The 2017 Essaouira Gnaoua Festival opens later this week and runs from 29 June to 1 July. As before, the event will open with an all-singing, all-dancing, multicoloured opening parade through the centre of the port city. The festival programme features Moroccan Gnaoua groups as well as world music artists from several continents.
All Moroccan summer festivals have experienced timing challenges since Ramadan has fallen in the summer months, reducing the number of weekends available for the organisation of festivals so that they don’t clash with either the Muslim holy month or each other. Following several years of deviation from the usual timing of the third weekend in June, the festival is almost back to its habitual calendar slot, albeit immediately after Ramadan, which may cause some practical issues in terms of preparation during the Eid public holidays. Nonetheless, the stages are already in place in Essaouira and this promises to be an exciting edition of the festival now in its 20th edition.
This year, the format has changed slightly, with the festival only running three days and the addition of new venues such as perennial gnaoua residence, Dar Loubane and the Zaouia Issawa. The elimination of the final Sunday afternoon concert is likely to disappoint many local families, who were always in high attendance, as timing made it attractive for mums and grannies to bring young children. There is also scant information available as yet about daytime activities such as the Arbre à Palabres held at the Institut Francais. This year’s Forum will take place “Creativity and cultural policies in the digital age.” However, the morning timing means that this event is normally a talking shop of the usual suspects and local dignitaries while the rest of the festival goers sleep off the festivities of the night before!
A welcome addition to the official festival schedule is a two-day programme of musical and cultural side events organised by the Regional Council of Tourism. Unfortunately this programme wasn’t available far enough in advance to anyone booking from overseas, but if they happen to be in town for the festival a couple of days early, it is well-publicised on flyers and posters around Essaouira and features free encounters with gnaouis and artists of other sufi traditions in zaouias and open spaces around town.
Essaouira is, of course, well known for the fusion gigs that take place at the end of each evening’s concerts and feature a gnaoua group on stage with a group or artist from overseas. These collaborations are exciting and occasionally spawn musical collaborations which continue long after the festival ends. One such collaboration is ‘Band of Gnawa’, created by French musician, composer and producer, Loy Ehrlich. He is no stranger to inter-continental partnerships, having also worked with Youssou N’Dour and Touré Kunda among others. This year, he returns to the Essaouira stage 10 years after the creation of Band of Gnawa (the name is an homage to the Hendrix album, Band of Gypsies) with gnaoua fusion mash-ups of well-known rock hits of the late 60s/early 70s Marrakesh Express era, when Hendrix himself is rumoured to have visited Essaouira.
As for the other fusions, on Friday, Festival favourite and gnaoua crossover superstar, Hamid el Kasri will guest with a range of international artists including Algerian drummer Karim Ziad (also responsible for the programming of the festival). This gig promises to be an Essaouira classic, featuring several artists who know the Essaouira crowd inside out. On Saturday, US Blues artist Lucky Peterson will be on stage with Marrakechi Gnaoua Maalem, Mustapha Baqbou, which promises to bring the blues and gnaoua heritage right back to their sub-Saharan roots.
The festival programme is available here.
This article was originally written for The View from Fez.