Light rhythms and heavy spirits

Entertaining listeners through gnawa musical and ritual adaptations in Morocco

Moroccan musicians conflate sacred and popular sounds within diverse and malleable rituals across the country. Their efforts are aimed at negotiating and appeasing their various audiences: clients in need of healing, family and friends looking for an evening of entertainment, and spirits building relationships with possessed bodies. Drawing on ethnographic research from Fez, Meknes and Sidi 'Ali, I show how gnawa musicians blend the boundaries between ritual and entertainment through musical innovation. Often at the behest of audiences, they perform a contemporary version of the ritual repertoire, adapt dance music rhythms into the ceremony's music and highlight the presence of spirits that are adopted by the gnawa from other traditions. These changes demonstrate pragmatism within ritual that counters common understandings of authentic spiritual practice, blurring lines between religious and secular experience. Professional ritual musicians navigate audience expectations within a contemporary possession healing ritual by adapting their practice, subtly and overtly manipulating the event itself. The resulting innovations illuminate the nexus of listener taste and performer creativity as it influences even the most allegedly conservative musical and religious settings. They show performers reaching out to changing audiences and redefining authentic performance practice within the ritual.

Journal British Journal of Ethnomusicology
Year 2016
Volume 25
Issue 2
Pages 172-190

Witulski, Christopher (2016) Light rhythms and heavy spirits: entertaining listeners through gnawa musical and ritual adaptations in Morocco. In: British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 172-190. Available at


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