20th Essaouira Gnaoua Festival – who to watch

Essaouira Gnaoua FestivalThe 20th Essaouira Gnaoua Festival gets underway on 29 June 2017. For an overview of this year’s format and programme, see my post here. I am not able to attend this year, but if I were, here are the acts that I would most look forward to seeing.

Thursday, midnight, beach stage – Ribab Fusion

This Agadir band played at my very first Gnaoua Festival in 2011 and really impressed me with their energy and ability to take traditional Moroccan instruments and make them rock! Since then, the band has gained significant international recognition and is set to begin a U.S. tour after the summer festival season. The ribab is a traditional Amazigh stringed instrument from the southwest of Morocco and is often played by a solo player/singer or in front of a group of musicians, singers and dancers. If you are in Essaouira for any length of time, you will see local Berber street musicians playing a version of ribab, but don’t miss Ribab Fusion as they bring the traditions right up to date on the beach stage.

Friday, 7pm, Borj Bab Marrakech – Hindi Zahra

Essaouira Gnaoua Festival

Hindi Zahra

Last time I saw Hindi Zahra at my favourite venue, the Bab Marrakech bastion, she was part of the audience. Her reappearance only two years after she last played Essaouira is testament to her rapturous reception on  that occasion on the main stage. In 2015, she not only salvaged a late night graveyard slot, her blend of Tamazight, English and French lyrics woven around multiple genres had the audience begging for more.  Her concert this year promises to be much more intimate and will be accompanied by the setting sun and the seagulls swirling overhead.

Friday, 11:30pm, Moulay Hassan stage – Maâlem Hamid El Kasri fusion with Karim Ziad, Vincent Mascart, David Aubaile, Maurice Zemmour & Omri Mor

Hamid el Kasri is a regular at the Gnaoua Festival and always draws a huge crowd for his unique blend of well-known call-and-response numbers from gnaoua and other Sufi traditions which are delivered with a simultaneous of reverence for tradition and rock and roll attitude which is hard to imagine until you see it. Drummer Karim Ziad is also a festival regular and responsible for the festival programme, so we can be sure that he’s put together a tight collaboration for the headline Saturday night slot. Be prepared for the locals in the crowd to know all the words to all the songs and maybe even for an appearance by Kasri’s maalem-in-training son.

Hamid el Kasri at the Essaouira Gnaoua Festival 2014

Hamid el Kasri

Saturday, 8pm, Moulay Hassan Stage – Titi Robin with Mehdi Nassouli, Shuheb Hasan, Murad Ali Khan and Ze Luis Nascimento

For me, the name to watch in this list is Mehdi Nassouli, a young musician and singer of the gnaoua tradition from Agadir. Two years ago he was on stage with Hindi Zahra and only a month ago he appeared at the Fes Sacred Music Festival with Titi Robin, with whom he appears in Essaouira. Nassouli represents a new generation of artists making the crossover between tradition and modernity and he is destined for much more than a supporting role. French maroc-o-phile Robin is responsible for this international collaboration which promises to be really exciting, also featuring artists from Brazil, Afghanistan and India.


This is just a flavour of the festival. Whether you are a regular or a first-timer, don’t miss the opening parade to get a glimpse of the variety of gnaoua groups from Essaouira and further afield on the programme.  Head along to a few of their gigs: the trance beat of the guembri and the clack of the krakeb castanets will have you nodding your head or tapping your feet in no time. And the gymnastic feats of the young gnaouis will amaze and astound.

The full festival programme is available here.

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