Essaouira, 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.
Every 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.
Swiris -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.