Gnawa music

Asmaa Hamzaoui & Bnat Timbouktou

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Asmaa Hamzaoui is the foremost female ambassador of Gnawa music and with her group Bnat Timbouktou, she delivers a contagious brand of evangelistic 'desert blues'. 

Gnawa are the descendants of black slaves in Morocco, where they have formed their own Sufi order, the city of Essaouira being the center. Their music is hypnotizing, inciting and is deeply rooted in the history of when this population was held as slaves. It revolves around storytelling about their suffering.

Traditionally the music is only played by men, but In Morocco times are changing too. Not only does Asmaa Hamzaoui play the guembri (a kind of bass), her whole group consists of women, which is quite unique! Asmaa Hamzaoui is the foremost female ambassador of gnawa music. With her group Bnat
Timbouktou, she delivers a contagious brand of ‘evangelistic’ desert blues.

Even though women are essential to gnawa rituals, there has not been many female gnawa musicians. Asmaa Hamzaoui and the group Bnat Timbouktou are part of a new wave who changes this trend.

Hamzaoui was born into a Casablanca family who has lived and breathed gnawa – her father is a master musician, her mother a dancer. She was taught the guembri as achild, and at an early age, she joined her fathers band on qraqeb and choir, before he encouraged her to start her own group. That became Bnat Timbouktou. The album L´bnat, to be released in spring 2024, is the follow up to the critically acclaimed debut album Oulad Ighaba on the Swedish label ajabu! Records.

When this group of women performs, the guembri – a plucked lute played in a percussive style – and Asmaa Hamzaoui’s expressive voice are the centrepiece, while the soundscape is filled with the rhythmic percussion of qraqeb, so characteristic of gnawa music.

While a traditionalist in many ways, Hamzaoui is also a trailblazer, bringing the gnawa music to places such as the Roskilde Festival, BAM in Barcelona, Kaustinen in Finland and in summer 2024 to Womad. She wants to keep gnawa alive – in this instance, it’s a case of transformation through preservation.

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Francis de Souza



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