Battling to Save a Historic House of Music
TANGIER, Morocco — For over a half-century, a Moorish-style house in the old city of Tangier considered one of Morocco’s cultural gems drew musicians from around the world seeking to learn about the Sufi music and rituals of the descendants of slaves in the country.
But the one-of-a-kind center for traditional Gnawa music was abandoned early this year because it was in danger of collapse, and long delays to restore it as part of a government rehabilitation plan for this city on Morocco’s northern coast put its future in peril. The battle to save Dar Gnawa, or the Gnawa House, has shed light on just how precious and precarious traditional talents are in the North African kingdom.
Abdellah El Gourd, a 75-year-old world-renowned master of Gnawa music, has lived in the historic house since he was 5. Over the decades, he hosted acclaimed jazz musicians from around the globe.
“Dar Gnawa is not only an institution that celebrates the music of former slaves in North Africa, but it is also a focal point for the rise of jazz on the African continent,” said Hisham Aidi, a professor of international relations at Columbia University in New York who grew up in Tangier and has been part of efforts to save the space.
“As teenagers, we would stop by Dar Gnawa after school, and you never knew who you would find there,” he said. “It could be saxophonist Archie Shepp, poet Ted Joans or a European musician playing with El Gourd’s troupe.”
Gnawa originated with enslaved West Africans who were taken north to Morocco. It is among the rituals they held on to, praising saints and spirits with rhythmic song, dance and trance possession.
The instruments involved are simple: a three-string fretless lute known as the gimbri or sintir, accompanied by large metal castanets called qraqeb that create rhythms. The music is sometimes played during all-night ceremonies where exorcisms are performed to expel the spirits believed to cause illness.
In 2019, UNESCO added Gnawa to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
In 1980, the Gnawa House became the first officially recognized center devoted to celebrating and preserving the genre. But long before that, it served as a meeting place for artists starting in the 1960s.
Unlike other Moroccan cities, Tangier did not have many cultural centers for young artists, so Mr. El Gourd decided to create a space that he hoped would ensure his art form would not disappear. The house became one of the few places to learn Gnawa music. Born into a family of Gnawa practitioners, Mr. El Gourd is now fighting for his house and for his legacy.
In 1967, he met the American pianist Randy Weston, who lived in Tangier for decades. Mr. Weston’s music and scholarship advanced the idea — now broadly accepted — that jazz is, at its core, African music. For years, Mr. Weston played with Mr. El Gourd in the Gnawa House before they toured the world together. They collaborated on multiple recordings, including the 1992 Grammy-nominated “Gnawa Musicians of Morocco.”
Over the years, Mr. El Gourd performed with other jazz musicians, including Dexter Gordon, Odetta and Billy Harper.
“I went with Randy to Morocco, and since then, we have become a family,” Fatoumata Weston, the pianist’s widow, said of Mr. El Gourd. She, Mr. Aidi and others credited Mr. El Gourd and Mr. Weston, who died in 2018, with inspiring the fusion of Gnawa and jazz music.
The Gnawa House is a reflection of Tangier’s rich international history. A Moroccan door opens into a chamber that leads to an interior courtyard. An Italian marble stairwell is tiled in the Moroccan mosaic style known as zellij, while the rest of the house features Spanish and Portuguese tiles and Italian doors. The top floor, with its high ceilings, overlooks the seaport of Tangier.
Mr. El Gourd lived with his family on the second and third floors for decades while visitors downstairs joined improvised jam sessions and celebratory musical gatherings.
ut they moved out in February so the house could be renovated as part of a state plan conceived two years ago to restore the entire old city of Tangier, where dozens of houses were in danger of collapsing. While Mr. El Gourd was away, a neighbor knocked down a wall and tried to annex part of the house. Tiles and chandeliers were stolen.
Despite his fame, Mr. El Gourd said his financial situation was precarious, but the state had promised to transfer money to him to restore his house. The renovations began in August, and hopes are high that the house can be salvaged.
“When a great artist like him has problems, we must help him,” Ms. Weston said. “He was the ambassador of Morocco across the world.”
A meeting place for praise with song, dance and trances.