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Moroccan Music & Artists > Sufi Music & Sufi Traditions
Morocco Sufi Music & Sufi Traditions
Sufism is a mystical and ancient branch of Islam that emphasizes the seeker's path toward perfect harmony with “Allah”, God. The role of Sufi Music in Sufism is that sound and music are the tools believed to be important and utilized in briding a relationship to bring one closer to “Allah”, God. Ultimately Sufis believe that Sufi music will enable them to let go of their physical being so they can embrace their spiritual essence and be one with “Allah”.
Although Sufism is a branch of Islam, it is unique because it focuses on mystical energy and supernatural powers as a source to seek truth or the answer. Sufism also stands out because orthodox Islam is not tolerant of music. Unlike orthodox Islam, Sufism embraces music and believes it is important for mediation and to connect with “Allah”, God. Sufi music is also used to work towards the goal of reaching dhikr.
Dhikr or Mawlid Annabaw involves a situation where a spiritual leader will lead a group an in ritual of concentrating on praising and giving blessings to the prophet, ultimately to draw divine energy and connect with “Allah”, God. The rituals are often practiced in the dark and in complete silence. Always sama, a form central to dhikr is used to help disciples listen with their souls. Sama is the central form of the dhikr and it has the connotation of a spiritual concert of sacred music, often accompanied by dance.
Specific to these trance sessions is Sufi music which involves a lot of singing, listening or whirling in order to awaken the soul and create a spiritual connection where all materialistic attachments are released.
Sufism sends the message that it is not necessary to wake up empty and frightened, but to listen to Sufi music to bring you strength and to open the door to your heart and to have confidence to do anything.
Sufism offers a message of unity, spiritual liberty, love, harmony and beauty for all mankind.
There are two main instruments that are used to create Sufi music. One instrument is the Nay from the East (Iran/Anatolia/Uzbekistan/ Pakistan). It is a reed flute that is the symbol of the human soul that must be completely clean and void so it can be liberated. As the reed flute is known for its emptiness, Sufis place importance on it in connecting with God and seld purification.
Another instrument, especially popular in Morocco is the Benedir, a frame drum. It is used to bring about a repetitive sound which often takes the listeners into a trance. African Sufi music uses recurring sounds combined with rhythmic tones.
Sufi brotherhoods (tarikas) are common in Morocco, and music is an integral part of their spiritual tradition, in contrast to most other forms of Islam, which do not use music. Sufi music is an attempt at reaching a trance state which inspires mystical ecstasy. The brothers hold hands in a circle and chant or dance.
Marrakesh and other regions of Morocco are home to the Gnaoua Brotherhood, which claims descent from the Ethiopian muezzin Sidi Bilal. Gnaoua ceremonies (deiceba) are used to protect against mental illness, scorpion stings and malicious spirits. Deiceba may be related to Sub-Saharan African ceremonies and use a long-necked lute of African origin called the guembri, as well as castanets called garagab.
The Jilala are another brotherhood, known for their hypnotic and otherworldly music. They are devotees of Moulay Abdelkader Jilali. Jil Jilala rose to prominence in the 1970s among the movement created by Nass El Ghiwane
and Lem Chaheb.
Jil Jilala was founded in Marrakesh in 1972 by performing arts students Mohamed Derhem, Moulay Tahar Asbahani, Sakina Safadi, Mahmoud Essaadi, Hamid Zoughi and Moulay Abdelaziz Tahiri (who had just left Nass el Ghiwane). In 1974, they released their first record Lyam Tnadi on the Atlassiphone label. It was only a matter of time before Leklam Lemrassaa, Baba Maktoubi, Ha L'ar a Bouya, Jilala, and Chamaa became popular classics. In 1976 they wrote Laayoune Ayniya about the Green March. The song became practically a national anthem that is chanted when Moroccans from all over the country marched towards the Moroccan Sahara, then, occupied by Spain. Instruments used by the Jilala include the bendir (frame drum) and qsbah (flute).
Other brotherhoods include: Hamadcha (founded by Sidi Ali ben Hamdouch), Aissaoua (founded by Sidi Mohamed ben Aissa, Derkaoua, Haddaoua, Cherkaoua, Dar Damana (the Sufi saints of Ouezzane), and The Master Musicians of Jajouka of the Ahl Srif Mountains.
As one of the most important and popular Sufi Brotherhoods in Morocco the Hamadcha were rightly accorded the honor of opening the Sufi Nights series of late night concerts at the Fes Sacred Music festival in 2008. The Brotherhood was founded in the 17th century by the Holy Saint Sidi Ali Ben Hamdouch and has become famous through the originality of its repertoire, its spellbinding dances, and the trance-therapy skills of its members.
The Hamadcha’s rhythmic and melodic modes are extremely complex, and like their musical instruments, are found only within the brotherhood. A large part of the repertoire of the Gnaoua and the Aïssawa is borrowed from the Hamadcha and is named “El Hamdouchiyya”. This amazing music is played during a ritual that dates back several centuries which mixes praise to the founding Saint and trance.
The Hamadcha ritual, like that of the Gnaoua, has a therapeutic function. The Hamadcha were for a long time regarded as expert therapists, and Moroccans looked to them for help because of their knowledge of “medicine of the mind”. Like all Muslim brotherhoods, the Hamadcha are subdivided into separate groups proper to each town or region. The groups are affiliated with Sidi Ali Ben Hamdouch and his descendants. During the moussem, which takes place every year, they gather at the tomb of the Saint in the region of Meknès. Because of the modernization of Morocco, the future of traditional practices is uncertain, and the Hamadcha, as well as the other brotherhoods, are in danger of disappearing.
The Aissawa, founded by Sidi Ben Aissa in the 15th century, are perhaps the best known of the Sufi brotherhoods of Morocco. This Aissawa group, led by Said Kissi, comprises 16 musicians on bendir, taarija (percussion instruments), raita (small pipes) and n'far (large one-note trumpets.
The Aissawa (also Aïssâwa and Avestita) is a religious
and order founded in Meknès
by Muhammad Ben Aïssâ (1465-1526), best know as the Chaykh Al-Kâmil
(translated as the Perfect sufi
Master). The terms Aissawa (Aïssâwiyya, Aïssâwa) came from the name of the founder, designate respectively the brotherhood
, litt. “way”) and its disciples. The Aissawa are known for their spiritual
music characterized by the use of the oboe
ghaita (syn. mizmar
), of collective songs of religious psalms
accompanied by an orchestra of percussions using polyrhythm
. Their complex ceremony, which use symbolic
dances bringing the participants to ecstatic trance
, take place in the private sphere
during domestic rituals nights (lîla
-s), and also in the public sphere
during celebrations of national festivals (the moussem
-s, which are also pilgrimages
) and touristic (folk spectacles) or religious festivities (Ramadan
or birth of the Prophet) organized by the Moroccan and Algerian States.
In spite of their particularly fortifying music, the Aissawa don’t profit from the same passion as the Gnaoua near the Western public. The Aissawa have been placed at the bottom of the Sufi hierarchy because in the ritual
of the brotherhood
of the Aissawa some non-Islamic elements existed in past centuries like exorcism
dances. The Aissawa disciples were also recruited traditionally among the poor populations of the Maghreb, or disadvantaged and marginalized people of the urban areas.
Another well-known local Sufi sect, located in the village of Jajouka within the Ahl Srif Mountains, is The Master Musicians of Jajouka. This Sufi sect commonly flourished near the sanctuary of a local saint. Jajouka musicians play healing music said to be written by their ninth century patron saint Sidi Achmed Schiech. They also perform a ritual called Boujeloud which is likened to the worship of the God Pan.
The Master Musicians of Jajouka are led by Bachir Attar, from the village of Jajouka near Ksar-el-Kebir in the southern Rif Mountains of Northern Morocco. The inhabitants of this small village are from the Ahl Sherif ("the saintly") tribe. The Attar clan of Jajouka is the founding family of Jajouka and keepers of one of the world’s oldest and most unique surviving musical traditions. The music and secrets of Jajouka have been passed down through generations from father to son, by some accounts for as long as 1,300 years. The musicians of Jajouka are taught from early childhood a complex music which is unique to Jajouka, until they finally become malims or masters. They possess Baraka, (good luck) or the blessing of Allah, which gives them the power to heal, and the endurance required to play some of the most intense and complex music around. The Master Musicians of Jajouka are all descendants of one family, the Attars. Attar is a Sufi watchword and a deeply mystical name meaning "perfume maker".
The instruments played by the Master Musicians of Jajouka are a flute called the lira, a double-reed instrument called the rhaita; it is similar to an oboe, but has a louder, more penetrating tone, a drum called the tebel made of goat-skin and played with two wooden sticks and a drum called the tarija.
Sufi music is considered to be part of the Sufi tradition of Islam. Prior to the colonization of Morocco by France and Spain, master musicians of the village were said to be the royal musicians of the sultans. In past centuries master musicians of the Jajouka village traditionally were excused by the country's rulers from manual labor, goat-herding, and farming to concentrate on their music because the music's powerful trance rhythms and droning woodwinds were traditionally considered to have the power to heal the sick.
Sufi Music Varies from Region to Region
Sufism and Sufi communities are not just found in Morocco. Since Islam is a religion followed by many other cultures and countries, it is natural that Sufism exists throughout the Muslim world from South and Central Asia through Turkey, Iran, the Levant and northern, eastern and western Africa.
Sufism has a wide geographical range. Each Sufi sect and their music vary greatly from region to region. Yet, despite any changes like the cultural background of the leaders or the language they speak, the ultimate goal of Sufism is universally the same: to lose oneself to free the soul and to become closer with “Allah”, God.