Trace, Trajectory, and Truth: A Story of Morocco’s Iconic Lute

The following is a brief excerpt from the 2023 Benjamin Eby Lecture “Trace, Trajectory, and Truth: A Story of Morocco’s Iconic Lute,” given by Music Professor Maisie Sum on November 9, 2023.

Musical instruments are much more than their perceived affordance as sound producing devices. Beyond aesthetic satisfaction, they may be imbued with meaning and carry a special value to the individuals and societies who use and make them. In diverse cultures around the world, meanings associated with history, lineage, spirituality, experiences, change, and more may be encoded onto instruments and attribute to their socio-affective nature. An instrument’s significance ranges from the everyday to the spiritual, differs depending on perception, and changes through time.

As such, music’s affective potential is embedded in the multiple temporalities it realizes, connecting to and constructing the past and future possibilities at various time scales. Stories about the guembri in traveller reports, museums, photographs, scholarship, trade books, state-sponsored public media, not to mention public opinion, are subject to change, adapting with the times. Gnawa stories about the guembri connect it to a history of healing and a lineage of practitioners, which convey belief in the guembri as a potent force symbolic of its spiritual significance.

Through passing on stories of their ancestors to future generations, practitioners affirm its continual importance to their culture whilst adapting to new performance possibilities in contemporary Morocco. Exploring the temporalities associated with the sight and sound of the guembri sheds light on its enduring significance to culture bearers and situates it in within the musical and social fabric of contemporary Morocco and beyond.

Watch the full lecture on our website.