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Music Gets Mystic

For one week of the year in June, the fabled city of Essaouira, on the west coast of Morocco, is transformed from a sleepy seaside haven into a sanctuary for mystical vibrations and shamanic revelations at a rare festival that combines the ancient African tradition of Gnaoua and the universal language of music.

The music of the Gnaoau is a cultural legacy throughout Africa, but it has particularly strong links with Morocco. Originating in sub-Saharan countries such as Guinea and Senegal, the Gnaoua tradition was brought to the north of the continent through slave trading in the sixteenth century. The Gnaoua are the descendents of these slaves, who established brotherhoods throughout Morocco that are made up of master musicians (maâlem), metal castanet players, clairvoyants, mediums and their followers.

Despite being Muslims, the Gnaoua base their ritual on djinn (spirits) straight from the African cult of possession, and are not only musicians but also masters of folklore and spiritual healers, blending African and Arabo-Berber customs. Their ritual is similar to the Haïtian voodoo and the Brazilian macumba.

During a celebration the maâlem and his group call on the saints and super-natural entities to take possession of their followers who then fall into a trance. The Gnaoua brotherhoods play an integral role in the cultural identity of Morocco, being called upon to perform at special times of family celebration such as marriage or the birth of a child.

By the eighteenth century Essaouira had become a thriving seaport, handling forty percent of Morocco’s maritime trade and playing host to an ever-changing medley of nationalities. For the Gnaoua whose folklore is based on creating harmony in the community through the energy of collective experience at musical gatherings, Essaouira’s diverse audience began the legacy of the tradition’s international appeal.

Such is its enduring allure that many of the twentieth century’s great artists have also fallen under Essaouira’s spell, ultimately conspiring to enrich its magnetism; the infamous Jimi Hendrix ballad Castles in the Sand refers to castles buried in the beach just south of the city, while Orson Welles, Maria Callas and Mick Jagger are just some of the icons who have been touched by this magical place; UNESCO also recently classed it as a World Heritage site.

This rich cultural history endowed Essaouira with the living musical legacy of Gnaoua that continues to soothe its streets and bestow an easy sense of calm on all those who pass through. But for one special week in June it emerges from the deep conscience of Africa, unleashing the full force of its energy and saturating the sound waves of every corner, café and Kasbah in Essaouira. The festival has been taking place in Essaouira since 1998. In its first year it attracted a gathering of 20,000; by 2005 that figure has risen to 450,000.

The artists playing at the festival enrich the celebration of diversity by blending musical influences from other Moroccan cities such as Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakech; other African countries including Senegal, Egypt and Mali; and farther a field from France, Spain and America. The event’s organisers are keen to promote unlikely musical fusions with Gnaoua and other ethnic beats. At the 2005 event, Jaleo were one of the headline bands, chosen for their seductive mix of jazz, Indian and Flamenco music.

A total of twenty-one Gnaoua masters performed at the 2005 festival along with a truly eclectic selection of international musicians. The Egyptian pianist and composer Fathy Salama, who is credited with reinventing Arabic pop music andcreating a new genre known as ‘jeel’ played along side a Sudanese musician with his own style of rhythm called ‘rango’. The unusual pairing of a Swedish violin player with a Senegalese kora (harp) player formed the duo of Ellika and Solo more than five years ago and have since earned an international reputation for their original blend of Indian, Iranian and West African sounds mixed with Swedish folklore; winning them the BBC World Music Award in 2003.

Also featured was the French flute player known as Magic Malik; a musician whose musical dexterity draws on jazz, classical and French pop influences, defying definition. More captivating sounds were generated by the fusion of Berber Maghrebi rhythms with Celtic music in the form of Thalweg, a musical collaboration that started in 2000. The highlight for many at the 2005 event was the final performance given by the legendary Youssou N’Dour with his group Super Etoile de Dakar. With its magical mix of sounds, styles, rhythms and beats delivered by artists of such international acclaim, it is little wonder that the Essaouira festival grows in popularity every year.

Although many festivals take place in Morocco throughout the year, Essaouira’s Gnaoua festival remains unique, not only for its international outlook and musical fusion but because it is free. As a result it attracts an equally diverse crowd hailing from all parts of the world. Moroccan musicians come from all over the country; converging on the beach and in the Medina, ensuring you are never far away from the beats of Gnaoua. And despite the swelling numbers that descend on this event each year, the city retains its sense of earthly calm and there have never been any reports of trouble.

Neila Tazi, director of the company that organises the event sums up the enchanting origins of the Gnaoua festival with the comment, “We are driven by our passion for music and genuine encounters; our desire to preserve some innocence and dreams in a harsh world. For four days we create a world with values we believe in: simplicity and the basic things in life”. It is this simple but infectious charm that invigorates this unique musical festival, ensuring the spirit of Gnaoua lives on. 

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