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"Clearly, musics and musicking are proliferating faster than we can conceptualize the process of musical/cultural change, and so there is a good deal of slippage in current discussions about what to call this contemporary moment." Timothy Taylor, Global Pop.

I type Gnawa in Google.

Far from Marrakech, Essaouira or Casablanca, the Gnawa appear to me in cyberspace. They live inside thousands of pages and links exposing the world a culture barely known to the West just twenty years ago; inside thousands of references pointing to the wonders of the Digital Age; inside thousands of opportunities for intercultural communication.

I click on the mp3 download and press play. Syncopated rhythms, devotional incantations emerge from my computer. The music bounces against the corners of my office, penetrating back into the layers of my experiential memory, momentarily transporting me far away from my scholarly surroundings.

I welcome this contemporary local moment of Global displacement, abandoning all desire - if be for an instant - to capture its theoretical significance. After, all what is the essence of an ideal intercultural communication if not the subversion of all borders, labels and pre-conceived frameworks and the emergence of new forms of understanding - new ways of seeing? Ideally, Globalization might then be understood not in the act of naming it, but rather in the "slippage", a Taylor puts it, of its definition. The definition slips away precisely because it is co-created in a process of ever-fluctuating cultural exchanges and cultural constructions. There is the chance then, that any framework, which excludes the other's point of view, can quickly become an imposition rather than collaboration. In this case, the naming, the labeling, the fixing of all meaning, then develops into a one-way street paved with possible good intentions but leading straight to insular blindness, cultural hegemony.

Concepts like "hybridity" and "post-colonialism" may seem like fertile ground for academics to understand this moment in time but they do not take into account the voices of those who are being theoretically framed. Even notions of the "subaltern" which explicitly recognize the impossibility of academic theory to represent those who live in conditions of subordination brought about by colonization and other forms of economic, social, racial, linguistic dominance, are more interpretative than collaborative. Ranjit Guha who in the 1980's created the field of Subaltern Studies asks how can academic knowledge seek to represent the subaltern when that knowledge is itself implicated in the practices that construct the subaltern as such? And yet his question is couched in the obscure vernacular of academia. His words would appear meaningless to those he seeks to defend from representation just as my present words might very well be inconsequential to a Gnawa.

Who then am I talking to? And what is my purpose?

The mp3 music file comes to an end and I'm tempted to listen to it again. Its short 30-second duration left me somewhat dissatisfied. In this case I understand the notion of a "sample". It is meant to entice me into buying the CD at hand. And yet, even if I bought it, the dissatisfaction would still linger. There's something missing there that I can't quite yet comprehend. I play the sample again but this time the experience is different. I become more self aware of the artificiality of the exchange as the moment loses its initial appeal. I begin to question this interchange in order to make sense of my cyberspace experience. I begin to theorize….


Who says who are the Gnawa?

"The people of gnawa comes from western Afriqua [spelling choice of Website] (Guinea, Mali, Soudan). They were deported to Morrocco as slaves of rich sultans. Their spiritual leader Sidi Bilal was the first slave set free by the prophet Mahomet. Over a period of time, the people of gnawa and the local population mixed to form a brotherhood with a blend of African and Arabic culture. They practised a ritual of possession called lila de derdeba. This ritual staged by the cult masters for the followers evolves round the playing of music (by the master musicians and the clairvoyants) resulting in a deeper form of inner communication." From the Gnawa all stars Website

This text above is a fairly standard description of the Gnawa as found in the web. Site after site traces their origins as slaves, comments on their spiritual lineage, defines them as musician healers and mentions the Derdeba as their primal ritual of possession. Of course some sites give more in-depth information than others in the form of detailed descriptions of rituals, etymological interpretations of the origins of the name Gnawa or biographical insights for example. And yet, with precious few exceptions, there is a cut and paste feeling to the information offered across a majority of the sites sampled in this study.

Where does this information come from in the first place?

Written historical representations of oral cultures are indeed problematic for they challenge the authority of the narrative forms the West takes for granted. The popular written form, with its abstracted emphasis on sequential linear structures is at first glance wholly inadequate to represent oral forms, which stress concrete context, sensual inflections, gestural histrionics, hidden rhetorical patterns and the presence (or aura) of the speaker as a transmitter of knowledge. Often in oral communication what matters is not as much what is being said, but how it is being said. If an image is said to be worth a thousand words, the glance itself is surely beyond description. And yet this is the challenge of inter-cultural communication. How best to translate and preserve the essence of what is being said instead of merely interpreting the meaning of the words? In Ethnography, an answer to this challenge is known today as ethnopoetics, the art of trying to recreate intricate patterns of performance. Pioneered by Dell Hymes, this technique is an attempt to give form to oral rhetorical strategies used by speakers and draws the reader into an experiential place forcing him to slow down and imaginatively hear what was once voiced in the field.

One of the few examples in the web of this technique is found in an essay written by Chouki El Hamel, entitled Gnawa Moroccan Blues, a Historical Background. In it, El Hamel offers us his English translation of the lyrics of a Gnawa song he took from a book of lyrics written originally in Magrehbi. The text is presented in short verses, which accentuates the lyrical patterns used in the song. The first words are capitalized and there is one single period after the word justice.

They brought from the Sudan
The nobles of this country brought us
They brought us to serve them
They brought us to bow to them
They brought us Oh there is no God but God
We believe in God's justice.


Now try to read it this way:

They brought from the Sudan, the nobles of this country brought us, they brought us to serve them, they brought us to bow to them, they brought us. Oh there is no God but God. We believe in God's justice.

The impact is quite different here. The repetitions seem clumsy and ineffective taking away from the power of those perceived patterns in the first example. Chouki's choice of actually attempting to offer the reader a taste of how the Gnawa narrate his or her own history is rare indeed. This example reveals a noticeable pattern in the way the Gnawa are being represented on the web: there is an obvious lack of actual Gnawa voices. I'm well aware that the web is packed with musical samples of Gnawa groups. In concrete terms, their voices are indeed eerily present. And furthermore, if the Gnawa do narrate their history though their songs, one could easily be satisfied with the idea that this mix is an ideal way to represent them. The seeker visits a site, reads about them and then listens to a song by the Gnawa. The problem with this approach is that it presupposes that if we listen to the Gnawa all the while reading about them, we will automatically begin to enter their worldview. It assumes that these two voices are complementary and sufficient. It's as if the Gnawa were there to supply the music to an accompanying text about his or her own culture in order to facilitate in the minds of a Western public a quick and easily digestible understanding. Viewed in this framework, the Gnawa do not articulate thoughts and ideas - they just sing in tongues we do not understand. The "power" of their music speaks for them. I'm not sure this is an appropriate framework.

A highly entertaining article written by Greg Burk for the LA Weekly illustrates this absence. Here's a writer who was sent to the 2001 Essaouira Gnaoua Festival and writes a long article without quoting a single Gnaoua. He does include a photograph:

Mahmoud Guinea, guimbri god
Photo by Pierre-Emmanu

Note the caption which reads "Mahmoud Guinea, guimbri god". (Guimbri is the musical instrument Mahmoud Guinea is playing). This is what happens when people ignorant of Gnawa culture are in charge of representing them. The Gnawa are Muslims and the pillar of their religion is the sacred prayer "La ilah ilallah" which means, "There is no God but Allah". This belief is an affirmation for Muslims of the unity indivisibility of all things. The word "god" itself is never thrown around loosely but is reserved only for addressing God. I have serious doubts whether a Gnawa would ever refer him or herself as a "god" of anything or would want to be characterized as such. This editorial choice illuminates the difference between "translation" (which implies collaboration) and "interpretation" (which implies imposition) when it comes down to representation.
This particular caption falls into the realm of "interpretation". In doing so, the editors filter the Gnawa through their western lenses offering their Western readers a ways to "understand" the Gnawa. In this case, "guimbri god" is a rock music metaphor often seen in the press when talking about pop idols (pun intended). In the act of making the Gnawa "understandable" to Western audiences, the editors have had to reduce and label them as "rock stars". This is an interpretation because it does not take into account how Mahmoud Guinea would define himself. The presence of his photograph coupled with the absence of his voice perfectly illustrates a representational pattern that has a long been popular in Western representations of Indigenous Cultures and still apparently endures on the web.


Malinowski and the Birth of Modern Ethnography

Before the publication of Bronislaw Malinovski's famous study of the coastal populations of the South Sea Islands, "Argonauts of the Western Pacific" (1922), the field of cultural representation was basically in the hands of armchair anthropologists who dissected and interpreted texts written in the field by explorers, missionaries, wealthy idle travelers and colonial officers. For Malinowski these highly subjective and non-professional writings and their subsequent analysis by researchers far from the field represented the antithesis of his scientific ideals. If until then the role of ethnography had been an attempt to understand indigenous cultures in order to better manage them, to better control them, Malinowski's vision was not only to "understand" in order to create a feeling of solidarity among men, but also as he writes in his book's introduction, "Perhaps through realizing human nature in shape very distant and foreign to us, we shall have some light shed on our own."

Naturally these lofty and somewhat esoteric ideals needed to be transformed into a body of undisputed objective scientific data in order to be given the appropriate recognition in the corridors of Colonial Academic power. Malinowski thus introduced a model of representation drawn from scientific practices, which promised its practitioners the possibility to transcend their own subjectivity. For Malinowski one describes behaviors in order to explain, compare and ultimately theorize them away. The idea that scientific objectivity gives the writer the authority to interpret the lives of others is a powerful one, and it's no surprise that Malinowski's bag of observational tricks is still the norm today not only in the social sciences but in journalism as well.

A USA TODAY cover story dated January 9, 2002, perfectly illustrates the scope of this mentality. Titled "Afghanistan, from inside a burqa.", the article is promoted as "after being harassed as un uncovered Western woman while reporting on the war, the writer dons a burqa to explore the veil's restrictions - and its freedoms." In it, reporter Vivienne Walt puts on the Islamic dress and goes out in the streets for one afternoon assuming that by donning the burqa she can momentarily enter an Afghani woman's perspective. Malinowski wrote that after establishing camp in the middle of a village he was able to enjoy waking up every day to "a day presenting itself to me more or less as it does to the native." " I was curious to see the world from within a burqa…" writes Vivienne Walt. Would we give the same credence to an Afgnani reporter who upon visiting the U.S. donned tight jeans and low cut blouse in order to "experience the sexual debasement of western women"? I doubt our cultural biases would allow it. In the end what did Vivienne Walt see? And what did we learn? Call it instant knowledge, a way of seeing. Pitch your tent for a couple of months or put on a burqua for the afternoon, either way the writers gain objective authority and credibility by simply "being there" and "donning" the outer forms they're studying. Just as the natives' voices are absent from Malinowski's work, so are the Afghani women in the USA TODAY piece, or the Gnawa on the web for that matter. This subtle substitution of the native's worldview for our own reinforces a pattern in our Western ways of seeing the ethnic other that supports interpretation rather than translation, appropriation rather than collaboration.

What makes the analysis of these cultural interactions essential is the realization that they mirror larger economic and political models that affect millions of people and consequently the fate of their nations. Here's how an article about Randall Barnwell, founder of Istikhara Music Co, a world music label, describes him:

"Several musicians discovered and recorded by Barnwell have gone on to performing careers. "We like to help people get meaningful jobs in their craft rather than see talented artists end up as busboys or taxi drivers," he says. "After mining the music of North Africa, Barnwell turned his attention to the music and storytelling of Thailand, Burma and Malaysia, moving west in 1996 in part to be closer to Asia."

Here you have two contradictory messages: in the first paragraph the writer clearly showcases Barnwell's good intentions (and I don't doubt them either) while using the word "mining" in the second paragraph to explain what he does. Mining has a fairly sordid history in Africa. It is one of the quintessential examples in this century of Colonial genocide and economic exploitation. In retrospect the opposite of what Barnwell's record company claims to be all about. As I said, I'm not questioning Barnwell's motives but rather the way the writer describes Barnwell's relationship to music he records. Third World culture, just like the raw materials extracted from its soil are seen as products to be "mined" and later transformed by Western capital into consumer products. "There is some irony," writes Timothy Taylor in his book Global Pop, "in the fact that to "understand" or "appreciate" world music, it has not only to be presented by an intermediary but commodified as well, as if commodification somehow refines world music into a familiar and intelligible consumable item."


The Gnawa on the web then are indeed primarily presented as consumable products. Of the 400 pages I sampled using Google I found only a handful not selling products. These were governmental, non-governmental and academic sites. The rest all have some type of product placement firmly established in their design and intent. I'm not passing judgment here, but rather observing a fairly obvious trend in the representation of the Gnawa in the Web. Commerce and intercultural exchange thus go together and reflect the ways in which the Web is evolving.
The Gnawa are sold, and sell themselves as musicians. Given that the Gnawa are identified or identify themselves as the descendents of slaves I'm aware of the sharp irony behind my use of the verb "to sell". I'm not even sure a Gnawa would agree with my interpretation. Does it matter? It does, and it points to caution when reading these words or the words of anyone claiming to present you with the Gnawa. I believe that the key here is to explore the differences, if any, between passive and active Gnawa participation, imposition and self- representation.

As we pointed before most of the sites seem to be created by non-Gnawas. I'm making a supposition here based on common sense. Many Gnawa are illiterate and access to digital technology is fairly restricted in Morocco. I found only two sites created by Gnawas. The first one is Fils de Gnawa de Tanger (Sons of the Gnawa of Tanger) mastered by Abdallah Bensaid (who lives in Tanger). I don't know if Mr. Bensaid is a Gnawa, but the way the information is presented I'm assuming that it was created in collaboration with the group. There are a lot of photographs and descriptions of several dances with the their given name and cultural influence. Though the site is not the best-constructed site I have seen, it carries with it information that is found nowhere else on the web. For example in the historical section there are two ancient black and white postcards representing the Gnawa. Their inclusion raises the issue of the visual historial representation of the Gnawa. Are they to be framed visually by photographs taken by foreigners?

Another site site is Gnawa Express, mastered by Malem Abdelmajid Demnati. The site places this group as "performers" of "shows. Their historical context is given by text which says that, "many centuries later and after a migration across Africa there was a development from this origin to choral songs which seemed liturgical. These kinds of songs are typical for the GNAWA who belong to the Sufism." No mention of slavery here but there is mention of Sufism and migration. The group illustrates the elasticity of the term Gnawa by presenting itself as "traditional" (the photos certainly look like it) all the while not necessarily integrating themselves within a possible tradition of established brotherhoods. Also, the images on that site have been laid out in pieces making an appropriation almost impossible.

This absence of Gnawa voices on the Web is even found in the number of interviews with actual Gnawas. Of the 200 hundred sites I sampled only three presented long interviews with actual Gnawas. This is how world famous Hassan Hakmoun describes the Gnawa in an interview with WNCU FM, 90.7 FM in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Hassan Hakmoun: Well, the origin of Gnawa music originally comes from West Africa. Over 500 years ago, slavery brought people from West Africa to North Africa, which was then Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and other countries nearby. When they came, they brought their music with them, which was called Gnawa. Since these different groups all played the same type of music, they call themselves the Gnawa people.

Hakmoun's definition resembles word for word how most other websites define the Gnawa. Notice though how he does not define the Gnawa in subjective terms but immediately goes into an "objective" historical framework that does not include him. Only near the end of the interview does he begin using the words "our culture". So, even a Gnawa effaces himself while addressing a Western audience. I think this points to the dangers understanding interviews too literally. We don't learn much about Hassan Hakmoun but about his strategies of representation.

In another interview, this time with Artsedge, Randy Weston and Abdella El Gourd of Dar Gnawa about their Kennedy Center Performance we see a similar issues arise.
Mr. Abdellah El Gourd, can you explain a little bit about the history of the Gnawa?
(Abdellah El Gourd) Gnawa, they are created in Morocco--they come from the black Africa in the north and they created this music called Gnawa. The name Gnawa is Arabic, and was given to this group. The origin was ancient Egypt, and they were brought north. It means music that is so rhythmic that you dance as you've never danced before. It's like jazz in America--you have different styles for different cities. So, the music is called Gnawa, and the people are called Gnawa.

Is this an accurate description just because Abdellah El Gourd is one of the eldest and most revered Gnawa masters in Morocco? There are many voices in the Web claiming to know the origins of the name Gnawa. Is it Berber, meaning "the one whose language is incomprehensible"? Is it derived from Guinea the region? Do they come from Egypt? Sudan? No one really knows and as we enter the realm of mythmaking and oral traditions, the question of factuality, in my opinion, becomes moot. What would be gained by contradicting Abdellah El Gourd? Or Hassan Hakmoun? In these two interviews they are obviously addressing an English speaking audience. They're carefully tailoring their message for our consumption. They're translating for us.

The third interview comes from the Soudani Project Website. It's an Interview with Maâlem Goubani of Essaouira by Abdelkabir Namir, published in the journal Le Matin (6/4/98). Two fascinating "moments" emerge from this interview. The first one is related to Maâlem Goubani's telling of his family history:

"My father was named M'Barek and was a nativeof Chnafou in Sudan from where he was abducted and sold in the Sahara, while my mother was originally from Bamako in Mali... Me, I was born in Essaouira in 1923... Since 1985, I have been Moqadem of the zawia of the Gnawa. In 1987, I was designated as Moqadem of the taifa of the Gnawa of Essaouira... "
The writer then immediately comments: "Indeed, his official papers, national card of identity and certificate accorded by the municipality and the competent authorities of religious affairs confirms what he says." It's interesting here that his oral history is only valid in as much as his "official" papers and the "competent religious authorities" says it is true. The article finishes in an interesting note. "To finish this article, I'll offer a concrete example of an authentic document of interest for ethnographic study," Namir writes. "During one of our amicable evenings together, M'allim Hajub took out of his pocket an old photograph about which he started to comment:
"This photograph was taken about 1930. Here are the local French authorities in military uniforms... The white people in Jellabas are the representatives of the different religious brotherhoods of the city: the black that you see there, the first on the right, is my father M'Barek. He's carrying the Gnawa flag."

The writer's last words confirm the power given to this photographic record. "This invaluable document," her writes, "has been preserved by Frederic Damgaard who understood the immediately the historical value of this photograph. It is on exhibit today, in the company of other photographs, taken by Youssef Regragui, depicting the Gnawa of Essaouira during various occasions." Where does the need of Mallem Goubani to show this photograph arise? I can only speculate, but I would be surprised to find out that he regards his father's photo as proof of his existence in the way we would. Mallem Goubani is showing the reporter the photograph because he knows that it will communicate directly with an audience accustomed to justifying reality through the "objectivity" of the image. These three examples of interviews offer a taste of how the Gnawas attempt to control their representation by playing into Western modes of representation. Have we met the limits of what we can learn from the Gnawa? Is an interview format in which a non-Gnawa asks questions of a Gnawa an appropriate way to further intercultural communication?


Though we have seen that the representation of the Gnawa on the Web appears to follow familiar patterns of colonial representation: we only get to know them through our own Western lenses and we come to experience them as familiar consumer products, there is one important aspect of the Gnawa which seems to put a twist on our preconceived notions: their musical fusion with other forms.

At first sight there appears to be three kinds of Gnawas on the web: the ones who have emigrated and have joined with other ethnic musicians to form music groups that draw their inspiration from the Gnawa (such as Gnawa Diffusion), the ones who have played with Western musicians (such as Dar Gnawa), and finally the ones who have not played with Western musicians (such as the group Gnawa Bilal of Rabat). Of these later ones, all of them have played in Europe. Therefore we can safely say that all Gnawa groups represented on the Web have an Occidental connection. Obviously, in a country with more than 30% unemployment and a long history of northern migration, a ticket across the straights of Gibraltar is a sign of great success. It's important to understand that the Gnawa have existed on the religious and economic margins of "official" Moroccan society for centuries. They represented the opposite of Morocco's tumultuous gaze toward the Occident. They were backward "Africans", toothless and illiterate practitioners of a brand of Islam totally at odds with the strict tenets of Wahibi Sunni Islam, which forbids singing, dancing, musical instruments and the worship of Saints and Spirits. The Gnawa have thus begun to attain a higher status in Moroccan society, especially among the youth. A great example of this is the Gnaoua Festival held in Essaouira in June. Now in its fourth year, though it attracts a wide international audience, the majority who comes are young Moroccans. At the Festival, the patterns seen on the Web are duplicated. The Gnawa who perform with Western or other famous non-Gnawa musicians are given top billing, while the other Gnawa, the ones who play "traditional" sets are relegated to smaller stages. I'm not sure what to make of this. At first sight it would appear that the only way to truly attract a crowd is to bring in famous non-Gnawa musicians. Does this send a message to the rest of the Gnawa that the way to make it is riding on the coattails of these musicians? Does it say that "traditional" Gnawa music (which after all is a fusion of all the cultures that inhabit Morocco) is less important? Finally it may come down to what makes a good performance. Once you begin to put the "traditional" Gnawa on a stage with lights and sound systems and remove them from their religious context, maybe they all start looking like one another. The subtleties might get lost when all the audience is looking for is a good "performance". At the same time, to perform at the Festival obviously confers status and allows the Gnawa to be seen and heard and possibly gain an economic advantage. We mustn't forget that cultural purity is often not the luxury of the poor. In his essay, The Music of the Gnawa of Morocco: a Journey with the Other into the Elsewhere, the Italian ethnomusicologist Antonio Baldassare furthers this points:

"The second reason for optimism, and the more important in my opinion, comes from an assessment of the economic effects that World Music has had in the daily lives of the Gnawa. When I began to spend time with this community more than twenty years ago, living conditions were harsh as a result of the transformations taking place in traditional Morocco vis à vis the modern economy. The figure of the 'abid (the black slave) had practically disappeared from the houses of the powerful élite, and the Gnawa found themselves struggling to survive in a society that was subject to rapid and drastic change. The marketing of their knowledge has catalyzed a process of transformation of their ritual into a much valued and paid for therapeutic practice. In recent years, I could observe the first signs of what seems to be a reverse tendency. The revenue raised from overseas tours has contributed to solving the more pressing problems of basic survival. A direct result of achieving basic economic stability has been that the Gnawa are now largely free from the frantic search for a paying clientele and have returned instead to celebrating their rites for the prime purpose of consolidating community ties, through the vigor and inspiration gained from contact with the spiritual energies of the lila-derdeba."

The Gnawa are being transformed by this new Global era just as we in the West are being transformed by it. A short essay by Robert Palmer, featured in the Dar Gnawa site perfectly illustrates this moment in time. In his essay Palmer talks about the need of the Gnawa not just to communicate with the North but also to return to their African roots. This is a fascinating point for it puts in context a chain of relationships. The North looks toward the Gnawa as representatives of an "authentic" oral tradition which might bring them closer to their pre-modern days just as the Gnawa look toward their origins in Sub-Saharan Africa' as a source for their search for tradition, authenticity and connection. This idea demystifies the Gnawa by showing them to have similar dilemmas as those living in the West. Displacement and Modernity in this context seem to be Universal traits.

Claims to the "Universal" should always be taken lightly. In our desire for commonality we tend to generalize and theorize about our affinities to others, forgetting that deeper understandings often come from highly subjective and idiosyncratic lived experiences that resist formality. Just as we encounter the Gnawa on the Web, we mustn't forget that these websites are the product of real encounters between people. Ultimately their significance lies in the degree to which they reflect the collaborative qualities of that encounter. As I sit in my office, facing my shimmering screen and listening to that Gnawa mp3 sample, I try to connect with the music and enjoy it for what it brings me in the moment. In some ways, no text on the Web has yet to surpass the power of streaming music to bring you closer to what the Gnawa are all about. After all, they're musicians and why should we ask them to explain themselves? And yet, we want to know more as we sit far from Marrakech, Casablanca or Essaouira. We want to find ourselves in others and search in them for those elements missing in our lives.

Why does anyone type in the word "Gnawa" into "Google" in the first place? Are we satisfied being tourists, strolling through Cyberspace without attachments or commitments in the safety of our digital environment? Or are we ready to assume the responsibility of actually engaging in the worldview of the people we encounter? Is it possible to enjoy Gnawa music without thinking about what it means to communicate with the spirits? And once we've come to accept the reality of this spiritual experience what are we going to do about it? How are we going to be affected by it? This is the real test of intercultural communication. As Hakim Bey put it:: "Collaboration - not appropriation. Translation - not interpretation. Life - not lifestyle...World Culture is either true co-creation or it is nothing. Or worse than nothing - a sin against the holy spirit. There is no exotic other. Planet earth - love it or leave it." Our responsibility therefore is to understand this moment in history as an ever-fluctuating process of cultural exchanges and cultural constructions. Everytime we llog on the Web we reinforce certain patterns at the detriment of others. It's important for Westerners to be aware of the many voices still missing on the Web and at the same time make a concerted effort to help them reach our digital shores. It's a process that should benefit all alike, not just the few Gnawas who have been "discovered" by the West.