He is Coming, She is Coming
Guedra, the Tuareg Blessing Dance
by Karol Harding
The guedra is the “Blessing Dance” of the Tuaregs, a nomadic Berber tribe from Morocco. It is a purely beneficial and joyful dance, and unlike other trance dances of the Middle East (ie., the Zar, the Hadraa), it does not involve the exorcism of demon spirits or killing chickens. The movements are simple, but like all trance dances, the dancer must lose herself in the movement and feel it before the trance experience is produced. The thing about trance dances is that they “work,” i.e. they induce altered states of consciousness.
In Arabic, guedra is the name of the cooking pot (or cauldron) which these nomads carry with them. This pot was covered with an animal skin to make a drum. According to Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinicu), the guedra rhythm is: duh DAH m duh DAH/ dun DAH m duh DAH. She compares this to the flamenco bulerias rhythm, which is the same basic beat. It is not traditionally played on a dombeck, and there are no sharp “tek” sounds used.
The origins of the Tuareg, like other Berber tribes, are lost in antiquity. Scholars have claimed to find both Christian and pagan practices in their customs, although today’s Tuareg are Muslim. Guedra uses Muslim chants in its songs, but it obviously has other associations. The Tuareg culture today has been irrevocably damaged by the current political situation, which has divided them into several areas under the control of different governments.
The Tuareg are one of the many Berber tribes. The “blue people” are a sub-grouping of the Tuareg, i.e. all “blue people” are Tuareg, but not all Tuareg are “blue people.” They are so called because they use a fabric dyed by a process which involves pounding indigo powder into the cloth with a stone. Since desert tribes people don’t take a lot of baths, this blue powder rubs off on their skin. In fact, they consider this blue coloring to have a beneficial and cosmetic effect. It appears that it does actually help hold moisture in the skin. The Tuareg do not refer to themselves as “Tuareg” which they consider a perjorative term. They have become known as Kel Tagilmus, “the People of the Veil,” because of the habit that Tuareg men have of wearing a veil after a certain age, while the women go unveiled.
They have strong matriarchial influences in their culture. Men hold the chieftan and council positions, but chieftanship is hereditary through the female line. Inheritance is through the mother’s side and a man who marries out of his tribe will move to the woman’s tribe. A man may move up in society by marrying a higher status woman, but the women seldom marry below their station. The women engage in contests of strength (see Barbara A.Worley, “Where All the Women are Strong”). The Tuareg men, as well, are recognized as some of the fiercest warriors in the desert, and some of the best traders. In short, Tuareg women hold a unique position in their society.
Tuareg Marriage and Courtship
Despite any comments you might hear about the guedra dancers as “prostitutes,” the truth is that in their culture (according to Morocco) it is considered an advantage to gain experience in love — both men and women have many lovers before marriage. The respect and freedom given to Tuareg women is easily misinterpreted by the members of other tribes with more restrictions upon women. Where prostitution does exist, it is heartily condemmed by Tuareg society.
Before marriage the women are said to enjoy a surprising measure of freedom. According to Rodd, they do no work, but instead dance and sing and make poetry. Tuareg society includes a noble class and a slave class. This also exists on a group level, where some tribal units are expected to serve others because of inherited status. Noble women who own slaves do as little work as possible. They make cheese and butter, sort dates, or herd goats. They are said to be skilled at leatherwork, but Tuareg men are said to have the most skill at needlework and sewing clothes.
Unlike their neighbors, Tuareg women are allowed to choose their mates; men may have more than one wife, but it is not generally practiced. Courtship dances are held to give the young people a chance to meet: the tendi and the ahal. The tendi is usually an afternoon celebration, while the ahal is held in the evening and might feature a visiting musician. The Tuareg even have an equivalent to the medieval “court of love” with a “Sultan” and “Sultana” chosen to preside over the gathering. Rodd claims that it is common for a girl to take a camel and ride all night to see a man, and them return to her own place; or for a suitor to undertake superhuman expeditions to see his lady.
The Tuareg bride retains control of all her personal property, including livestock, while the husband is expected to pay the family’s expenses. After marriage, respectable behavior is required of both sexes, but a woman may have friends of both sexes in a way that correlates more to western culture. A Tuareg proverb says, “Men and women towards each other are for the eyes and the heart, and not only for the bed.”
Another possible reason for misunderstanding the virtue of Tuareg women is exemplified by the male writer who reported that until 1956 the dance was performed bare-breasted. According to Morocco, this was more likely a misunderstanding, caused by the fact that a foreign man would not have had access to the guedra tribal women; he would be more likely to encounter prostitutes. Morocco also adds that in southern Morocco, which is in North Africa, it is still nothing special to go bare-chested. In this part of the world the female breast is considered more utilitarian than erotic.
The traditional women’s costume is essential to the dance. It is a haik which is formed from one very large piece of material. The haik is held in front by two fibula pins of ancient design, with a long chain draped between the two (similar to the Celtic pentanulum). (For examples of Tuareg jewelry, see Africa Adorned, by Angela Fisher.) Previously, these pieces were very difficult to find, but more belly dance suppliers are stocking them, as they have become popular among American tribal style belly dancers and medieval society members. If you do not have the traditional haik, the second best choice for costume is a very loose caftan. This dance should never be done in any version of a “bra and belt” costume.
There is a related dance which is done for weddings in a long dress. This dance is the “Betrothal Dance of Tissint,” and can be seen on Morocco’s video as part of the guedra suite performed by her troupe in the “Benediction” section.
The traditional headdress is decorated with cowrie shells, as are the artificial braids which hang from it. Any other items may be added which suit the dancer’s fancy. The dancer weaves her hair in with the fake ones to hold in the the headpiece, which is a decorated wire framework — one piece circling around the top of the head and one arcing from the top of the frontspiece to the back of the bottom circlet. Other versions appear to be merely a mass of braids circled at the top of the head. (I make a version which has slight theatrical adaptations including more braids and adjustment for fit in the back.)
This is very practical for desert wear, since it leaves an airspace open above the head. This headress also shows to good advantage the kind of head sways which occur in trance dance. The hands also show up well in this costume, which covers almost all of the rest of the body.
The Tuareg women use henna on their finger and toe nails, and kohl (antimony) for their eyes. On festive occasions they daub their cheeks and foreheads with paint, prepared from a whitish earth found near Agades, or with red or yellow ochres.
The guedra may be performed by one women, two women, or a woman and a child. The guedra which Morocco audio-taped at King Hassan’s palace was three hours long.
The guedra is a three-layer ritual built as follows:
1) Alternate clapping, one group clapping on one, second group clapping on two. Rhythmic element is also provided by drumming on the “cauldron.”
2) Chants which blend together to create a wall of sound.
3) The dancer who translates this energy into movement through her hands.
Choreography is not complex, but having the correct intentions and focus are everything. The basic rhythm puts the emphasis on the second beat. Feet movements are mostly flat-footed with some toe-toe, heel-heel slide movements to the side. The basic movement is a hand flick, which sends energy out from the dancer. Doing this in different ways conveys different meanings.
The dance begins with the head covered by the end of the garment (a haik, with a caftan worn underneath; color is Taureg blue and/or black). This symbolizes being in darknesss and lacking understanding/knowledge. The dancer begins her hand movements, and gradually lifts the material back onto her headdress when she feels ready.
In traditional settings, the dancer may begin by greeting members of the audience with both hands: taking the other person’s hand, touching it to the foreheads of both people three times, and then pressing the hand firmly within both the guedra’s hands. Friends or married people would kiss each other’s hands three times afterwards. (The guedra dancer would be doing this through her veil.) There may also be a “magic necklace” given to the dancer, especially if a man has requested the dance for someone. The dancer may begin and end either standing or sitting.
The dance begins with hand flicks to the four directions (north, south, east, west), then to the elements: heaven (up), earth (down), wind (out), water (moving down). The hands also represent time elements: to the back (the past), to the side (present), and to the front (future). Morocco also mentioned that in the east they believe the heart is fickle, so if you truly mean something you say, “I feel it in my liver!” Therefore, to truly bless someone, you flick from the stomach, the heart, then the head. Periodically you may flick toward yourself at shoulder level, to gather back in some of the energy which you have sent out.
As momentum builds, the dancer may feel compelled to add head sways, which make the braids swing back and forth. All of these movements should be sharp, accented ones — not graceful, delicate ones. The dancer may end the dance on the floor. In fact, Morocco said that she has to be careful to remember when she’s doing a performance/demonstration not to get too involved. She has actually “tranced out” and ended up on the floor without planning it!
In guedra chanting, the chanters should strive for a continuous sound between the two parts; this aids the dancer in attaining a trance state. Claps and counter-claps are used with a drum. Go “ahead” of the beat with the vocals, not right on it. Use the longer chants for beginning the dance and end with the more frenzied shorter chants. The actual tempo remains constant and claps do not speed up. All chants have at least two parts. The leaders change to the next part and thus increase the intensity as they feel the dancer is ready. The lead chanter must be in touch with the dancer so as to change the chants at the appropriate moment. The entire group must function as one to really make this work.
The above information was gleaned from an excellent tape which includes on-site research done by Morocco, and information provided by Beau Tappan and Maureen of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Kajira of San Jose, CA. Unfortunately, there is no current supplier for the tape at this time, but if you find a copy, the following translation will help you understand the words to the chant. The following are written phonetically. The pronunciaton is slurred so that one word blends into another.
1a) Allah El Awaldin, “May God be with our ancestors,” alternates with Ah-Haweyeh, “May it be so.”
1b) Jow-ee (Smell of Heaven/Frankincense) alternates with How-ee (One of the 7 levels of spiritual love).
2a) A’ish Hassan Taneh, “Life to the King” (King Hassan), alternates with A’ish Enah Emaleh, “Life to us, too!”
2b) Wa Ho Wa Jeh, “He is coming,” alternates with Ha Hay Wa Jet, “She is coming.” (He/She are used interchangeably because during ritual the Guedra embodies both the male and the female essence. She is then a vessel for the divine as she enters the trance. “Coming,” i.e. coming into trance.)
2c) Jow-ee (Smell of Heaven/Frankincense) alternates with How-ee (One of the 7 levels of spiritual love).
3a) Yah-Deen-Ah Allah Ali, “God has given us Ali,” alternates with Echna*Wahj-Mee Al Hah-Dreen. (The asterisk denotes the accent on the first beat, not the second, the only chant in which this is true.)
3b) Yah-Deen-Ah Allah alternates with Al Allah
3c) Allah alternates with Ali
3d) Jow-ee (Smell of Heaven/Frankincense) alternates with How-ee (One of the seven levels of spiritual love).
Briggs, Lloyd Cabot, Tribes of the Sahara, Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1960.
Chele, Frances Dal, “Tuareg Silent Lives,” UNESCO Courier, Nov., 1994, p. 12. (Today the Tuaregs still exist but they are finding it difficult to maintain their traditions.)
Fisher, Angela, Africa Adorned, Harry N. Abrahms, New York, 1984.
Gersi, Douchan, Faces in the Smoke, St. Martin’s Press, Los Angeles, 1991. (An eyewitness experience of voodoo, shamanism, psychic healing, with a chapter on the Tuareg.)
Knapp, Bettina, “Dances of the Maghreb,” (Three-part series), Arabesque, Part II: Vol XIV, No. 3, Sept-Oct, 1988, Pg. 8; Part III: Vol XIV, No. 4, Nov-Dec, 1988, Pg. 8.
Morocco, “Berber Dances of Courtship and Marriage,” Habibi, Winter 94, Vol. 13, No. 1, Pg. 10.
Morocco, “Guedra Performance,” (video of Morocco’s troupe performance), for information write: 320 W. 15th St., New York, NY, 10011, 212/727-8326, e-mail:10422-2526 @compuserve.com.
Morocco (a.k.a. Carolina Varga Dinicu), “Guedra: Spreading Soul’s Love and Peace to the Beat of the Heart,” Habibi, Summer 93, vol. 12, No. 3, p. 4.
Morocco, “Houara, Mother of Flamenco,” Habibi, Spring, 94, Vol. 13, No. 2, Pg. 12.
Morocco, “Marrakesh Festival,” (video), for information write 320 W. 15th St., New York, NY, 10011, 212/727-8326, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Morocco, personal conversations.
Morocco, “Schikhatt: From Sex Education to Social Recreation,” Habibi, Fall 93, Vol. 12, No. 4, pg. 12.
Rodd, Frances Rennell, People of the Veil, MacMillan & Co. Ltd. London, 1926. (An account of the habits, organizations, and history of the wandering Tuareg tribes which inhabit the Mountains of Air or Asben in the Central Sahara.)
Smith, Donna Lea, “Morocco and its Dances,” (Two-part series). Arabesque, Part I: Vol. VIII, No. 3, Sept-Oct, 1982, Pg. 14; Part II: Vol VII, No. 4, Nov-Dec, 1982, Pg. 10.
Worley, Barbara A., “Where All the Women are Strong,” Natural History, Nov.,1992, Vol 101, No. 11, p. 54. (Re: Women of the Tuareg tribe, with discussion of a wrestling competition among the women.)
Karol Henderson Harding, also known as Meira the Joyful Dancer, lives among the beautiful Rocky Mountains north of Denver, Colorado. She has been dancing for about ten years, and has studied Central Asian, Afghan,Gypsy and Persian dance as well as various Middle Eastern styles. “I believe dance at its best is an expression of one’s soul”, she says. “You can never truly know what someone else sees in your dance, but you will always know whether you have been true to the message which you have to give.” www.joyfuldancer.home.comcast.net/~joyfuldancer/