By Lisa Vives
Rooted in healing rituals and Sufism, the hypnotic sounds of Gnawa music have attracted artists and musicians of all stripes—from Jazz Age poet Claude McKay to Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman and the legendary Randy Weston.
Dar Gnawa—or Gnawa House—is a one-of-a kind three-story Moorish-style building built in Tangier, Morocco, in the 1850s. It’s a cultural center for Gnawa music, making it the first officially recognized center devoted to celebrating and preserving the music of the descendants of slaves in Morocco.
The head of Dar Gnawa is the 75-year-old Abdellah El Gourd, a world-renowned musician and elder statesman of the Gnawa tradition in Morocco. Coming from a family of Gnawa practitioners, El Gourd has lived in Dar Gnawa since 1953.
In 1967, El Gourd met the late pianist Weston and the two would go on to forge one of the greatest partnerships in music, touring around the world, performing a mix of Gnawa and jazz, collaborating on multiple recordings, including the Grammy-nominated “Gnawa Musicians of Morocco” (1992)
For decades, 75-year old Abdellah El Gourd and his family lived on the second and third floors of Dar Gnawa, while the first floor courtyard, open to the public, was where the recording and jam sessions would take place.
In February 2021, El Gourd was asked to temporarily evacuate his home while renovation of Dar Gnawa takes place. He moved his children and grandchildren to a nearby apartment. Six months later, the construction and renovation work has yet to start. El Gourd’s rent has not been subsidized as promised.
Most troubling, tiles and chandeliers have been stripped from the house, and the owner of an adjacent building has used this opportunity to knock down a second-floor balcony and staircase of Dar Gnawa, in an effort to annex part of El Gourd’s house.
Many in Morocco see the rehabilitation plan for the old city as the latest assault on Tangier’s cultural heritage amid a surge of construction across the city over the past two decades. Dozens of historic buildings have been demolished to make way for apartments, including some of the earliest cinemas on the African continent.
Dar Gnawa now faces an uncertain future. A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to save and refurbish Dar Gnawa under the heading “Save Historic Gnawa House of Tangier, Morocco.”
“Please support our efforts to save and refurbish Dar Gnawa,” says Hisham Aidi, a professor of international relations at Columbia University who grew up in the old city of Tangier and has been part of efforts to save the space.
“This building is a monument to North African culture and global jazz history.”