The Essaouira Gnaoua World Music Festival has come a long way in its 17 editions. Conceived as a means to bring gnaoua music to a broader audience, the ensuing popularity has also given artists and brotherhoods the confidence to perform their art in a more accessible way; to bring more of the spectacle to a lay audience. It has also provided a vehicle for artists to get out of the zawiyas, to work with Moroccan and international artists and develop in new directions.
The roots of Gnaoua music lie deep in Africa. What we now recognize as the gnaoua tradition was brought to Morocco by sub-Saharan Africans who were slaves to the sultans of North Africa. The gnaoui combine West African pre-Islamic elements with Islamic worship and practice in a manner representative of the melting pot that is Morocco. The hypnotic beats are reminiscent of West African tribal rhythms, yet the call and response chants are entirely Islamic. This is Moroccan Sufism, where practitioners in the zawiya (the ritual home of the sufi sect) use the media of music, dance, poetry and trance to evoke and praise their God, Allah.
Away from the crowds, under the stars, the Bastion (or Borj) Bab Marrakech is my favourite of the festival venues. As the audience lounges on pouffes, listening to the crash of the waves as gulls swoop overhead, the scene is set for something special.
On Friday 13 June, the night of the last full moon before Ramadan, this was certainly the case. The opening act, from the local Hmadcha zawiya, brought us straight back to the sufi origins of gnaoua. The Hamadcha sufi sect, indiengeous to Morocco, is said to have been influenced by the practices of black African slaves back in the 17th century. With a full orchestra – including several harraz (pottery drums) and chorus lines of adherents- the Hmadcha performance was far removed from the energetic antics of the typical maalem-plus-youngsters line up of the main stage. Swaying, hand-in-hand, entranced by the music, the grandpas of Hmadcha exuded a calm and a reverence for their art and for their god which – although no less joyful – was so different to the high-flying acrobatics and dervish-turning of their spiritual brothers of other sects.
From this very traditional performance, which followed a centuries-old pattern, we were transported to the world of modern gnaoua music. Hamid el Kasri is often attributed with an ability to blend the gnaoui styles of the north and the south, but his recent work – and last night’s concert – went way beyond the borders of Morocco and further than the West African heritage of the gnaouis. Purists could argue for days about whether Kasri (decended from Sudanese lineage) and his band play gnaoua jazz, Sufi pop, or some other 21st century take on an ancient tradition, but one thing is clear: with his distinctive style and incredible voice, he has taken gnaoua music in new directions and brought it to the masses. Every Moroccan in the audience knew the responses to his calls. The whole audience was on its feet several times during the performance. Kasri’s blend – including a brass section, synthesizer and, at one point, Algerian drummer and festival veteran Karim Ziad – is infectious and intoxicating. And all that in a more popular and accessible way than the Sufism of the zawiyas.