Spreading Soul’s Love and Peace to the Beat of the Heart

by Morocco

This is Part I in a series of articles written by Morocco from a paper entitled “Dance as Community Identity Among Selected Berber Nations of Morocco: From the Ethereal and Sublime to the Erotic and Sexual.” It was originally accepted for presentation at a joint conference of the Congress on Research in Dance and the Society of Dance History Scholars in New York, June 11-13, 1993. The conference was hosted by The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center. The name of the conference was “Of, By and For the People,” and it focused on “How dance proclaims political ideals, ethnicity, social class, age group identification, and regional pride.”

There are about two hundred different Berber tribes in Morocco, each with its distinctive dress (especially for the women), language, dance, and social customs. For each and every one of them, dance is an integral and constant affirmation of who and what they are, a form of self and group expression and pleasure. They dance throughout their entire lives.

Guedra, Folklore de Marrakech

Some tribes pray and send blessings by dance. Others celebrate plantings, harvests, holidays, seasonal changes and births with dance. During dance, many meet and court, challenge one another, show off and communicate, and seal marriages. Most city and many country women get their sex education via dance, and most tribes have their macho, warrior dances for the men. These rich dance traditions are assimilated in the normal course of family and tribal life, not studied formally or taught in special schools or courses. It is not for a theater show or to play a part: it is their pride, a statement of their specific ethnicity, for each village, tribe, age, sex, and class has its own special dance with which it identifies and declares itself.

In a nomadic society, what can be carried by one person is limited, so every item must be essential and multi-purpose. In classical Arabic, the word “guedra” means cauldron/cooking pot. The pot was covered with an animal skin to make a drum (also called “guedra”), to play the heart-beat rhythm, life’s basic rhythm (also called “guedra”), for the female performer (also called a “guedra”) of the ritual (which is also called “guedra” only as long as it is being done on the knees). When the “guedra” stands up, or starts the ritual standing up, the ritual is called “T’bal.” In the thirty years that I have been researching, performing, and teaching Guedra, nobody has been able to explain the reason for the difference, including my teacher, B’shara.

Guedra belongs to the Blue People of the Tuareg Berbers, from that part of the Sahara Desert which ranges from Mauritania into Morocco and Algeria (Spanish and French Sahara). When, due to current long-term drought or economic conditions, Blue People choose to live in a town in Morocco, it is usually Goulmim or TanTan.

Why are they called “Blue People?” Because they love to use indigo stones to color pieces of fabric by pounding the stones into powder and the powder into the fabric, versus dying by hot-water dip. The bluer and shinier the resulting fabric, the more beautiful the item of clothing is considered to be, and the higher the status of the wearer since more was spent to get the richer color.

Blue Women. Photo: Lucy Smith

In the course of wearing fabric so treated, little by little some of the blue powder gets on the skin of the wearer. In a desert, one cannot take daily showers, so the wearer’s skin actually takes on a bluish tinge, which is considered beautiful and desirable. The good news is that this powder also protects the skin from drying out from the terrible desert sun and heat by locking in natural moisture and acting as an extremely effective sunscreen. All Blue People are Tuareg, but not all Tuaregs are “blue.” (Douchan Gersi, Faces in the Smoke, pg. 69)

The Blue People have a matriarchal society (National Geographic, May, 1958, pg. 689; Natural History Magazine, November, 1992, pgs. 54-63). This is unusual enough in terms of Western cultures, almost unbelievable in the context of what is assumed to be “Islamic.” Women keep all the household keys (National Geographic, August, 1973, pg. 222-223), and show off their strength by impromptu wrestling matches (Natural History Magazine, op. cit.). The women go unveiled, while the men modestly cover their noses and mouths with the end of their tagelmousses, several meters of gauze wrapped around the head in a turban. (National Geographic, August 1973, pgs. 220, 228; Gersi, op. cit., pg. 36). Women have equal, if not greater rights to choose/take as many lovers as they wish before marriage. It only increases their value, skill and desirability. (Gersi, op. cit., pg. 76)

Why do Blue Men, feared to this day for their ferocity and skill as warriors and respected as businessmen, “veil” and defer to their women? Because of their belief that the world has a great number of evil spirits eager to invade the body via any opening, especially the mouth and nostrils. So they must cover and protect the entrance ways. But since women know the secret of life (only they can conceive and give birth), they have natural protection against these evil spirits. (Gersi, op. cit., pg. 36)

For the Blue People, Guedra is not merely a dance. It is a ritual in which anybody and everybody can participate, although the central figures are the female Guedras (sometimes two women do it together, or a man and woman, or woman and child of either sex.). Unlike the Zar (Sudan/Libya/Egypt) or the Hadra (Morocco), the Guedra’s aim is not to exorcise a person or place of evil spirits, but to envelop all present with “good energy,” peace and spiritual love (versus carnal love), which is transmitted from the depths of the guedra’s soul via her fingers and hands.

The entire accompaniment consists of the drum (guedra), which can be played by anyone, of any sex or age, with the skill and desire to do so, plus rhythmical clapping and chanting by all others present. Nowadays, a gourd instrument that is slapped and shaken is sometimes added. Chants are in Tamahaq (their language) or Maghrebi (Moroccan Arabic). They can be about anything from Islamic exhortations calling on the name of Allah, such as “El hamdu illa Allah, Allah, Allah” (All praise to Allah…) or “Wahad, Wahad, Wahad” (God is one), to praise or comments about King Hassan II, to expressions of thanks for good fortune or a wish granted. Most often, they call upon God and goodness to be shared with all humanity.

Clothing often has a tremendous effect on the movements and styles of dances and rituals, especially in ethnic forms where tradition leaves very little leeway for individual choice or expression. Those garments, with their styles and reasons for being the way they are, usually predated the dances and rituals done while wearing them. This is in contrast to theatre dance where costumes are normally designed to facilitate and accentuate the choreography.

Blue Women usually wear a length of fabric five to six meters long by about two meters wide over a caftan (long, loose robe). Wound around the body, folded over a bit in the front, both front and back portions are caught at the collar bones after each turn by two elaborate fibulae, the world’s first “safety pins.” Long chains are suspended from the fibulae to hold them in place and as ornamentation. A rope or belt is tied around the waist and fabric pulled up for a blouson effect so the skirt just reaches the top of the foot. The last two meters are left unwound, to be pulled up and draped over the wearer’s headdress should circumstances or the desert heat require it. This train-cum-veil plays a very important part in desert survival, and the Guedra.

The Blue Woman’s unique headdress is also a result of adaptation to desert conditions, and germane to the overall effect of the Guedra. Anywhere from two to six inches high or more, the front is made of leather, canvas, felt or woven horsehair decorated with cowry shells, silver coins, turquoise, coral and the occasional mother-of-pearl button or Coca-cola bottle top. From this front, a circlet of wire sits on the crown of the head and the wearer’s hair, interwoven with horsehair and braided over and down, fastens it firmly to the head. Cowrie shells, silver, turquoise and coral beads are also woven into the multiple braids. From the back of the circlet, a “handle” rises to the same height as the front piece, up and over the center of the head, approaching but not touching the front “crown.” Horsehair or wool is woven around it. Such a time-consuming and elaborate hairdo is usualy redone every one to one-and-a-half months. The headdress supports the aforementioned two-meter fabric end, keeping it off of the wearer’s head and leaving an air space that maintains her normal body temperature and keeps her cooler in the heat of the day and warmer in the cold desert night.

Guedra is a night time ritual, around a fire under the light of the moon, or inside one of the larger tents. When done for real, as opposed to for an audience, it is most often in a circle. The drum throbs with the hearbeat rhythm: da da dum da da, da da dum da da. The clapping starts, shrill zagareet (Ululations) ring out, the chanting swells. Inspiration calls: a woman from the circle answers, and for now she is the guedra. Pulling the tail of her robe over her headdress, so it covers her head, face and chest, she puts on the “magic” necklace. It is up to her as to whether she starts standing up or on her knees.

The veil covering the guedra’s head, shoulders and chest signifies darkness, the unknown, lack of knowledge. Her hands and fingers are moving under the covering, flicking at it, trying to escape into the light. When she feels the time is right, the guedra’s hands emerge from the veil’s sides. With hand-to-head gestures, she salutes the four corners, North, South, East and West, followed by obeisances to the four elements, Fire (the sun), Earth, Wind and Water. She touches her abdomen, heart and head, then quickly flicks her fingers towards all others present, in life or spirit, sending blessings to them from the depths of her soul’s energy.

Why does she touch her abdomen? In the East, the heart is known to be fickle and unreliable. When somebody wishes to convey true depth of affections or emotions, the way of expressing it is to say: “You are in my liver,” not “You are in my heart,” as we do in the West. By indicating any approximate spot on her abdomen, not necessarily the anatomically correct location, the guedra underscores the depth and sincerity of her blessing.

In the West, we used to believe that the third (ring) finger of the left hand leads to the heart, ergo the custom of wearing engagement and/or wedding rings there. Blue people believe their second fingers to be direct lines to the soul, with power to transmit blessings or curses, so the guedra directs most of her mini-bolts of energy through them, gently holding them a bit lower than the others. This energy can be specifically focused on an individual, present or not, to a group, or to the entire world.

Once again, when the guedra feels the time is “right,” she takes off the magic necklace, uncovers her face, drapes the fabric on top of her headdress or out-of-the-way, replaces the necklace and focuses her gaze and blessings more strongly and specifically. The drumming, clapping and chanting increase in tempo and intensity at each phase, as does the guedra’s breathing.

If her hands flick to the front, the guedra sends blessings for the future, to the side is for the present, and to the back is for the past; overhead to the sun, down to the earth, from side to side to the waters and winds. Time is a circle.

In the Guedra, the vast majority of movement flows from the fingers and hands, with some arm movement from the elbows down. The ribcage is lifted and lowered/relaxed, as in some African dances, when extra emphasis is called for. The head can be gently turned from side to side, causing the braids to sway. As the guedra comes to a crescendo, accent in the chest movements transfers from lift to lowering and the head swings more strongly from side to side with chin lifts, causing the braids to “fly.”

When done “for real,” the Guedra goes on for quite a while, gradually increasing in tempo and intensity, but still keeping the heartbeat rhythm. Likewise, the guedra’s breathing also increases in depth and intensity, until she collapses in a trance.

When a man joins in, it is as an accompaniment, to induce a woman of his choice to accept the magic necklace from him and bless him and the others with her soul’s energy via the Guedra. After she accepts and takes the necklace, he unfolds the shoulder drapings of his dra, holding it out in his fingers to its full width, dipping and swaying from side to side, until she is ready to focus her energy and go on with the ritual alone. In the group, the men concentrate on driving and maintaining the clapping and chanting that encourage the guedra and deepen her trance.

Blue people consider Guedra their direct contact with the elements, spirits, and universe, the deepest expression of their souls and protection against a hostile environment and evil spirits. So seriously is it taken by Moroccans in general that his majesty, King Hassan, II, had his own personal guedra, B’shara of Guelmim, who I was fortunate enough to have know as a friend and teacher from 1963 until her death from cancer in 1992.

Morocco has performed and taught seminars in the United States, Canada, Europe, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt. Her company, the Casbah Dance Experience, was created in New York City to present Mideastern and North African dance in concert and school settings, and has been awarded numerous choreographic and cultural services grants. She has spent thirty-two years researching on-site the music, steps and styles of each dance.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.