Only 11 miles from our desert home lies a musical and spiritual gem hidden amongst the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi: the village of Khamlia (population: 400). The Gnawa people that live here associate closely with Sufism and boast a strong history of ritual spirituality that includes music, dancing, and healing. Today, we were blessed with a firsthand opportunity to experience the Gnawa musical tradition, as we got up close and personal with The Desert Pigeons.
Les Pigeons du Sable (direct translation: “The Sand Pigeons,” although many refer to them as “The Desert Pigeons”) are an internationally celebrated group of musicians from Khamlia. As we walked through the sun-soaked village, observing locals – both human and canine – seeking shelter amongst the modest clay houses, we sensed that something spiritual was about to take place.
We approached the doorway of one dwelling, and ducked our heads to enter. A man dressed in all white greeted us, and then exchanged pleasantries with Hicham in Arabic. The man in white then gestured for us to sit, and placed a ramekin of local nuts on the wooden table in front of us.
A few minutes passed, and five more men entered the room – all dressed identically – carrying instruments. Each man acknowledged us as he entered – silently – but with deliberate eye contact and a nod of the head. Four of the men took their place in the center of the room, playing krakebs and singing in a “call and response” style. The fifth man stood against the wall behind them, keeping the beat with a large bass drum.
Ten minutes passed. The musicians took a brief intermission, as the four men with krakebs joined their colleague with the drum in the back, and all five took a seat against the wall. New instruments emerged – both percussion and string – and another session of music and singing began.
Suddenly, one of the Pigeons set his instrument down, stood up, continued to keep the rhythm of the music with his feet, and began to approach D with arms outstretched.
reflections from A: D was on the dance floor before she realized what had happened. The two of them then brought me into the fold, along with a backpacker couple that had entered midway through the performance. The energy circulating through our interlocking hands grew more intense, as the tempo of the music accelerated.
A climax in the music, and suddenly the circle broke. The leader of our circle dropped his hands, and resumed his position against the back wall. The four of us (DnA + the backpacker couple) sat back down on our cushions. The methodical drum beat and chanting continued, as the tempo began to slow down. Soon, there was silence.
As each of the Pigeons looked up and re-established eye contact with us, we were able to share another moment of visual acknowledgment and appreciation. The man in white that had greeted us 45 minutes earlier, now approached and let us know that the performance had come to an end. We stood, thanked the musicians again, and exited.
Interested in experiencing LIVE Gnawa music in Morocco?
if you’re visiting in June: the annual Gnawa World Music Festival is held in the coastal Atlantic city of Essaouira, which is about a 12-hour drive from Khamlia. This major international music festival celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017, and features not only Gnawa music, but also jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop & reggae.
if you’re visiting in July/August: Khamlia village holds its own annual festival called Sadaka (“a religious offering”) where you can experience 3 days and 3 nights of nonstop music on a much smaller scale than the Essaouira festival.
If you have the opportunity to visit Merzouga, set aside a couple of hours to visit The Desert Pigeons of Khamlia. You will not regret it!
Check out The Desert Pigeons on YouTube!