Moroccan Musings

Marrakech Biennale 2016: Street Art in Essaouira

Essaouira street art Although Essaouira has long held a reputation for being an arty kind of town and has many artists in residence and galleries to prove it, the street art scene here has taken some time to develop. Unlike Asilah – a bohemian port town further north up the Atlantic coast – Essaouira has not made a concerted effort to develop such a scene. Asilah, although about a third of the size of Essaouira, and even sleepier, is known for its annual mural festival. Although there are some murals in Essaouira, these are typically individual initiatives and not part of a larger programme. This is all about to change, as the 6th Marrakech Biennale lands in town with street art in Essaouira! Continue reading

El hamdudlilah: Gratitude and reflections on 2015

Gratitude in EssaouiraThe more observant maroc-o-phile readers will have noticed that I haven’t been posting much on the blog lately. Although I didn’t spend so much time in Essaouira last year, 2015 was quite an eventful year for me and I have a lot to be grateful for.

A few years ago, I met a young artist at Dar Souiri, Essaouira’s cultural centre, who explained to me the concept of “el hamdudlilah” (often shortened to “hamdud’lah”). “Allah phrases” as I call them, such as this, are key in an Islamic society like as Morocco. El hamdudlilah literally means “thanks be to God”, or a more secular expression might be “thank goodness,” and it peppers every conversation between Moroccans. The automatic way in which Moroccans use this phrase, I believe, demonstrates their innate gratitude. They don’t just use it to be grateful for exceptional good fortune; it is used as a reminder of those less fortunate than themselves. In many instances, a better translation would be “thank goodness, it could be worse”. So, when enquiringly of someone’s health, they will alway reply “hamdud’lah,” no matter how they are feeling, and even when disaster has struck, a Moroccan would express gratitude that the situation wasn’t even more disastrous. Continue reading

Essaouira book review: The Heat of Betrayal

Essaouira book review: The Heat of Betrayal by Douglas Kennedy

Photo: Amazon.co.uk

Although it has been the set for plenty of films, and unlike its larger and more celebrity neighbour, Marrakech, to my knowledge there are not many works of non-fiction set in Essaouira. I was intrigued, therefore, to read Douglas Kennedy’s latest work, The Heat of Betrayal. This is my Essaouira book review. Continue reading

Reporting from the 21st edition of the Fes Sacred Music Festival

Fatoumata Diawara at the 21st Fes Sacred Music FestivalIn May 2015, I was fortunate to be invited to be part of the team at The View From Fez, the official English language media partner of the Fes Sacred Music Festival. Alongside editor Sandy McCutcheon (editor, reporter and photographer); Suzanna Clarke (sub-editor and photographer); Vanessa Bonnin (reporter and photographer) and Fatima Matousse (reporter), I reviewed the Forum and concert events on all 9 days of this year’s Festival.

As a Fes Festival first-timer, I found the 21st edition, which ran from 22 -30 May 2015, a great opportunity to see some acts I like, get to know some new artists and come to appreciate some new musical genres. My favourite concerts were: Omar Sosa and friends, Julie Fowlis, Fatoumata Diawara and Roberto Fonseca and The Royal Art of the Kora with Ballaké Sissoko. These are all acts I have seen and enjoyed before in different contexts. Of the acts which were new to me, I enjoyed Faada Freddy, Masks of the Moon and Ramadan Hassan and the Musicians of the Nile. I would have liked to have seen more of Benjamin Bouzaglou and Oumou Sangaré. Continue reading

21st edition of the Fes Sacred Music Festival

Opening night of the 21st edition of the Fes Festival of World Sacred MusicLast night the Fes Sacred Music Festival opened in the former imperial city of the Moorish Empire, Fez. This year, the audience was treated to a spectacle of sounds, projections and artists from across the African continent. The theme for this, the 21st edition, is “Fes: An African Reflection” and the opening night’s concert reflected the full spectrum of African music, traditions and customs as well as a broad selection of the artists playing in Fez over the coming 9 days. Continue reading

Essaouira Gnaoua Festival – 18th edition

Opening parade of 18th Gnaoua Festival 2015 EssaouiraEssaouira, 15 May 2015 – Yesterday, Essaouira‘s annual Gnaoua World Music Festival got off to a colourful start with the opening parade and concert featuring local and national gnaoua groups and international World Music artists.

This is the 18th edition of the event, which is the largest in the festival calendar of this small port town on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. Other annual festivals include the Festival des Alizés, a celebration of international classical and traditional music held every Spring, and the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques, a festival celebrating the Judeo-Muslim musical traditions of Al Andalous, which are also a frequent feature of Fes festivals such as the Sacred Music Festival, which begins next week in Fes on 22 May 2015.

Each year, the Essaouira Gnaoua Festival gets underway with a parade through the centre of the Essaouira medina of all the gnaoua groups in their finest regalia, embroidered costumes and caps studded with cowrie shells. The bands are often accompanied by standard-bearers carrying huge flags and feature the typical gnaoua instruments: the krakeb castanets, the stringed gimbri and the tbel drum, which is played with a crooked stick.

18th Gnaoua Festival 2015 EssaouiraEvery so often, the groups pause to demonstrate the fervent whirling and acrobatics which simulate the trance induced by the heavy beats of the instruments. In the street, though, in this carnival atmosphere, these movements are more for show than religious practice and the circles the gnaoua form resemble an elaborately coloured dance-off between rival acrobatic troupes.

Gnaoua music originated in sub-Saharan Africa. With the trade in goods and men across the great desert, African slaves brought their traditions and their experience of hardship and exile into Morocco. Over time, their traditions were absorbed into Islam and Gnaoua brotherhoods of adherents gathered around a maâlem (master) developed in zawiyas (centres devoted to religious learning). The Gnaoua tradition is strong in Essaouira, with its previous role as a major trading port and its centuries’ old connections to Timbuktu and other West African cities.

18th Gnaoua Festival 2015 Essaouira main stageSwiris -the natives of Essaouira – are particularly proud of their home-grown masters, such as Maâlem Mahmoud Guinéa and his brother Maâlem Mokhtar Guinéa, Maâlem Allal Soudani and others. However, they are also welcoming of the big names of Gnaoua music from other cities, such as Maâlem Hamid el Kasri, who opened the festival this year alongside Humayun Khan of Afghanistan. When a great maâlem is on stage, throughout the audience, one hears young and old singing along, responding to the chant of the master, and clapping out the frenetic polyphonic beat.

The Gnaoua Festival is also a stage for some of the best Moroccan and international stars of the World Music scene. The most exciting concerts are those on the main stage (on Place Moulay Hassan) late at night. The fusion concerts bring together a gnaoua group with artists from a completely different genre for a unique kind of mash-up unlike any other. Gnaoua jazz? Sufi-Voodoo fusion? Gnaoua-folk? Everything is possible under the starry skies and the gusting trade winds of Essaouira!

This article originally appeared on the blog, The View From Fez.

3 poolside restaurants in Essaouira

poolside restaurants in Essaouira

Les Jardins de Villa Maroc

The Essaouira medina is small and compact, and few hotels (apart from the prestigious L’Heure Bleue Palais) have the space for a pool. Some larger hotels outside the medina have pools, but often lack much of the charm of the riad guesthouses of the medina. Get the best of both worlds by staying in a medina riad and taking a day trip out for lunch to one of the poolside restaurants outside the city. The bonus is that being set back a little from the coast, these locations are also warmer and less windy – perfect for topping up your tan! There are many to choose from, but here are my top three.  Continue reading

Essaouira Gnaoua Festival 2015 is underway!

The 18th Essaouira Gnaoua festival opened with a  colourful paradeThe Essaouira Gnaoua Festival 2015 started yesterday, 14 May with a colourful carnival parade of the gnaoua artists through the main street of the Essaouira medina.

The festival continues now until Sunday 17 May with concerts, exhibitions, open air shows and intimate gigs all over the city, much of it for free.

Continue reading

The Best of Essaouira: Cookery classes

couscous, the Moroccan national dish - made gluten free with cornmealThe cuisine of Morocco is becoming increasingly well-known abroad and a popular holiday activity is a cookery class where students can learn about the intricate blends of spices, the diverse influences on Moroccan cuisine and attempt to create their own culinary masterpieces. Over the past year, I have tried two cookery classes in Essaouira – one a well-established brand, the other a homely newcomer. I enjoyed both immensely, even though I could already make some key Moroccan dishes. If you want to do a cookery class in Essaouira, I recommend one of these two options. Continue reading

Herbie Hancock in Marrakech

Herbie Hancock live in MarrakechHerbie Hancock in Marrakech, 7 May 2015

The setting was magical: a modern rig of a stage placed at one end of the massive cortyard at the centre of the 16th century El Badi Palace in Marrakech. As the sun began to set, the heat of the day lifted and hundreds of candles set in lanterns around the place began to twinkle. The famous storks of the Kasbah (King’s Quarters) returned to roost on the crumbling ochre walls to watch the scene unfold. We were here to experience the magic – not only of Marrakech, but of one of jazz’s greatest legends, Herbie Hancock. Continue reading