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Khamlia Gnawa – A Little Desert Village with a Big Story

The Gnawa / Gnaoua Village in the Sahara

Who are Gnawa?

For centuries black Africans from the Gnawa tribe, originating from sub-Saharan countries such as The Sudan, Mali and Niger, were forcibly moved from their homelands across the Sahara to Morocco as part of the worldwide slave trade. Shackled in chains as they crossed the desert, they sang to soothe and found a mindfulness in the rhythmic chanting and clanking of the chains.

Today there is a small village in the Moroccan Sahara whose inhabitants are direct descendants of these slaves and this is the story of Khamlia Village.

Slavery in Morocco

Slaves played a big part in Moroccan history and some of the most powerful kasbahs such as Telouet in the High Atlas were built by their hard labour. Telouet Kasbah is situated next to an ancient salt mine and it is said that 1 kilo of gold was equal to 1 kilo of salt and 2 slaves. Long before the caravans reached the High Atlas though, they had to cross through the desert town of Sijilmasa. This was the Mecca of the Maghreb and a vital trade post on the Trans-Saharan route. Slaves were forced to toil in this area as shepherds and servants, and this practice continued for generations.

Although Islam really started to take a hold in Morocco in the 11th century it took a long time to find its way through the wild and inhospitable terrain and wasn’t fully imposed until the 18th century. As slavery is forbidden in Islam, it was at this point that these slaves in Sijilmasa, today known as Rissani, were granted freedom.

The emancipated slaves had retained knowledge of their culture, customs and traditions to such an extent that they were still able to make their musical instruments such as the Guembri and Hajhuj from the intestines and skin of goats and wood from the desert Tamarisk tree. They revived their spiritual music but changed its form to one of gratitude to God and the Prophet Mohammed. Gnawa music became a music of thanksgiving for freedom, and nostalgia for the homeland.

Gnaoua / Gnawa in Khamlia

Where is Khamlia Village?

The Gnawa lived as nomads until settling last century in a small village called Khamlia. Khamlia (or the Gnawa village as it is fondly known) lies 7km south of Merzouga at the door of the desert, and despite only recently being added to maps, 390 Gnawa still live here. In 2004 a road was built through the village which has introduced tourism to the people here and on a desert tour of Morocco you can visit, meet the people and listen to performances of Gnawa music in its home environment.

About the Khamlia Gnawa Festival

There are 3 music groups in Khamlia and once a year they used to perform at each of the village houses in order to collect donations of basic provisions of flour, sugar, tea or money which helped fund their own Khamlia Gnawa Festival each summer. Then, in 2011 an Imam came to the village and attempted to divide the people into followers of Gnawa and followers of Islam and he stated that their music was prohibited under Sharia law. The people of the village made their personal choice, some remaining supporters of the music and folklore and some not. However, this caused much confusion and it was no longer clear which houses would welcome these personal performances and which would not. So today a charity has been created and this provides a space for the pre-festival fund-raising performances and also allows tourists to better participate.

Follow this link to read the story of the woman behind the Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival

Every summer the annual desert festival of Gnawa, known as Sadaka, takes place. For three days and nights, Gnawa music is played non-stop in an incessant trancelike rhythm. Attended by hundreds, including Gnawa from all corners of the kingdom, the Sadaka is believed to cure the sick and obtain a divine blessing and is also a time to celebrate their common heritage in Khamlia Village.

So Morocco provides bespoke private tours of Morocco and can incorporate a visit to Khamlia where you can listen to Gnawa musicians from the group Pigeons Du Sable. 


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