Text Box:  Gnaoua Festival d’Essaouira

In these days of terror and evil what a treasure to find, three full days of the best music Morocco and the world for that matter, has to offer. All played by the finest musicians of the genre in one of the most enchanting and relaxing towns of Morocco. What is more unbelievable, it cost not a penny for the privilege. Such is the reputation and importance of this event; it attracts a bevy of high profile corporate sponsorships.

My second experience of the Gnaoua Festival d’Essaouira was every bit as exciting and rewarding as my first, last year. I, along with about 100,000 ‘others’, we forgot about suicide bombers, crusades, terrorism and the other horrors of our strange world and joined in mutual understanding of a common language and emotion, music from all parts of the world.

Text Box:  The crowd may well have been Woodstockian in size, but we saw no puffed up superstars. Rather, we witnessed a fine selection of diverse craftsmanship. The humble musicians, and I had the privilege of chatting to a few, were interested not in recording contracts, videos or chart action. More the enjoyment and excitement of exposing their music to the masses through high quality P.A’s.

My Full Pass, a wonderful piece of plastic around my neck allowed unfettered views of the action on stage, witness to the silent and meticulous preparation of costume and instrument backstage, and fabulous views of the thousands of faces looking on as the music weaved its way into the crowd.

They come every June to this idyllic corner of southwest Morocco for three days of festivity. Mostly indigenous youth, arriving by bus, car or motorbike. Many retreating for a few hours to the beach to sleep after each nights performances, then up again to play football on the flat sands in the morning.

For those of us who are now more used to sleeping in beds and eating in restaurants, Essaouira has a fine selection of both that annually satisfies many of the most particular and discerning travellers. We stayed in a wonderful hotel converted from a merchant’s house with four floors of charming individual rooms, a roof terrace to enjoy the sun and breakfast, and a typical patio with rose petalled pool adding a dash of bright red to the earthy coloured Moroccan furnishings. From these surroundings we were in the heart of the action, yet able to enjoy tranquity and rest if we wanted it..

For food I enjoyed a fabulous tagine in my friend Hammed‘s small cafe bar for a couple of Euros I had met and made friends with Hammad on my previous visit. On another occasion I joined my fellow concertgoers for a fine French Moroccan meal that would have shamed many a hostelry in Paris. Again situated in a converted merchants home complete with thick stone walls, huge patio, and a large carved door that, when closed, hides what’s within from the day to day bustle of a typical Moroccan medina, albeit one that is on the World Heritage List as a protected cultural site.

Text Box:  But what of the music I hear you think. Well, the list would be very long if I mentioned everyone. But I was particularly impressed by the local muso's, one of my favorites, the Purple Dolphins, whom I has seen last year, offered a fine percussive accompaniment for the swooping seagulls around the Scala, an area of Portuguese battlements and countless tiny carpentry workshops.

Of the larger venues, and there were five in total, the Scene Place Moulay Hassan played host to several local ‘superstars’ like Maalem Baska and Allal Soudani both local artists playing Gnaoua music, a form of rhythmic trance with origins from this part of Morocco. Some performances offered interesting fusions with artists from France, Argentina, Senegal, Mali, India and the United States. A very rich offering indeed.

I heard jazz, samba, and Indian Bengali music, mixed in with unmistakable North African percussive beat. The like of which has inspired many of our own musicians like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to explore and adapt for their millions of eager fans in the west.

But this festival is all about the enjoyment of life, where football crowd’s worth of young people can mingle and enjoy without the slightest intent to create a disturbance. Sure they shout and whistle and some look a little intimidating in the dark, but the air was full of love and all I saw were smiles and contentment.  

As Westerners we were certainly in the minority, but on both occasions I felt very much at home among new friends. As we drove away to catch our Regional Air from Casablanca I felt good…very good indeed and wondered to myself why there is such animosity in our world, when there is so much to enjoy.

 Words and Photos by Nicholas Gale

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