The fight to save a music house and its legacy

TANGIER, Morocco – For more than half a century, a Moorish-style house in the old town of Tangier, considered one of Morocco’s cultural ...


TANGIER, Morocco – For more than half a century, a Moorish-style house in the old town of Tangier, considered one of Morocco’s cultural gems, has attracted musicians and other artists from around the world seeking to discover the Sufi music and the rituals of the descendants of slaves in the country.

But the one-of-a-kind center for traditional Gnawa music was abandoned earlier this year because it was in danger of collapsing, and the long delays in restoring it as part of a government rehabilitation plan for this town on the north coast of Morocco have put its future in peril.

The battle to save Dar Gnawa, or House Gnawa, has brought to light how precious and precarious traditional talents are in the kingdom of North Africa.

Abdellah El Gourd, 75 years old and world renowned master of Gnawa music, has lived in the historic house since the age of 5. Over the past decades, he has hosted and collaborated with an array of world-renowned jazz musicians.

“Dar Gnawa is not only an institution that celebrates the music of the former slaves of North Africa, but it is also a focal point for the development of jazz on the African continent,” said Hisham Aidi, professor of international relations at Columbia University. grew up in the old town of Tangier and was part of the effort to save space.

“As teenagers we would stop at Dar Gnawa after school, and you never knew who you would find there. it could be the saxophonist Archie Shepp, poet Ted joans or a European musician playing with El Gourd’s troupe, ”he added. “We had no idea who these artists were, but we were captivated by the performances.”

Gnawa music is a tradition from West African slaves who were taken to northern Morocco. It is among the rituals they clung to, praising saints and spirits with songs, dances and trance possession.

The instruments involved are few and simple: a fretless three-string lute known as a gimbri or sintir, which is strummed, accompanied by large metal castanets called qraqeb, whose click creates trance-inducing rhythms. Music is sometimes played throughout the night of healing ceremonies where exorcisms are performed on the sick to expel jinn, or evil spirits, believed to cause illness.

The laid-back town of Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, hosts an annual Gnawa festival, which has been attended by renowned international musicians such as Ziggy Marley in recent years. In 2019, UNESCO added Gnawa to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

In 1980, Maison Gnawa became the first officially recognized center dedicated to the celebration and preservation of the genre. But long before that, it served as a meeting place for artists from the 1960s.

Unlike other Moroccan cities, Tangier did not have many cultural centers for young artists, so Mr. El Gourd took it upon himself to create a space he hoped to ensure his art form did not disappear. Over the years, the house has become one of the few places in the country to practice and learn Gnawa music.

Coming from a family of Gnawa practitioners, Mr. El Gourd is now fighting not only for his home, but for his heritage.

In 1967, he met the esteemed American pianist Randy Weston, who lived in Tangier for a few decades. Mr. Weston’s music and scholarship advanced the idea – now widely accepted – that jazz is basically African music.

For years, Mr. Weston played with Mr. El Gourd in Maison Gnawa in Tangier before they toured the world together. They have collaborated on several recordings, including that of the “Musicians Gnawa of Morocco”, nominated for the Grammy Awards in 1992.

Over the years, Mr. El Gourd has met and performed with many other renowned jazz musicians including Dexter Gordon, Odetta and Billy Harper.

“I went with Randy to Morocco, and since then we have become a family,” said Fatoumata Weston, the pianist’s widow, of Mr. El Gourd. “He’s a great artist. He’s someone who never asks for anything, ”she added.

“When a great artist like him has problems, you have to help him. He was Morocco’s ambassador around the world.

She, Mr. Aidi and others credited Mr. El Gourd and Mr. Weston, who died in 2018, with inspiring the fusion of Gnawa music and jazz.

Maison Gnawa is a mixture of architectural genres, reflecting the rich international history of Tangier. A Moroccan door opens onto a small bedroom which leads to an interior courtyard. An Italian marble staircase is tiled in the Moroccan mosaic style known as zellij, while the rest of the house features Spanish and Portuguese tiles and Italian doors.

The top floor, with its high ceilings, overlooks the Tangier seaport.

Mr. El Gourd owns the house and has lived with his family on the second and third floors for decades, while visitors downstairs have joined in impromptu jam sessions and festive musical gatherings, to the greatest pleasure of the neighborhood.

But the family moved in February so that the house could be renovated as part of a national plan devised two years ago to restore the entire old town of Tangier, where dozens of houses were at risk of collapsing. While Mr. El Gourd was away, a neighbor knocked down a wall and tried to annex part of the house. Tiles and chandeliers were stolen.

Despite his notoriety, Mr. El Gourd said his financial situation was precarious, but the state had promised to transfer funds to him to restore his dilapidated house. However, these funds were delayed for many months, as were the renovations, increasing the risk of the house collapsing.

“Every time I ask, they say, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute.’ But nothing has been done, “said Mr. El Gourd, a calm and collected man who chooses his words carefully, during a recent visit to his home, referring to his conversations with local authorities.” I do not don’t know how i survived the last few months.

Contacted for comment, the authorities in Tangier promised that the renovation of Mr. El Gourd’s house would be a top priority. Then, after more than six months of delay, renovations finally began this month, and there are high hopes that the house can be salvaged.

More generally, many in Morocco see the old town rehabilitation plan as the latest attack on Tangier’s cultural heritage amid a wave of construction across the city over the past two decades. Dozens of historic buildings have been demolished to make way for apartments, including some of the first cinemas on the African continent.

In 2010, Benchimol Hospital, a historic Jewish institution that features in many writings about the city, has been razed to the ground.

In Mr. El Gourd’s office, a restored mortuary, the crammed moved furniture of Gnawa House takes up half the space, and the walls are adorned with dozens of photographs of musicians from around the world with whom he has collaborated. He recalled the glorious moments of his career.

“I could live life in New York,” he said. “Sometimes I’m so tired I think I should go.”

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