In Fes last month, at the Sacred Music Festival, our writing group was lucky to receive an invitation to a private lila. The all night Gnawa Lila is a musical healing ceremony that has it origins in Africa's Western Sub-Saharan region, in countries like Senegal, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, and found its way to Morocco when slaves arrived in the sixteenth century. Gnawans consider themselves good muslims and Allah is praised in their songs along side the pantheon of muslim saints and Afro Saharan tribal spirits. Disapproved of by Muslim conservatives, Gnawa music and its rituals they are popular in all parts of Morocco.
We weren't permitted to take photos and it didn't feel right anyway, so I have assembled some sourced pics and clips to give you an impression of our experience.
A mixed combo of Europeans, Moroccans and us were gathered, waiting for what, we weren't quite sure. Soon, outside, a loud insistent clashing and crashing rhythm began, punctuated by deep drum beats. Six (or so) musicians entered, dressed in gold edged blue gowns and hats with long tassles. In the centre of the small room they played, danced and performed acrobatics, never missing a beat as the compulsive rhythm built louder and (almost unbearably) louder. If this was to be a healing you felt that any bad spirits dwelling in your body would certainly be driven out right now, just to get away from the ruckus. After some brilliant high kicks, dangerous leaping and impressive tassle twirling, the musicians took their seated places along the wall in the small carpeted area allotted to them.
|Pic from The View From Fez|
In the first of many breaks to come, mint tea and nibbles were served as preparations were made for the next part of the ceremony. A young woman appeared, dressed in long white gown
(jelaba), bringing offerings which she placed in front of the musicians of different kinds of incense, herbs, a small ceramic jar containing burning coals, some fruit, and snacks.
When the musicians began again with the loud clashing rhythm of the double metal castanets (qaraqeb), accompanied by a stringed instrument (guimbri), she positioned herself in front of them and began her dance. With feet parted but well planted on the floor, arms clasped behind her, she moved the upper part of her body throwing her head from side to side in a move reminiscent of head banging fans at a heavy metal concert.This is how, we were told, she would enter into trance.
And indeed she did for as the night wore on she took the burning coals in her mouth, cut herself with a carving knife, drawing no blood (well, just a tad), burned her arms and throat with candle flame and generally tranced out, joined at different stages by other young friends who also seemed to be able, at the drop of a hat, to go into trance and come out again for a cigarette or conversation with friends.
There were different costume changes in each break as she changed into the colours of the different spirits being evoked, different offerings, different incense, and different snacks to keep us awake. A bowl of milk was passed around for us all to drink followed by a bowl of sweet dates. Orange blossom water was splashed our heads like holy water, and later yet more: thick black coffee, pancakes and Moroccan spring rolls. Despite the abundance of sustenance, at one point I did succumb to sleep, head leaning on a mosaic pillar but woke again as the crashing rhythms built to yet another climactic pitch.
After three or four sessions and three or four breaks, when it looked like the more serious business was over, more people from around the edges joined in the dancing, several westerners being berated by an older gentleman guest, "don't wiggle your hips, dance from the shoulders!" It was wonderful to move at last and feel the clash-clash rhythm rip through your body.
But it was getting very late and we had a workhop scheduled for the morning. I tried to gather our group from various positions on couches and pillars and even managed to get them out the door, when the hostess insisted " Oh, but there's only one more session to go and you must stay - they will call up Aisha Kandisha!' Aisha was also the name of our wonderful guide and hostess at our hotel Riad Rcif, and when she told me, "I've never stayed to the end before and I've always missed the Aisha invocation," we filed back in and hit the dance floor for the last bracket.
I lost track which colour the young dancer had changed into but in my imaginings it was earth greens and rich browns. Aisha Kandisha, we were to find out, has a powerful presence in Morocco. Women make secret offerings to her and she is invoked in many different kinds of ceremonies including a pilgrimage to her sacred spring near Sidi Ali. Read more here.
|incense kit (with lizard) used for invoking Aisha Kandisha|
Finally the night was over. It was 5.30 am, not quite dawn, when we made our way home through the medina, refusing the final offer of hot lima bean soup and bread from our generous hostess. For the musicians it was the end of another long night, for the dancers - a powerful healing, and for us, an unforgettable taste of a primal and ancient, mystical world, that some of our group were happy to leave at that, and others knew they would have to have more!
The Seven Stages of Lila
This informative explanation on the stages of Lila comes from Deborah Kapchan of Penn Museum
"The Lila itself is a long complicated ritual in seven parts, one for each Mlouk. Mlouk refer to powerful spiritual entities that reign over the lesser spirits called Djinns. According to the Gnawa every person resonates with a certain Mlouk, and each spirit, or family of spirits, has a color, an incense, and a food or drink. For each of the seven sections the Gnawa wear color appropriate costumes, burn the associated incense, serve the corresponding food, and play the particular melody associated with the Mlouk.
In my research I have come across many accounts of how western terminology simply cannot encapsulate the feeling of communal heightened awareness and emotion of the trance state that occurs during the Lila.
We can throw around the word “trance”, but such an experience is so foreign to most Westerners that it really has no substantiated meaning, and in addition we do not have words in our vocabulary to even properly describe the feeling of trance. What can be said is that during the Lila participants, when communicating with their Mlouk, experience a gamut of extremely heightened emotional states; people scream, cry, laugh hysterically, experience bliss, eros, terror, and many other extreme emotions.
While in a trance, and somewhat afterward, participants have the feeling of being “somewhere else”, another dimension of sorts, transcending both time and space.
The ceremony traditionally goes through each of the seven sections. Although the order of the Mlouk varies from place to place, the Lila often begins with the White suites (representing male) and ends with the Yellow suites (representing female, or rebirth).
The White Mlouk is AbdelKadder Jilani, an 11th century saint. He is said to be the “sultan of saints”, the “standard bearer of the Way”. He opens the door to the spiritual world.
The multi-colored suite invokes Bourdebela, a Master Mystic beggar. This Mlouk is thought to be part of the cohort of the whites.
The Blue suites are in honor of Sidi Mousa (Moses), the Lord of the Sea (dark blue), and Sidi Sma, the Lord of the Sky (light blue).During this section the trancer dances with a bowl of water with mint leaves on their head.
The Mlouk of the Red suite is Sidi Hammou, the master of the slaughterhouses. This Mlouk is wild and fearsome. In this section the trancers dance with daggers, sometime cutting themselves while in possession.
The Green suite is in honor of the descendants of the prophet. The Maalem begins by invoking the Prophet and then various local saints known to be his decendants.
The Black Mlouk are the Djinns of the forest, Sidi Mimoun and Lala Mimouna (male and female), and are the most dangerous and wild of all. During possession adepts can morph into animals, eat raw flesh, and sometimes even attack the audience.
Finally the Yellow suite is dedicated to all of the female spirits, whose Mlouk is Lala Mira. During this section sweets and perfume are given to the trancers, and adepts are known to feverishly devour the candies." Deborah Kapchan, Moroccan Gnawa and Transglobal Trance.
Below is a clip of a Red suite
|'Red" Still from You Tube clip by Peter Danstrup.|
NOTE: The two small white boxes that have found their way onto this page and cannot be erased remain as a reminder of the presence of the spirit world discussed in this article. Bismillah!
SACRED SONG, SACRED STORY Writer's Retreat will take place in Fes in 2014. June 12-22. Booking now