Morocco: Love and Gnawa Music (Part 1)



Love and Gnawa Music

(Part 1)




Dr. Gabrielle Francis



The Seeds of Morocco


The seeds of Morocco were planted in India…


It was my last week in India after a year of travelling, and I was in the Northern most Province, Ladakh, which borders on Tibet.  Ladakh is known for its Tibetan Buddhist population and many Tibetan Shrines and pilgrimage sites.   I was in the capital city, Ley.   The thing to do in the evenings was to go to a majestic Buddhist Shrine on top of a Stupa to watch the sunset. 




 I was on the top of the Stupa and trying to find a peaceful place to watch the sunset.  The pilgrimage spot was crowded with spiritual seekers that had come to meditate and do yoga and for some to find their next tantric sex partner.  By now I was thoroughly annoyed with the travelers in India.  There were so many lost seekers on spiritual journeys to find gurus and enlightenment.   You could see the type from a mile away, skinny white girls in Indian saris with bhindis in the middle of their foreheads.   Many of them seeking enlightenment through the path of Tantric sex, also known as Polyamory, or many loves.  I had a bad taste in my mouth from a personal experience with this crowd that ended in my boyfriend cheating on me with my best friend and leaving me with an STD as a souvenir.


There was a handsome Japanese traveler that was making his way around to all the ladies telling them that to make love to him was the next best thing to sleeping with Buddha.   I heard a similar line the week before from an Israeli that told me that making love to him was like sleeping with Jesus.    After all, Jesus was a Jew.  In my opinion the tantric sex travelers were merely sex addicts trying to make their addiction into their religion.  The song running through my head at this moment was “I gotta get out of this place…” by the Animals.


From afar I noticed an interesting guy sitting alone.  He piqued my curiosity as he was wearing North Face clothes and hiking boots.  He did not have the velvety bell-bottoms, Thai fisherman pants, Che Guevara T-shirts and dread locks that most of the male travelers in India were sporting.  This guy looked suspiciously normal and so I went over to say “Hi” and hide from the “next best thing to Buddha” guy.  


Daniel was an American living in Holland and working as a reporter for the BBC.  He pulled out a recorder to show me what he was working on.   It was a radio documentary about the Gnawa Music Festival that was held every June in Morocco.  I learned from Daniel that Gnawa Music was Sufi-Blues and originated from a fusion of the West African Slaves with the Arabic and Islamic elements of Morocco.  The music was over 800 years old and Gnawa was not only a musical style but a religion and spiritual practice as well.  I listened to the infectious rhythms through his headset and within minutes I was hooked! 


Morocco had been on my list of places to go for years.   I dreamed of exotic walled medinas, winding alleys, and markets with colorful spices.   I dreamed of the vast Sahara Desert and camel safaris.    I had images of1001 Nights when I heard the word Morocco.  Yet, I found it somewhat intimidating as I heard some scary stories of tourists travelling in Morocco coming across thieves and drug dealers.  Most of these stories were from people that had crossed to Morocco from Spain into the port city of Tangiers.   Port cities do have the tendency for unsavory elements, as they are usually a haven for drug and people smugglers.  But now, I had a new idea about Morocco, and that was Gnawa music and Sufi blues.  Music was and is my Religion.  And so,it was decided that my next trip would be to make a Pilgrimage to Morocco for the Gnawa Music Festival.




Marrakesh, The “Red City” with a Berber Pharmacy


Marrakesh was my first stop in Morocco.  It is one of the oldest of the Imperial Cities of Morocco and gets its name as the “Red City” because its buildings and architecture are made from red sandstone.   Marrakesh is hot and dry, but it smells of sweet fragrant flowers such as rose, jasmine and orange blossom.  I quickly found out how difficult it can be to find a Riad.   The Riad is a house that is built into the Medina or walled city.   The Medina is the old city and it winds and in and out of itself like a maze.  I walked along the narrow alleys and streets I looked fervently for my Riad.  I found it only with the help of some friendly children.   Once I entered the Riad I was instantly enchanted.   There was a central courtyard with a gorgeous garden and small pool.   The rooms circled around the courtyard on the first and second floor.   The walls and floors were adorned with gorgeous Moroccan tiles.   The Riad was a calm escape from the frenzy of the Medina.  And of course, you are always greeted with a friendly Moroccan lady that brings you “mint tea”.  


Evenings in Marrakesh revolve around Jemaa el Fnaa, a large square at the entrance of the Medina.   As the sun sets the hot square starts to sizzle and bustle with tea stalls and food stall vendors grilling Moroccan style shish- kebabs for the hungry locals and adventurous tourists.    The large square gradually transforms into a medieval circus show.  As the night grows darker the square fills with acrobats, snake charmers, palm readers, magicians, story tellers, herbal medicine sellers, begging children, and various types of Moroccan Musical Ensembles playing Gnawa Music.   The evening in Jemaa el Fnaa is all I dreamed that Morocco would enchanting picture out of 1001 Nights.  I am transported to an ancient moment in time.  


I woke the next day with a list of things to see in the Medina which included The House of Kaftan and the Berber Pharmacy.   The front desk person at my Riad explained to me in both French and Arabic where the local Berber Pharmacy was.  It seemed clear enough at the time, so I adventured off through the winding alleys and souk (market) of the Medina, or old city.  


The colors, smells and sounds of the Marrakesh Medina were a wonderful assault to my senses.  The 20-minute adventure took almost 6 hours. Vendors and Berber Carpet sellers seduced me into their shops with cups of Mint tea followed by heavy pressure sales tactics.  I quickly had a reputation for bargaining like a Berber.  This is something that I had learned on my many trips abroad to countries where negotiating is part of the social fabric and custom.  It is a delightful way to have fun with the locals.  My rule for bargaining is to start with half the price and always let them have the last bid.   This way the locals always think they got the better deal.  By the time, I made it to the Berber Pharmacy I had 3 pairs of pointy Berber slippers and a Gorgeous Berber carpet.



“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money

 Then take half the clothes and twice the money.

 Susan Heller



The Berber Pharmacist invited me in, and I introduced myself as une Docteur du Medicine Naturelle. I was quickly taken into the back room and seated with some Mint Tea.  The pharmacy assistants brought out the samples of wonderful herbs, spices, and beauty remedies of the Berber people.  There were elixirs and potions for all sorts of ailments, and I learned about the Moroccan herbal pharmacopeia in French.   The pharmacy was also stocked with local aphrodisiacs such as Spanish Flies and Berber Viagra!!!  After 6 hours of Berber harassment in the souks I felt that Berber Viagra was the last thing these people needed.  The beauty creams were laced with Rose Oil and Orange Blossoms.   The friendly assistants were massaging me with so many oils that I smelled like a flower garden.  I was in heaven and learning so much about the Traditional Berber Medicines. 



The Pharmacist then introduced me to Argan Oil.  Argan oil is also known as liquid gold of Morocco.   It has a lovely golden amber color and I quickly learned how expensive and rare it is.  Argan Oil is a Moroccan Elixir for beauty, health and longevity.  It has been used for centuries by the local people in both Culinary and Cosmetic forms.  The Berbers use it as a food to benefit rheumatism, high cholesterol, diabetes and more.  In its cosmetic form, it is a beauty elixir known to reduce aging and enhance skin and hair regeneration.  Ibought Argan Culinary oil for adding to foods.  I bought Argan Oil shampoos, conditioners and hair treatments.  I bought Argan body oils and face oils.  

This is when my Addiction to Argan Oil began.  And the Berber pharmacist was my dealer!




The Tree Climbing Goats


It was time to leave the exotic and magical Marrakesh and head to Essaouira.  for the Gnawa Music Festival.  I was sad to leave Marrakesh, but my wallet was relieved.   What can I say but Marrakesh is not only the culture capital of Morocco, but it is the best place to find beautiful handicrafts from all regions of the country.


I hopped on a tour bus that was heading to Essaouira.   It was a lovely and uneventful ride.   I was reading The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho for the 4th time.   It seemed relevant to read that book in Morocco.   The bus was winding its way along and I would periodically look up and catch the beautiful scenery and landscape.  On one such occasion, I looked up and saw a herd of goats and then noticed that there were goats climbing in the trees!  My first impression was that I was hallucinating and perhaps that my morning Mint Tea at the Riad had been laced with some Moroccan Hashish.  But then the entire bus started to squeal with delight and the bus quickly pulled off the road and made an abrupt stop.


The tourists all rushed out of the bus to take photos of the tree-climbing goats.   The tour guide told us that these goats had developed special hooves to be able to navigate the Argan Trees.    WOW!   I was in the Argan forest. I was reveling in the Non-Coincidence that I had just landed in an entire forest of my newest addiction.   As Coelho says in The Alchemist…When one puts all their attention on something The Universe Conspires to make it happen!



This forest was the home to 40,000 hectares of UNESCO preserved Argan Trees.  The Argan Trees are prehistoric relics and indigenous to this region of Morocco.   They were also on the verge of extinction before UNESCO intervened.


It was here I learned the part that the goats play in the production of the Argan oil.   The goats climb the trees and eat the Argan fruits.  Then they either vomit up or poop out the nuts after they have had some time to ruminate in the stomach.  The stomach enzymes soften the shell around the nut making it easier for the seed to be extracted. Then local women from the Berber villages collect the seeds and take them to Co-Operatives to begin the traditional hand production methods of Argan Oil.   The tour guide told us that each tree only produces one liter of oil per year.  And that it takes about 40 hours of manual labor to produce one liter of oil…after the goats have done their work!   No wonder they call Argan Oil, liquid gold.  Could it be another non-coincidence that I was learning about Morocco’s liquid gold while I was reading The Alchemist?


I walked around the Argan forest watching the goats hopping from tree to tree and chewing happily on the Argan fruit.   The local Sheppard’s made a business out of passing around baby goats for the tourists to take pictures with.  I couldn’t resist.   The baby goats were so cute and cuddly. I also noticed that they had very soft and shiny hair.    Is this what Argan oil can do for the hair?   I’m in!    There were also some camels wandering around the Argan forest.  The camels were snacking on the Argan Fruits as well.  I will add that they were the most beautiful camels I had ever seen.   Camels usually have dry and bristly hair.  The Argan loving camels had beautiful soft and shiny fur.  





Eventually, the baby goat was taken from me and I was pressured into giving some Baksheesh to the Shepard.   The ride continued and I enjoyed the beauty of the Argan Forest and Olive Groves as we winded our way into Essaouira.




The Gnawa Festival


Essaouira is an enchanting white walled city on the Atlantic Ocean.  Its vast sandy beaches greet the ocean with a view of the Medina in the background.  Gusts of wind send the ocean waves crashing against the fortress wall of the old city.   Wind surfers and kite surfers navigate the wild waters while Berbers on Camels slowly make their way along the beach. It is a mystical sight to behold.    



Essaouira is known for its laid back and tolerant vibe.   Every June, it hosts the Gnawa Music Festival in which 150,000 people gather for an annual pilgrimage of Sufi Blues and Afro-Moroccan trance music.   Legend has it that Jimi Hendrix lived in a small Berber Village 20k south of Essaouira and that this is the place where he wrote Castles in the Sand.   One of the local Riads charges big prices touting that it was the place that Jimi Hendrix lived.  


I was meeting my best friend Sonya, also known as Cuz Baby. I gave her the nickname Cuz Baby after we discovered that our families were descendants from the same village in Lebanon.  In Lebanon, every one thinks they are cousins.  Cuz Baby was living in Egypt and I had convinced her that a rendezvous at the festival would be a perfect place to bond over the thing we loved most…music.  We reserved a Riad that was located deep inside the winding alleys of the Medina.  There we caught up on all the latest life events.  I was so happy to see her!  


After sunset, we made our way through the winding alleys of the medina to the main square where the main stage was. Gnawa is an ancient musical fusion that originated in Morocco over 800 years ago.    The slaves from West Africa brought to Morocco where they were held in port cities before they would embark towards the new world.   Gnawa was a fusion of the West African music and religion, Yoruba, with the Arabic and Islamic elements of Morocco.


In Gnawa music there is a lead singer known as a Ma’Alem (teacher or leader) who plays an instrument called the Sintir. This is a West African 3 string bass.     He has a brotherhood of musicians with him that are playing Karkaba, which are cymbals that resemble and sound like the Shackles and Chains of the slaves.   The songs are laid out in a call and response style.  Each song is about God, Love, and freedom and often about the spirits that will help to heal individuals of life’s ailments.    The songs are long and rhythmic. The infectious rhythms put people into a healing trance.


The square had an intensity of anticipation that was palpable.  The vibe was very laid back and filled Moroccans and Europeans of every shape, size, class, age and so on.   There were groups of friends, families with small children, elderly people, hippies, religious people in Hijab and so on.  The smell of Reefer, the herb of choice for Gnawa lovers, permeated the air.   By the way, did you know that the word Reefer comes from the Hashish that grows in the Rif Mountains of Morocco?  As the music started the entire square began tomove, shake, sing and groove.  We got into the groove too.  We agreed that this was the coolest festival ever. 



I won’t lie.  We were also enjoying all the male attention!   After several years of living in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, this was refreshing.   In San Francisco, you can walk down the street naked with purple hair and no one will notice you.   I had started to feel invisible.  In Morocco, you are not invisible.  For any ladies in their 30s, 40s, 50s that are starting to feel like they lost their appeal, I highly recommend a week or two in north Africa to make you feel like a movie star.  


Cuz Baby and I also had the advantage of being Lebanese.   We quickly learned from our male admirers that Lebanese women are revered in Morocco.   Every time we mentioned we were Lebanese, the men would say,“Every Moroccan Man dreams to marry a Lebanese woman!”  When we would ask “Why?”  They would reply, “Because they are beautiful, they are good cooks, and they don’t get fat after you marry them!”


When you meet a Moroccan, they ask curious questions.  Not the kind of questions they ask in America such as “Where do you live?” and “What do you do? “.   In Morocco they ask you, “Where are you from?”  “How is your family?” “Are you married?”  “How many children do you have?”  Cuz Baby and I were in our early 40s.  We had never been married and had no children.   This was very distressing for the Moroccans.   They could not wrap their heads around that at all.  They were very worried for us!  



Magic in the Air


This was one of those nights where the all the stars lined up and everything was magical.   And then…   

I felt from the corner of my eye that someone was staring at me.   I looked to the right and noticed a very tall and handsome brown-eyed man staring at me.

Then something peculiar happened...

I heard a voice that said, “You are going to marry him.”  I was not actually sure if I heard it, thought it, or felt it.   But it was very clear.  “You are going to marry him!”   Well, this completely freaked me out.  I looked away and then he came over to talk to me.   I was so shaken by the voice and the message that as soon as he came over, I pulled Sonya by the arm and said, “Cuz, let’s go.  I gotto get out of here. “


I grabbed Cuz Baby’s arm and pulled her out of the crowd.  I looked back and saw the handsome man with the big brown eyes sadly watching us walk away.   Who was the voice?  Why did I go?   I don’t want to get married so why would this happen to me.  How ridiculous to think that voice could be real?    These were my thoughts as I walked away.   We continued to walk from stage to stage enjoying the Gnawa ensembles in every corner of the medina.      


That evening I lay in bed reeling from the energy of the festival.  My ears were ringing with the sound of the Karkaba rhythms.   I was also thinking about the Brown eyed man and the voice.  Or was it a feeling?  Or just a thought?  Who was the voice?  The Universe?  God?  Paulo Coelho?  My recently deceased father?   I regretted not talking to him.   I prayed that I would see him again.  And deep down, something inside me knew I would…


On the second day of the Gnawa festival, Cuz Baby and I headed into the crowds of 150,000 people for more revelry and enchantment.   About 30 minutes later, I ran into the man with the big brown eyes.  This time I did not run.   I smiled at him and he smiled at me. It was then that I truly met, Ahmed.   


 From that moment on, we were inseparable.   We danced and enjoyed the music.    I met his friends and he met Cuz.  Although we had to piece together languages to get one sentence out, there was some form of communication that was beyond words.  I would say it was the language of love.   That night he walked me to my Riad and wanted to give me his phone number.  I did not have a pen, so I took out my lipstick and he wrote his name and phone number on the Riad wall.     He said to call him so that we could meet again the next day.



The phone number was still there the next morning.  And weirdly I did not even have to use it.  Somehow, in the crowd of 150,000 people we saw each other again.  And from there we spent the next 4 days getting to know each other with our mixture of French, English and Arabic cave talk.  


***This Story continues with Morocco:  Love and Argan Oil (Part 2)