On the Popularization of Ecstatic Music: The Deleterious Effects of Secular Preservation

Natasha Pradhan


Morocco's sacred musical heritage encompasses powerful instances of divine experience through sound as a part of religious, curative rituals of spirit posession, during which many present enter a state of 'presence' (hadra). The ritual context – one based on shared faith – in which these sounds are performed is of extreme importance and forms the close improvisatory relationship between the musicians and those in hadra. These spaces do not understand the sounds as music for entertainment but rather as a potent code that is performed for healing and interaction with sacred realms. Institutional initiatives, through the Moroccan Ministry of Culture and private and commercial ventures, make efforts to "preserve" Morocco's musical tradition by endorsing public festivals of traditional or "folk" music. The annual Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira, Folklore Festival in Marrakech, Fes Festival of Sacred Music, and smaller gatherings throughout the country provide traditional musicians with large sums of money to perform a version of their esoteric improvisations in the context of a public performance.

Sacred musicians, such as the Gnaoua confraternity, radically alter, and sometimes altogether deny the ritual of presence from which their music originates; rather, they perform precomposed music structured around common musical riffs that identify their brotherhood. The music is experienced alongside acclaimed Western popular music – formerly jazz, but more recently hip-hop, pop, and rap. Both the distilled versions of Morocco's sacred music and instances of popular Western music are received with a similar intention. This paper is informed by my experiences of the same brotherhoods engaging in rituals of hadra simultaneously with secular performances of their music; and ethnopsychiatric and ethnomusicological contributions to understanding hadra practices. I explore the ways in which hadra practices are diluted, altered, or deleted by their incorporation into a secular performance architecture, often framed as a force of cultural preservation.

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