The Gnawa are the descendants of Sudanese slaves who were imported into Morocco around the 12th century and were, until recently, sold in Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. They used their music to recount the hardship of their lives and even today the Gnawa play primarily to exorcise evil spirits. They have been known to heal people with both psychological and physical problems.
Their current performances are a shortened version of the traditional Derdeba. The five members, dressed in shelled gowns (as distinct from shell suits), walk around the audience banging large drums (tbols) in order to open the house to the spirits. Any of the seven spirits could appear to the audience - colours to look out for are white, black, azure blue, sea blue, red, green and yellow.
Playing large metal castanets, each of the dancers performs a cross between break-dancing and breaststroke swimming, known as Nouksha. The occasion relies heavily upon audience participation but the academic crowd seemed preoccupied in theorising about it. Only after the musicians had abandoned the guenbri (a three-stringed bass instrument) and started playing a trumpet-shaped flute did they start to clap.
Chanting, the dancers whirl around the stage, their beaded hair carouselling around their faces. Much to the irritation of those at the back, the front rows, unable to contain themselves, begin dancing and ululating.
The M'luk is the culmination of the ritual when the spirits manifest themselves. Prior to this, a timely interlude gave the audience an opportunity to take to spirits of the other kind in order to prepare themselves. 'It always takes time to get through to a British audience,' says Regragui Cherif, the Maalem (master) of the Gnawa, 'but they do eventually feel the music.'
Chanting prayers, the band reappear this time in brightly coloured gowns. Using bowls and sprinklers of water, honey and milk, they entice the spirits while soaking the audience. Looking around it was difficult to tell if some of the students were in trances or raving. By the end no spirits had appeared, but it didn't matter - The Gnawa had added colour to our lives without them.
Somerset College of Arts and Technology, Taunton, 8pm tonight, pounds 3.50/ pounds 3; Hazelwood House, Loddiswell, South Devon (0548 821232), 8pm 26 Nov, pounds 8.50/ pounds 6
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