Report: the 13th Annual Gnawa Festival in Essaouira, June 2010.
Essaouira, ‘The Designed’, is a beautiful 18th century walled town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Its name is derived from the fact that a French engineer, Théodore Cornut, who had been captured and enslaved, as well as several other European architects and technicians, built the fortress and town along the modern lines of the day. The town today has a population of maybe 60,000 and is a great place to escape to from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. There’s a working fishing port, a fine beach famous for its wind surfing, the ancient ramparts looking out over the Isles of Mogador and not much else. It’s a quiet place and even the shopkeepers in the touristy parts of the medina are very laid back compared with Marrakech and let you look without pressure. Crime rates are very low and violent crime almost unheard of. It’s a great place to go for a few days break, where you’re both immersed in a very different culture and also able to relax and just soak it all up.
Every June, however, an estimated 400,000 visitors arrive for the Festival D’Essaouira Gnaoua: Musiques du Monde. The Gnawa (or, French transliteration, Gnaoua) are the descendants of slaves from what is now Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Burkino Faso and Mali.
Gnawa musicians play a bluesy-sounding trance music. The main instrument is the guimbri, or sintir or hajhouj, a three-stringed bass lute. It’s usually accompanied by call-and-response vocals, polyrhythmic hand clapping and pairs of cymbals called krakeb.
Maâlem Mustapha Bakbou plays a guimbri
A Gnawa musician plays krakeb
The Gnawa form religious brotherhoods who are known for curing psychological or physical illnesses in all night sessions of music, dancing and trances. Gnawa musicians seem happy to play their music for non-religious purposes and have collaborated with Western musicians. The festival usually has guest artists from other parts of the world and it seems to be a rule that, unless it’s an African act, some kind of collaboration with local musicians should happen during the event.
For the last few years I’ve travelled to the festival with the Talking Dog (another member of the Secret Archives of the Vatican crew) and we usually hook up with friends who we’ve got to know at the festival. It’s great fun – there are usually three large stages around the town and some smaller impromptu performances or ticketed events in various venues. There’s a stage down on the beach for music of a more electronic bent and we’ve seen some amazing acts there.
The festival starts with a parade of all the traditional gnawa troupes, this year also accompanied by a horseback fantasia and the firing of flintlock muskets.
This year was slightly different from previous years. There was no stage up at the north end of the medina, which made for some dangerous levels of overcrowding at the Moulay Hassan stage, which is where we tend to hang out as they seem to put the acts we like on there. As we had press passes we were able to enter the strangely large VIP area immediately in front of the stage and also the photographers’ alley across the front of the stage which made things a little more comfortable.
We saw some amazing Gnawa and other music and dance over the few days we were there: The Armenian Navy Band, Trio Horacio Garrison Kinsey, Maâlem Mustapha Bakbou, Step Africa, Dhafer Youssef, Speed Caravan and Maâlem Saïd Ouressan among others. We also saw groups of youths, armed with their guimbris, sitting around and playing songs from the Gnawa repertoire; we’ve been often enough now that we recognise some of the songs.
I mentioned the usual lack of crime in Essaouira. Not so during this year’s festival. One of my travelling companions was pickpocketed during the Gnawa parade at the start of the festival. We met some Peace Corp people working on AIDS awareness; three out of twenty of them had been robbed on their first night in town. One of their young ladies had her mobile phone snatched while she was using it. We also met a tour group with Songlines Magazine. One of them had been robbed on the first evening there. That’s basically all the Europeans and Americans we met. If this is indicative of how the festival is going, the word will spread and people will stop travelling to the festival. The organisers need to do something about personal security; perhaps some warning notices and advice for visitors about how to protect their valuables. More police wouldn’t go amiss either.
Despite our dismay at the level of robbery this year, it was still an amazing festival – great music, great friends, great weather, a beautiful if crowded town and it’s a festival we will return to. Inshallah!
Here are some links to sets of photographs of the 2010 festival