflected pan-Arabism was the norm. As per Aidi:

After independence, the cultural and political elite of Morocco rarely celebrated Gnawa music, seeing it as lowbrow, a little embarrassing–nowhere near as urbane as the country’s stately Andalusian repertoire (‘ala), held up by the intelligentsia and government as testament to Islamic Spain’s refinement.[66]

The fact that the French imperial administration had supported the Gnawa Brotherhood, a politically disengaged order, against the nationalist movement only increased the acrimony between the two.[67] Thus, when the various promises of the post-independence government failed to materialize, public support for the Gnawa increased. 

Transes (1981), a documentary by Ahmed El Maâouni, captures the anti-government rhetoric of Nass El Ghiwane’s members on film. One conversation between Omar Sayed and Larbi Batma is particularly telling:

S: First of all, let’s consider the lyrics. You say that the tyrant sleeps.

B: Of course he sleeps! He’s unworried, unaware that his victim’s heart is still awake.
S: What bothers me is that he sleeps at all. He shouldn’t be able to.[68]

This exchange between Sayed and Batma is reflective of a broader cultural ferment: a populist politics that was wary of dictatorship, Cold War alarmism, and top-down governance. The history of this discontent can be traced to the fall of institutionalized pan-Arabism, with the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the rise of Saudi Arabian Islamism after the Yom Kippur War:

While the [pan-Arab] left was in solidarity with the socialist bloc [well into the late sixties], its frustration with the inadequate support given to Egypt and the Arabs, as compared to the West’s support for Israel, pushed it into an almost wholesale flight into radical nationalism…Islamic fundamentalism has been the main political beneficiary of this trend, harvesting the anti-Westernism [originally] sown by the left.[69]

Riyadh, in particular, has profited from this movement to the right. Awash in oil revenues after the successful embargo during the Yom Kippur War, this state has remade itself into a massive “empire of charity and good works.”[70] In order to reinforce this newfound prominence, Saudi Arabian administrators have begun to promote their own brand of Islam: Salafism.

More often than not, Salafis evince “disdain for political participation and the nation-state, [and embrace instead] a transnational community that transcends the state and identifies with the East.”[71] In this last respect, Salafi Islam is a clear successor to the official pan-Arabism of the Nasser era. After all, despite the fact that the institutional capital is now Mecca and not Cairo, its “borderless, transnational outlook”[72] continues to privilege the heartland of Islamic civilization over its peripheries. The fever-pitch malaise expressed in most of Nass El Ghiwane’s music speaks to Maghrebi unease with these distant, Eastern ties. Although known to their fellow North Africans as les Rolling Stones d’Afrique, the band seems to have been troubled by Western incursions and hegemony as well.[73]

The tensions over Gnawa music would only deepen with the escalation of American diplomatic efforts on North African shores. After the end of the Cold War––when jazz had been the principal medium used to woo urban youth away from Communism––the focus of American cultural diplomacy turned to Sufi music. This genre has proven useful to the Western powers, whose prominence in the Middle East is dependent on their regulation of Saudi and Salafi prominence. While the differences between Sufis and Salafis are manifold, the most important one to U.S. interests abroad is that the Sufis are, “unlike the Salafis and Wahhabis, [respectful of] local and national loyalties.”[74] This has an added bonus for the United States, whose Muslim population has ballooned in recent years. If Sufism is useful overseas for its opposition to trans-national Salafism, domestically it is handy because it ensures Muslim-American devotion to the federal government.[75]

The problem for U.S. administrators, however, is that American Muslim youth “believe that Sufism is just ‘too white’.”[76] And not without reason: Sufism is the Islam that most white converts have been drawn to since the 19th century.[77] In their efforts to control what is overheard and understood by this new generation, politicians and strategists in Washington, D.C. must thus confront the specter of race. In the future, it is possible that the American government will turn to a black Sufi order, like the Gnawa, in order to entice their Muslim youth away from extremism.[78]

In Europe, where “Sufism is generally seen as [a faith] compatible with liberalism…Sufi practice has [also] been encouraged.”[79] European administrators consider Gnawa culture, in particular, one of the most malleable and useful: “[after all,] it’s African, Arab, Muslim, Berber, [and] Mediterranean,” all at the same time.[80]  When infused with reggae or jazz, this Maghrebi genre is palatable to youth in clubs and dance halls. More importantly, it sends a message of support to the key constituencies on the periphery of Saudi influence – black Muslims in Africa and elsewhere.

Even North African governments have turned to the rhythmic grooves of the Gnawa in order to counter the rise of Saudi-style Salafism. As per Aidi:

The objectives of the new [Moroccan] policy were varied: to encourage cultural tourism and economic growth in different corners of the kingdom and to promote the country’s self-image as a crossroads of civilizations, but also to activate various genres of Sufi music and Berber culture against the growing Islamist movement and the increased influence of Saudi Salafism and Iranian Shiism.[81]

The valorization of this “offbeat” music is part of the search for a new Islamic left. Although the postcolonial “Arab left [had originally been] almost indistinguishable from the pan-Arabists,” the death of Nasser in 1970 had driven the two apart.[82] The fallout from the end of the Cold War only increased this separation, and further alienated the North African states from their co-religionists in the East. Economic transformations in the Maghreb have contributed to the separation of this region from both sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.[83] (New pan-Maghrebi projects, such as the Union du Maghreb Arabe, or Arab Maghrebi Union, and the Tunisian-based television channel, Nessma TV, speak to this regional isolationism.) In the political realm, however, pan-Africanism remains North Africa’s strongest riposte to the fervent Islamism of faraway Riyadh.

Even still, the ghosts of the trans-Saharan slave trade continue to haunt the Gnawa melodies. And the exile of countless Sephardic Jews from North Africa only compounds this problem. As Hisham D. Aidi notes:

[Politicians opposed to black-Muslim solidarity and] pro-Islamic pan-Africanism…[often] respond by reproducing “trans-Saharan slavery” into public discourse…[W]hen black-Jewish relations are good, the Sahara is depicted as an oceanlike divide; when that relationship is tense, the Sahara is a “civilizational bridge.”[84]

The idea that Gnawa music belongs to an African diaspora also stems from the fact that Gnawa musicians have often paired it with jazz and reggae––two genres that are diasporic in nature. Ironically, the very artists who make these crossovers are often the strongest opponents of the diasporic view. The m’rastas (Maghrebi Rastafarians), in particular, are militant about their “history and geography, denouncing all political actors and ideologies – politicians, Islamists, Arab nationalists – who deny North Africa’s ethnic diversity and its historic links to sub-Saharan Africa.”[85]

In all fairness, a politicized geography is not exclusive to the reggae-fusion artists. Even the more classical, quietist Gnawa musicians are rather brusque when asked to split hairs between pan-Africanism and diasporic Africanism. For Malika Zarra, a Franco-Moroccan chanteuse, Gnawa music is not an appropriation, but rather “a conversation, a dialogue between different parts of African music.”[86] Hassan Hakmoun, a NYC-based Gnawa ma’alem, echoes these sentiments. He responds to those who claim that his music is diasporic with a simple, sarcastic rejoinder: “excuse me, but Morocco is in Africa.”[87]

The Afro-centric reggae artists, however, do more than just situate the Maghreb within a broader continental context: more often than not, they employ the sonic geographies of Gnawa as tools with which to reshape the world around them. Darga, a Jamaican-style sound system from Casablanca, uses pan-Africanism as a call to arms against racism within the Arab world. In “Qissat Ifriqya” (Story of Africa), this message is set to the tune of a dissonant jazz pastiche:

They divided us for centuries and decreed that we were different races

They forgot that we had always lived together

Weren’t we all once colonized?[88]

Another Gnawa collective, Djmawi Africa, gives their pan-Africanism a distinct geopolitical edge. In an interview with La Presse, Ahmed Ghouli, the lead vocalist of this Algiers-based band, explains the philosophy behind this approach:

[Gnawa music] is special because of the fact that it extols the African origins of Algeria…We believe that Algerians must turn away from East or West – so why not explore our Africanism? Even if our feet touch to the Mediterranean, don’t our hearts touch to Africa?[89]

Ghouli’s comments resonate quite closely with those of Amazigh Kateb, the lead vocalist of Gnawa Diffusion. His was one of the earliest reggae-inflected bands to attain worldwide recognition, with potent melodies that are now over fifteen years old but still no worse for wear. As per Kateb:

We Algerians, we’re African…but we have forgotten it, we are wedged between two models of superiority––the West and the Orient. If we keep looking east or west, we lose our balance. Algeria needs to look south and within––only the Gnawa, this country’s African tradition, can offer a solid base of identity.[90]

The solidarities espoused by these bands do not just extend southwards, however. On tracks like “Bab El Oued Kingston,” for instance, Gnawa Diffusion extends the ties of friendship across the Atlantic, to the capital city of Jamaica.[91] Thus, “Amazigh maps the Caribbean onto the southern Mediterranean,” Aidi writes, “melding Rastafarianism with North African culture.”[92]

The members of Djmawi Africa position themselves similarly within the world. In an interview on Nessma TV, the band’s electric guitarist, Abdelaziz El Ksouri, explains the political solidarities that underlie their music: “We are all part of this magnificent continent [i.e. Africa],” El Ksouri explains, “but [our band also] privileges other South-South ties as well.”[93] With the impulse from Third-Worldism and Ethiopianism, these reggae-inspired singer-songwriters have reinvigorated the Gnawa culture and given it an innovative political slant. In the final analysis, however, their argument is hard to parse: is it solidarity with Africa? With the Global South? With the darker-skinned peoples of this world?

These contradictions can perhaps be resolved by a discussion of the differences between Gnawa music and the melodies of the black trans-Atlantic diaspora. There are two crucial distinctions that one can make. As per Chouki El Hamel:

[First, that] the internal African diaspora in Morocco has primarily a musical significance and [second, that] it lacks the desire to return to the original homeland. [Gnawa culture] is constructed positively around the right to belong to the culture of Islam, unlike the construction of the African[-]American…double consciousness. Black consciousness in Morocco exists…[as part of a larger] Arab collective identity…[Therefore,] it does not constitute a contradiction with itself.[94]

Gnawa culture is, in other words, embedded in the Maghreb in a way that shields it from full exclusion and separation. In this sense, the concept of an “inferior insider” put forth by the late historian John Boswell is useful.[95] Although Gnawa music can be used to explain the “liminal position [of Maghrebis] on the edges of Islam and Europe,”[96] it does not perforce speak to the marginalization of black North Africans within North Africa. After all, black Moroccans and Algerians are considered indigenous to this land, insiders with deep attachment to this landscape. (Women in North Africa occupy this same position to an extent, as indispensable but subordinate members of society; black Americans, by contrast, have been the object of various attempts at removal, the most famous being the American colony in Liberia.) To address race-based issues, hence, Gnawa musicians must call on other tunes and traditions––reggae, rock, jazz, etc.––that better articulate a history of exoticization and Otherness.

There is yet another sense in which Gnawa culture can be thought of as diasporic: in its spread to the United States and Europe, where the music has blossomed despite a climate of intense Islamophobia and paranoia vis-à-vis the Middle East. In this, its newest iteration, the words of the Gnawa seem to have transformed once more, to echo the nostalgia of these migrants for their former homes: “When I hear the song ‘Dawini, ana gharib wa birani’ [Heal me, O Lord, I am a stranger in a strange land],” explains Samir Langus, a Moroccan-American, “I tear up, I think of home.”[97] The amorphous, overlapped diasporas of the Gnawa help these migrants understand their place in new and unfamiliar homes – help them assume hyphenated identities and navigate a jumble of nationality, race, and religion that only grows more and more complex with each successive transplantation.

As the Moroccan author, Mohamed Choukri, has put it, there is perhaps no “more suitable medium to [bridge] our cultures than music, this universal language that all people understand, that requires no translation…Feelings can form stronger bonds than just pure rational thoughts.”[98]











Figure 3.         Map of trans-Saharan trade routes.
Reprinted from Cynthia Becker.








Figure 4.         Poster of Nass El Ghiwane.
Reprinted from Morocco World News.



Is the term redundant? Is it divisive? Does it hold the Maghreb hostage to the tenets of American-style racial politics? Or can it be a useful motor for social change? All of these are questions that dark- and light-skinned North Africans will have to answer if they are to resolve the racial tensions that confront them both at home and abroad. A possible solution to some of these issues can be found in Zanzibar, an island with a long history of trade with the Arabian Peninsula.

This island’s location at a crossroads in the Indian Ocean “has bequeathed it a [unique] treasure chest of Afro-Arab culture.”[99] Zanzibar’s eponymous capital, in particular, was a prolific center of art and literature, whose products, by and large aspired to Middle Eastern models. The local word for this sophisticated culture invoked an Arab racial identity to connote its cosmopolitan style: “ustaarabu [lit. to be like an Arab] equates civilization with Arabisation and thus locates the ideal social origin in the Arab world.”[100] Here, too, the name given to the people of this place was geographic in bent: the term Swahili derives from the same Arabic term (s. sahil, pl. sawahil) for coast that was used to name the Sahel.[101] This time, of course, the name is a reference to the coastal traders whose craftiness and savvy brought the island prosperity in the first place.

For most of the 19th century, Zanzibar’s music tended to follow Middle Eastern schemata. Both the sultans and British colonial authorities encouraged production in this style, and Zanzibari musicians and composers were more than willing to oblige.[102] But during the 20th century, this dynamic changed. After World War I, with the transition from German to British control on the mainland, thousands of people were dislocated from their homes. Many of them were emancipated slaves whom the German colonial government had denied entry into the cities.[103]

Those who migrated to Zanzibar brought with them practices and beliefs that were more closely related the continental interior than the coast. Most notably, these migrants introduced a form of music-performance called ngoma––whose style and sensibility was “heavily influenced by Congolese dance band music.”[104] In the early 20th century, this continental (i.e. “African”) music melded with the Arab-inflected music indigenous to the region in order to form a distinct, syncretic style: the taarab.

Remarkably little research has been done on this music. And there is even less on Siti Binti Saad (see Figure 5), the slave-turned-songster who popularized the taarab genre in post-Independence Tanzania and whose musical prowess earned her the title “mother of the nation.”[105] All of the elements that make the story of the Gnawa controversial are here, however: the conflict that stems from colonial patronage, the displacement due to slavery, the shift from “Arab” to “African” music, the paradoxes of a “diasporic” sound that is also “indigenous,” and so on. Moreover, the transformations in Zanzibar took place in the twenties and thirties––well before Nasserite pan-Arabism, the Cold War, and the exportation of an American-style racial politics to the Third World.

This is useful in a comparative sense, as it helps to gauge the influence of American and Soviet (or Salafi) incursions on these faraway regions. However, the Zanzibari case study merits consideration not just for its relation to the Gnawa, but rather for what it can tell us about the relationship of Arabism to Africanism more broadly. Despite numerous waves of migration from mainland Tanganyika, the island remains 99 percent Muslim.[106] Nevertheless, modern-day Zanzibaris continue to encounter the various paradoxes associated with life in the Islamic borderlands. Both by race and geography, Zanzibar appears to be firmly located in Africa. But what does one make of the island’s Arab past? More importantly, how does one read the geography that an ustaarabu identity seems to imply?

These questions are significant not just for Zanzibaris and Maghrebis, but also for their co-religionists in Mauretania, Somalia, Mali, the Sudan, and elsewhere (see Figure 6). In order to answer them, we must renew our study of spaces that can be connective as well as divisive–oceans, deserts, rivers, forests, and the like. And, as I have argued throughout this paper, such study cannot be complete without an analysis of musical geography and the sonic solidarities that it invokes.


Sergio Infante (’18) is a sophomore in Calhoun College.









Figure 5.         Close-up photograph of Sidi binti Saad.

Reprinted from Afrisson.











Figure 6.         Map of Islam in Africa.

Reprinted from the UT Library System.

Works Cited

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[1] Alexis Chottin, Tableau de la musique marocaine (Paris, FR: Librarie Orientaliste Geuthner, 1938), 1.

[2] Hisham D. Aidi, Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (New York, NY: Vintage, 2014), 158.

[3] Achille Mbembe, “Aesthetics of Superfluity,” Public Culture 16, no. 3 (2004): 400-401.

[4] Timothy Barringer, “Sonic Spectacles of Empire: The Audio-Visual Nexus, Delhi-London, 1911-1912,” in Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, ed. Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden, Ruth Phillips (Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2006), 169.

[5] Ibid. 1, 66.

[6] Manoucher Parvin and Maurie Sommer, “Dar al-Islam, The Evolution of Muslim Territoriality and its Implications for Conflict Resolution in the Middle East,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 11, no. 1 (1980): 3.

[7] Ibid. 6, 3.

[8] “The Musical Legacy of al-Andalus, Part 1: Europe,” AfroPop Worldwide. Public Radio International. 2004.

[9] Dwight F. Reynolds, interview by Georges Collinet. AfroPop Worldwide. Public Radio International. July 16, 2004.

[10] “The Musical Legacy of al-Andalus, Part 2: Africa and Beyond,” AfroPop Worldwide. Public Radio International. 2004.

[11] Ibid. 1, 265.

[12] Beebe Bahrami, “Al-Andalus and Memory: The Past and Being Present among Hispano-Moroccan Andalusians from Rabat,” in Charting Memory: Recalling Medieval Spain, ed. Stacy N. Beckwith (London, UK: Garland Publishing, 2000), 132.

[13] Ibid. 1, 264.

[14] Dwight F. Reynolds, “Musical ‘Membrances of Medieval Muslim Spain,” in Charting Memory: Recalling Medieval Spain, ed. Stacy N. Beckwith (London, UK: Garland Publishing, 2000), 231.

[15] Ibid. 9.

[16] El Gusto, directed by Safinez Bousbia (2012; San Bruno, CA: YouTube, 2013), Web.

[17] Ibid. 1, 169.

[18] Ibid. 14, 236.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Jonathan Shannon, interview by Georges Collinet. AfroPop Worldwide. Public Radio International. July 16, 2004.

[22] Ibid. 1, 266.

[23] Ibid. 21.

[24] Ibid. 1, 256.

[25] Ibid. 1, 284.

[26] Avraham Sela, “‘Abd al-Nasser’s Regional Politics: A Reassessment,” in Rethinking Nasserism: Revolution and Historical Memory in Modern Egypt, ed. Elie Podeh and Onn Winckler (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004), 187.

[27] Umm Kulthum: A Voice like Egypt, directed by Michal Goldman (1996; San Bruno, CA: YouTube, 2013), Web.

[28] Jonathan Shannon, “Performing al-Andalus, Remembering al-Andalus: Mediterranean Soundings from Mashriq to Maghrib,” The Journal of American Folklore 121, no. 477 (2007): 328.

[29] Cited in Ibid. 28, 317.

[30] Laura Sanz García, “Visiones de lo español en la creación artística y musical de entresiglos,” Revista de Musicología 28, no. 2 (2005): 1657.

[31] Ibid. 9.

[32] Cálamus, “Btâyhî,” from The Splendour of Al-Andalus © 1994 by MA Recordings, MP3 Audio File.

[33] Radio Tarifa, “Canción Sefardi,” from Temporal © 1998 by Nonesuch Records, MP3 Audio File.

[34] Diego El Cigala, “Si te contara,” from Dos Lágrimas © 2009 by Cigala Music, MP3 Audio File.

[35] Alabína, “Yo the Quiero, Tu Me Quieres,” from Alabína © 1997 by Astor Place Records, MP3 Audio File.

[36] Ibid. 1, XXV.

[37] Paulo Pinto, “Imigrantes e convertidos: etnicidade e identidade religiosa nas comunidades muçulmanas do Brasil” in Muçulmanos no Brasil: instituições, cominidades, identitades, ed. Fatiha Benelbah and Silvia Montenegro (Rosário, BRA: UNR Editora, 2013), 228-250.

[38] Ibid. 1, 270.

[39] Ibid. 1, 285.

[40] Ibid. 16.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid. 1, 285.

[44] Les hommes libres, directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi (2012. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix, 2013), Web.

[45] Ibid. 1, 322.

[46] Cynthia Becker, “Hunters, Sufis, soldiers and minstrels: The diaspora aesthetics of the Moroccan Gnawa,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 69, no. 1 (2011): 129.

[47] Chouki El Hamel, “Constructing a Diasporic Identity: Tracing the Origins of the Gnawa Spiritual Group in Morocco,” Journal of African Studies 49, no. 1 (2008): 241.

[48] Ibid. 1, 118.

[49] Hisham D. Aidi, “Claude McKay and Gnawa Music,” The New Yorker, September 2, 2014.

[50] Ted Swedenburg, “The ‘Arab Wave’ in World Music after 9/11,” Anthropologica 46, no. 1 (2004): 182.

[51] Ibid. 49.

[52] Ibid. 1, 123.

[53] Ibid. 50, 179.

[54] Ibid. 1, 153.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Randy Weston, African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 204.

[57]  Christopher Wise, The Desert Shore: Literatures of the Sahel (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), 1.

[58] Tim Abdellah Fuson, interview by Georges Collinet. AfroPop Worldwide. Public Radio International. December 20, 2015.

[59] “African Slaves in Islamic Lands,” AfroPop Worldwide. Public Radio International. 2006.

[60] Deborah Kapchan, interview by Georges Collinet. AfroPop Worldwide. Public Radio International. December 20, 2015.

[61] Amadou Hampaté Bâ, The Fortunes of Wangrin (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1999), 29.

[62] Ibid. 3, 386.

[63] Ibid. 1, 301-302.

[64] Ibid. 60.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid. 1, 122.

[67] Ibid. 1, 120.

[68] Transes, directed by Ahmed Maâouni (1981; San Bruno, CA: YouTube, 2014), Web.

[69] Mohammed Sayyid Said, “Cosmopolitanism and autarchy in Egypt,” in Cosmopolitanism, Identity and Authenticity in the Middle East, ed. Roel Meijer (London, UK: Routledge, 2013), 190.

[70] Gilles Kepel, Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 70.

[71] Ibid. 1, 63.

[72] Ibid. 1, 50.

[73] Ibid. 60.

[74] Ibid. 1, 70.

[75] Ibid. 1, 47.

[76] Ibid. 1, 75.

[77] Ibid. 1, 76.

[78] Ibid. 49.

[79] Ibid. 1, 141.

[80] Ibid. 1, 142.

[81] Ibid. 1, 152.

[82] Ibid. 69, 190.

[83] Ahmed Agrout and Keith Sutton, “Regional Economic Union in the Maghreb,” Journal of African Studies 28, no. 1 (1990): 115

[84] Ibid. 1, 317.

[85] Ibid. 1, 153.

[86] Ibid. 1, 137.

[87] Hassan Hakmoun, interview by Georges Collinet. AfroPop Worldwide. Public Radio International. December 20, 2015.

[88] Darga, “Qissat Ifriqya,” from stop baraka © 2014 by Plein Les Oreilles, MP3 Audio File.

[89] Alain Brunet, “L’Algérie est d’abord…africaine,” La Presse, October 27, 2010.

[90] Ameziane Ferhani, “Kateb, père et fils,” El Watan, December 4, 2007.

[91] Gnawa Diffusion, “Bab El Oued Kingston,” from Bab El Oued Kingston © 2000 by Sonodisc, MP3 Audio File.

[92] Ibid. 1, 144.

[93] Djmawi Africa sur Nessma TV, reposted by Djmawi Africa (2014; San Bruno, CA: YouTube, 2014), Web.

[94] Ibid. 47, 241.

[95] John Boswell, “Jews, Bicycle Riders, and Gay People: The Determination of Social Consensus and Its Impact on Minorities,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 1, no. 2 (1989): 5.

[96] Ibid. 1, 143.

[97] Ibid. 49.

[98] Mohamed Choukri, liner notes to Mountain to Mohamed, Houssaine Kili, © 2001 by Tropical Music Records. PDF.

[99] Ibid. 59.

[100] Elke Stockreiter, Islamic Law, Gender and Social Change in Post-Abolition Zanzibar (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 222.

[101] Charles Pike, “History and Imagination: Swahili Literature and Resistance to German Language Imperialism in Tanzania, 1885-1910,” The International Journal of African Studies 29, no. 2: (1986): 201.

[102] Laura Fair, “Music, Memory and Meaning: The Kiswahili Recordings of Sidi binti Saad,” Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere: Schriftenreihe des Kölner Instituts für Afrikanistik 55, no. 1 (1998): 4.

[103] Daniel Magaziner, “Leisure and Culture in Colonial Africa” (lecture, Yale College, New Haven, CT, October 13, 2015).

[104] Janet Topp Fargion, “Taarab Music in Zanzibar in the Twentieth Century: The Story of ‘Old is Gold’ and Flying Spirits” (Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2014), 32.

[105] Ibid. 103.

[106] “Tanzania,” The World Factbook (Washington, D.C: Central Intelligence Agency).

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