Paris, October 1998

Interview with Georges Lapassade, by Olivier Barlet

The Gnawa, an alternative therapy
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Sociologist, anthropologist, tutor at the University of Paris VIII, institutional analysis theoretician and author of a multitude of works, Georges Lapassade has been studying possession rituals for thirty years, particularly in the Maghreb. There, he detects a mastering of dissociation rather than an elimination, which is often as effective as many Western therapies.

What triggered your interest in the Moroccan Gnawa ?
It goes back thirty years to my first contact – which was a shock – with the African-Maghrebi question in Tunis in the autumn of 1965. I was teaching pedagogy and sociology at the university. Some students introduced me to the stambali (derdeba, in Morocco), the Afro-Maghrebi Gnawa ritual. I had no ethnological training. My studies had been in institutional analysis which focuses on studying modern societies and organizations. I thus renounced any kind of ethnographic approach, and instead became the Gnawa’s sort of manager, organizing tours for them in different festivals, or appearances on the recently-introduced television, etc. This was not very well perceived, as the stambali was viewed with contempt as the Blacks were ! Some Black scholarship students who had heard about the fuss I was causing started coming to my classes and denounced the rejection and racism they encountered. My sociology classes thus took a political turn, dealing with a question that had remained a taboo in that society. I was fired after a year when the student strike the French staff had supported was fiercely repressed. My contract was terminated to make an example of me and to intimidate my colleagues.
You did not abandon your interest though…
In 1966 I went to the Festival of Black Arts in Dakar with an article on the stambali that Présence Africaine published in 1968. In the article, I deplored the fact that this culture was dying out. There were only four groups left in Tunis, and a few more elsewhere. Senghor invited me to an informal meeting where he confirmed the racist perceptions of the Black in Tunisia, telling me that Bourguiba treated him like « his little nigger », and advised me to go and study the Gnawa in Morocco.
I therefore went to Essaouira in Morocco in 1969 in the wake of the Living Theatre. I met Moroccan Gnawa there, and began studying their derdeba. Damgaard had just settled in Essaouira, but wasn’t a gallery owner yet. Black art generated little interest. Unfortunately, I still didn’t have the ethnographic training necessary to understand the words of the elderly maâlems (masters) who are now dead. Only one is still alive today, maâlem Boubkher. The traditional has become folkloristic, but has maintained its rituals which are practiced less and less.
What signs are there of this folkishness ?
It was already traditionally present in the shows they give in the markets, when seeking alms, or when invited to liven official festivities up with their costumes and music. In the Seventies, a group of young musicians emerged, however, who started revitalizing the tradition. Nass El Ghiwane was the first of these groups to contribute to spreading and valorizing Gnawa culture. The gallery-owner Damgaard began to specialize in the Essaouira Gnawa little by little, and notably in Mohamed Tabal’s paintings. I participated in Gnawa group tours in Europe and the Ocora label recorded an album.
I imagine that mutual influences can be spotted between the Gnawa and the societies in which they live…
Yes, the Gnawa’s ritual repertoire comes from a syncretic mix of African elements, Maghrebi (and especially Berber) music, and the marabout culture. The Gnawa have taken the popular cult of the saints like Abdel Kader Jilali and Moulay Brahim from Islam, whilst also keeping the supernatural beings whose names clearly bear witness to their West African origins. Conversely, the popular Moroccan Sufi brotherhoods borrow largely from the Gnawa, particularly in their therapeutic practices where one finds the mlouk system, who are supernatural beings from the Gnawa pantheon.
What role do the Gnawa play in Maghrebi culture ?
The Gnawa participate in a vast traditional therapy movement in the Maghreb, but we need to be cautious because a mythical discourse has been erected which the Gnawa enter into willingly, recognizing that it serves their interests. They are not necessarily possession therapists as some people claim. In « Possession and its theatrical aspects amongst the Gondar Ethiopians », Michel Leiris indeed claims that people do not go to the healer because they are possessed. It is the healer who constructs the possessions in order to treat the disorders or problems people suffer. In Morocco, a Lila (a ritual Gnawa night) is organized to deal with specific daily problems which do not necessarily enter into the realm of therapy, in order to assure the spirits’protection in the event of a school exam or a journey abroad, for example.
Possession is beneficial, therefore ?
All ritual possession involves alliances against potential or real problems. Other more pathological possessions can feature amongst these. The derdeba, which is the general ritual that includes a Lila, aims to transform a morbid possession into a controlled and manageable possession. During the ceremony, different spirits related to colours, local Moroccan saints, and feminine beings, including Aïcha Kandicha, a central figure for the Moroccan Gnawa and in particular for the Hamadcha brotherhood where she occupies a place of honour alongside the founder of the brotherhood, are evoked. At the end of the derdeba, the Gnawa play a tune borrowed from the Hamadcha’s repertoire to invoke Lalla Aïcha and to invite her to reveal herself through a possession. The lights are turned off and young people and children are asked to go out. « Aïcha Kandicha » likes seducing and possession adolescents, which can disturb them. The Gnawa Moqqadema is possessed by Lalla Aïcha, and prophesies. People can consult her about their problems, and Aïcha replies via her trancing medium. Her colour is black. At dawn, the Gnawa leave in procession.
The length of this ritual hardly makes it a show for tourists !
The place empties out shortly after midnight… Some rituals take place in very closed circles, in little groups, when the problem is serious, as the real tradition dictates. Others are more public, the door wide-open. In Essaouira, certain rituals are freely accessible. The public varies depending on the therapeutic nature of the derdeba.
What kind of therapy is involved ?
In therapeutic terms, the use of concepts like dissociation and split personality cannot be avoided. A split personality is a separation of one’s identity. The demon who torments someone in reality represents a part of the personality which has split away and become autonomous from the other personality. Like Janet, I believe that possession is a dissociation. Furthermore, people need to mobilize a dissociative capacity to be able to enter into a trance and a state of possession, allowing them to let another personality emerge for the duration of the possession ritual.
Things are more complicated with the talaâ, in which the medium summons the mlouk. She is supposed to have inherited her know-how. In reality, her vocation often comes from her initiatory ‘illness’. This includes dissociative flights that send the person out into the streets, and disturbances related to nightmares, etc. In the treatment of split personalities, Western therapy tries to synthesize those personalities. This is not the case in Africa where, on the contrary, people learn to deal with this separation without eliminating it. The term used is « adorcism » : the Senegalese n’doep centres the construction of the altar to the rab at the heart of the therapy as the dissociated part of the personality, the rab, might fix itself there. Its a way of dealing with the dissociation : it isn’t eliminated, it isn’t reintegrated into the personality. The altar to the rab, the spirit who torments the patient, is the mediator of the separation, the symbol of the mastering of that dissociation.
The separation is not resolved, then, it is accommodated…
The Gnawa’s therapy consists of different stages which the drummers act as the therapist-medium’s assistants. These stages are basically the identification of the possessing spirit, the sacrifice, the affiliation ritual, and the final ritual, the ritual night (stambali in Tunisia, derdeba-lila in Morocco) which enables the cured person to thank the mlouk and to publicly demonstrate his or her mastering of the initial pathological dissociation, which has now become a normal dissociation and a resource in that it allows the person to go about their business. It is important to stress this in order to avoid folkloric or touristy type explanations.
Does Maghrebi society need this Black African element to manage its dissociation problems ?
Trances are not exclusive to the Afro-Maghrebi. Popular Sufism, which is in some ways the opposite of Gnawa culture, involves ecstatic trances, but not possession trances. What is more, culture shocks, intercultural tensions, and acculturation are probably at the root of a specific kind of dissociation, that is, social dissociation. Second-generation immigrants are said to have identity problems as they frequently suffer an identity separation due to the real divisions between the family and the social setting. The Gnawa are both Muslim and Animist. The very basis of Gnawa culture is thus the product of a separation between the cultural origin and the integration into Maghrebi society. A part of the self is elsewhere. This is accommodated through music and other rituals. The Essaouira-based artist Mohamed Tabal often says that it is not him who paints, but his melk. He expresses his split personality through his painting.
That brings us back to the Gnawa’s function in Maghrebi society.
It is the central question. Essaouira is exceptional in that it is a Gnawa town where they are not necessarily pushed to the outskirts. In this town, they deal with marginality, difference, and certain sexual problems. This social therapy function is also present in Brazilian macumba… As a marginalized group, the Gnawa tend to attract all marginalization in their culture.

///Article N° : 5324


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