Guedra"Dance as Community Identity in Selected Berber Nations of Morocco"
By Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinicu)
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. That 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), it is called T'bal. In the 34 years I've been researching, doing and teaching Guedra, nobody has been able to explain the reason for the difference - not even my teacher, B'shara. I have come to my own conclusions, based on language, which I won't go into here.
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) and all the way to Egypt. When, due to current long- term drought or economic conditions, Blue People choose to live in a town in Morocco, it is usually Goulmime 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 - as versus dying by hot-water dip. The bluer and shinier the resulting fabric, the more beautiful the item of clothing and the higher the status of the wearer, since more was spent to get the richer color. 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 can't 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".
The Blue People have a matriarchal society: unusual enough in terms of "Western" cultures, almost unbelievable in context of what is assumed to be "Islamic". Women keep all the household keys, show off their "strength" by impromptu wrestling matches, 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), and 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.
Why do Blue men, feared to this day for their ferocity and skill as warriors and respected as businessmen, "veil" and defer to their own 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/protect the entranceways, but since women know the secret of life: only they can conceive and givebirth, they have natural protection against these evil spirits.
For the Blue People, Guedra isn't merely a dance, it is a ritual in which anybody and everybody can participate, although the central figure/s is/are the female Guedra/s (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 - as versus carnal, 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, rhythmical clapping and chanting by any and 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) and can be about anything from Islamic exhortations calling on the name of Allah: El hamdu l'Illa , Allah, Allah (all praise to Allah, oh Allah, oh Allah); Wahad, Wahad, Wahad (God is one); to praise or comments about King Hassan II or 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, their styles and reasons for being that way, usually pre-dated the dances and rituals done while wearing them. Not so theater dance, where costumes are (hopefully) designed to facilitate and accentuate the choreography. (Exceptions do exist.) Usually over a caftan (long, loose robe), sometimes not, Blue women wear a length of fabric, five to six meters long by about two meters wide. 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 and 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 usually redone every one to one and a half months. The headdress supports the aforementioned two-meter fabric end, keeping it off the the wearer's head and leaving an air space that maintains her normal body temperature of 98.6F, thereby keeping her cooler in the heat of the dayand warmer in the cold desert night.
Guedra is a nighttime ritual, around a fire under the light of the moon or inside one of the larger tents. Whendone for real, as versus for an audience, it's most often in a circle. The drum throbs with the heartbeat rhythm: da da dum da da, da da dum da da and the clapping starts. Shrill zagareet (ululations) ring out, the chanting swells. Inspiration calls, a woman from the circle answers: 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" neck- lace. It's 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 the third (ring) finger of the left hand lead 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 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 - the present, in back - 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 her braids to "fly". When done "for real", the Guedra goes on for quite awhile, 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 known as a friend and teacher from 1963 to her death from cancer in 1992.
Comments in Conclusion:
There are about two hundred different Berber tribes in Morocco, each with its distinctive dress - especially the women's, 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.
Some tribes pray and send blessings by dance; others celebrate plantings, harvests, holidays, seasonal changes and births with dance; so many meet and court during dance; challenge one another, show off and communicate in dance; several seal marriages with a dance; most city and many country women get their sex education via dance; most tribes have their macho, warrior dances for the men.
All these dances are assimilated - as versus studied - in the normal course of family and tribal life and not in special schools or courses. It's 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, class has its own special dance with which it identifies and declares itself.
Footnotes: Over 37 years of frequent in person observation & conversation - and -
1. National Geographic:
- Ref.- household keys: Aug., 1973 - Pp. 222-3
- Blue Men's veils: ibid - Pp. 220, 228; Apr., 1974 - Pp. 552-4 & May, 1958 - Pp. 689 & 691
- Matriarchy: May, 1958 - pg. 689
2. Natural History Magazine, Volume 101 Number 11, November, 1992
"Where All the Women Are Strong" Pp. 54-63
3. "Faces In the Smoke" by Douchan Gersi:
- Why Blue men blue: pg. 69
- Sexual freedom: pg. 76
- Men's veiling: pg. 36
4. Bendir: circular, wooden frame tambour with sheep or goatskin head - two strings along the inside add a vibratory sound
5. Babouches: backless Moroccan slippers
6. Sharia: Islamic law & social codes, drawn from the Koran & Hadith