The Essaouira Festival of Gnaoua and World Music takes place every year in June, this year just after the holy month of Ramadan. With its unique blend of regional and international music, the Gnaoua Festival has something to surprise and enthrall even the most seasoned festival-goer.
As in other years, renowned artists from every part of the music industry and every corner of the globe flocked to the Moroccan Atlantic coast, between June 20 and 23, to showcase their talent. The festival’s signature is the fusion of Gnaoua and world music, from blues, to reggae, to rock and roll. This extraordinary mix of musical genres combines with the idyllic setting of Essaouira, with the Atlantic breakers washing up on the beach, the cacophonic mayhem of the fish market, and the lazy, yet bustling medina, to create an annual event that is truly unmissable for so many. The festival is open to everyone and the major performances are available free of charge, without the need to reserve a ticket. The 400,000 annual attendees to the festival completely transform Essaouira, with its permanent population of only around 60,000.
Gnaoua music is a rich Moroccan musical cannon of ancient African Islamic spiritual songs, based upon sub-Saharan, West African music.
Gnaoua music is a rich Moroccan musical cannon of ancient African Islamic spiritual songs, based upon sub-Saharan, West African music. It is often said to have originated with West-African slaves in North Africa, but today it is concentrated mainly in Morocco. It is deeply spiritual music, based on rhythm and trance, and is often performed at lila, which are communal events of prayer and dance, guided by a master musician, or maalem. The seductive, repetitive, rhythmic sounds of Gnaoua make it perfect for fusion with many other musical forms, and it is to this fusion that the festival is dedicated.
The Essaouira festival rarely fails to miss the mark and this year was no exception. There was the occasional bureaucratic mishap, to which one becomes accustomed in Morocco—the magical second stage, which normally faces the sea, allowing the audience to stand on the beach, was inexplicably turned sidewise in an act of organizational madness, so that spectators were crammed in next to the road, many barely able to hear. Yet all in all the festival was at its eclectic, ethereal best. While the music came from all over the world, the spiritual undercurrent of the performances united all present in a common project.
A major theme of this year’s festival were the homages to legendary jazz musician Randy Weston, who died in 2018, at aged 92. Throughout his prolific career, Weston made a concerted effort to highlight the West African roots of jazz, blues and other 20th century musical genres. The Jamaican reggae band Third World, who headlined the main stage on the final night, made a point of discussing the African roots of their music on stage. During their press conference, the members of Third World spoke at length about the huge impact of West African music on world music.
“Our music came to Jamaica via the rhythms of African slaves and Gnaoua is the music of African slaves. So, it means everything to us to be here.”
“We cannot express how much we recognize the African roots of everything we are doing,” said one band member, following an anecdote about playing with Bob Marley in the 1970s. “Our music came to Jamaica via the rhythms of African slaves and Gnaoua is the music of African slaves. So, it means everything to us to be here.”
He went on to talk about the political potential of African people in today’s world, if they can recapture their shared culture that was torn apart by slavery and colonization. “We believe that Africa can unite,” he said. “Our artificial national divisions can be diluted, and our people can get closer.”
Another musical revival being incubated by the Gnaoua festival is the reemergence of the music of Al Andalus, which is taking place across much of Morocco and southern Spain. Public and private shows by Nabila Maan and Maria del Mar showcased the rich tradition of Andalusian music, reminding audiences of a time when Africa and the Iberian Peninsula were united under a Moorish Caliphate that lasted for centuries.
Essaouira even has a strong connection with 20th century western artists and musicians. Writers such as Gore Vidal and Truman Capote would regularly frequent the city and, in a small town twenty-minute-walk from Essaouira, one can find hotels and cafes dedicated to Jimi Hendrix. Locals tell tales of how Hendrix spent the whole of the summer of 1969 (sometimes ’68) in the area, and how he was inspired to write the song Castles Made of Sand by a ruined fortress about a mile down the beach from the Essaouira medina. In fact, Hendrix’s stay was extremely short, and Castles Made of Sand was released in 1967, at least a year before he visited Morocco. But these stories have now entered Essaouira folklore, forming part of the legend of a region defined by music.
The unique blend of music on offer here makes the Gnaoua Festival an indispensable fixture of the world music calendar. For lovers of music and of travel, it remains an unmissable experience.