Toura Toura is sung in “Bambara" which, in Moroccan Gnawa culture, has evolved to be a mixture of several sub-Saharan African languages, but is presently spoken or understood by no-one.
In present-day Mali, there are about 15 million people who speak “Bambara”, but they speak a very different Bambara than the one that we find in Moroccan Gnawa songs. In the early days of Gnawa, i.e. the early days of slavery in Morocco, slaves would find ways to sing songs in their native language in locations where they might be heard by a relative or loved one, from whom they’ve been separated, in hopes of reuniting with them. The Amazigh (indigenous) and Arab populations of Morocco didn’t understand these languages. The Amazigh word for “gibberish” or “unintelligible” is “agnaw” (singular) “gnawa” (plural). This is the commonly accepted story of how the term first came in use. Over time, these different ‘unintelligible’ songs fused more and more into one shared history - one of forced displacement and spiritual yearning. There came a time when the song lyrics became completely unintelligible to the Gnawa musicians who inherited them via the oral tradition. That mostly unintelligible hodgepodge of a language is what Gnawa refer to as “Bambara”. For decades, possibly centuries, Gnawa musicians sang in Bambara, understanding less and less of the literal meaning of the words. But as Gnawa musicians became more and more integrated into a Moroccan society which identified more and more as Arab and Muslim, they evolved more and more into a Muslim (Sufi) order. Eventually (in the 20th century), Gnawa musicians began to replace more and more of the song lyrics with Arabic / Sufi devotional lyrics.
Having said that, we can provide a glimpse into the spirit of Toura Toura, in addition to what is already transmitted simply by listening to the music itself.
All Gnawa music has a role to fulfill in the healing ritual called the “Lila” which means “Night” in Arabic. A “lila” can last for more than 12 hours, and is usually conducted in intimate gatherings, for the purpose of creating a safe place for people to get into a trance and be healed by the music. A woman serves as a presenter (or M.C.) - she is called the “Mqedma” - which means "she who presents." A man serves as spiritual guide (through music) - he is called the “m3allem” or “master” and sings lead vocals while playing the guembri (or sintir, or hajhouj, or gogo, depending on where you are). Several other men play the rhythm section (with qraqeb) and sing the ‘responses’. The lila usually follows the following format:
1) DbiHa (sacrificing a lamb) - like in the Muslim “3id”, this is a commemoration of the biblical story when Abraham was tested by God to sacrifice his own son.
2) Al 3ada (the habit) - an opening that consecrates the space - usually starting with a drum procession and some acrobatics. This welcomes the spirits into the space.
3) Ouled Bambara (the sons of Bambara) - before diving into the world of spirits, there is a profane section of the evening, to loosen things up. Today, this is where you’ll find most of the songs sung in Bambara.
Toura Toura falls in this section - so it is light-hearted, meant to be a warm-up song, to get you in a joyful mood before the more intense world of trance comes around.
4) The 7 colors (each corresponding to a different spirit)
The “Mqedma” signals the beginning of each color by coming out in a different dress (matching the spirit color) - the musicians play several songs (sometimes hours) for each of the colors:
• White (truth, belief, happiness)
• Black (mystery, paradoxical power - secrecy / protection)
• Light Blue (skies, calming, elevation)
• Red (fire, passion, love)
• Dark blue (the sea, depth, fluidity)
• Green (nature’s healing power, rejuvenation)
• Saffron (feminine energy, fertility)
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For more on the Gnawa lila, check out these articles:
For a more in-depth explanation of the gnawa history and context, check out this great article: