The Best of Essaouira: My top 5 for the 2015 Essaouira Gnaoua Festival

Gnaoua Music in EssaouiraThis year will see the 18th edition of the Essaouira Gnaoua World Music Festival.

The Essaouira Gnaoua Festival is the largest of Essaouira’s annual music festivals and attracts artists and an audience from around the world. In 2015, the Gnaoua Festival will take place earlier than usual from 14-17 May 2015 (to avoid a clash with Ramadan).

The format of the festival is large open-air stages in 3 locations across the city, plus intimate concerts in smaller venues and a side programme of discussions around related themes (for example, this year’s Forum is on African Women). The four-day musical extravaganza is opened by a carnival parade of colour featuring the Gnaoua and Sufi groups playing in their traditional costumes playing their instruments and dancing, plus über-dimensional puppets which tower above the crowds.

The Essaouira Gnaoua Festival programme features something for everyone. It’s hard to choose between the local gnaoua acts and the invited World Music stars, but here is my pick of the best of the 2015 line-up:

  1. The Swiri Masters

Essaouira Gnaoua FestivalNowhere on earth will you have the chance to see so many masters of the gnaoua genre in one place. Based at the Sidna Bilal zawiya (centre of religious learning), the Gnaoua are one of many Sufi Brotherhoods with a presence in Essaouira, and their origins lie in sub-Saharan Africa. When Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah created the port of Essaouira in the 18th century, many slaves passed through the city and some remained. The traditions and rituals they brought with them became subsumed into Sufi Islam. Their songs, underlined by the bassline of the gimbri (a camel-skin covered, 3-stringed lute) tell of their hardships and venerate Islamic saints and wise men; the instruments such as the krakeb castanets recall their chains. This year’s festival offers the opportunity to see masters such as Maalem Abdeslam Alikane with Tyour Gnaoua, brothers Maalem Mokhtar and Maalem Mahmoud Guinea or Maalem Omar Hayat. Each maalem (master) is accompanied by a group of younger adherents who perform acrobatic dance moves and trance-induced whirling as the rhythm reaches its crescendo.

Tyour Gnaour & Maalem Abdeslam Alikane Fri, midnight Dar Souiri
Maalem Mokhtar Guinea Thurs, 20:40 Place Moulay Hassan
Maalem Mahmoud Guinea Sun, 17:00 Place Moulay Hassan
Maalem Omar Hayat Fri, 21:00 Place Moulay Hassan
  1. Genre-bending fusion

One of the highlights of the Essaouira Festival are the late night fusion concerts. Each features a gnaoua group with an international World Music star. As well as a confluence of musical genres and heritages, these concerts also bring different spiritual, religious or cultural backgrounds together. For me, the most incredible collaboration I have witnessed was in 2011, between Gnaoua Maâlem Hassan Boussou and Jazz-Racines Haïti. The latter was complete with a high priestess of Voodoo on stage and the jazz-gnaoua fusion thinly veiled the deeper significance of a meeting of two very different spiritual and musical branches of the same West African roots.

The 2015 festival features fusions between Danish latin-jazz-fusion-rock band, Mikkel Nordsø Band and Maalem Mustapha Baqbou; Guadeloupian percussionist, Sonny Troupé and Maalem Omar Hayat (the latter known for his rockstar-like performances and elaborate costumes); Nigerian Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and Maalem Mohamed Kouyou; US jazz saxophonist Kenny Garett and Maalem Hassan Boussou, and – on the last day – Algerian drummer and long-term supporter of the Essaouira Festival and Gnaoua music, Karim Ziad and local hero, Maalem Mahmoud Guinea. I am curious about all the fusion gigs, but I am most excited about the last one. The last day’s concert is always a pleasure – the sun is shining and the audience is full of local families, all of whom will know Mahmoud Guinea’s set off by heart to sing along with great enthusiasm! All fusion gigs are on the main stage in Place Moulay Hassan.

Mikkel Nordsø Band and Maalem Mustapha Baqbou Thurs, 22:00
Sonny Troupé and Maalem Omar Hayat Fri, 22:00
Tony Allen and Maalem Mohamed Kouyou Fri, 23:50
Kenny Garett and Maalem Hassan Boussou Sat, 22:25
Karim Ziad and Maalem Mahmoud Guinea Sun, 17:00
  1. Modern Moroccan style

Essaouira Gnaoua Festival The Beach Stage features the bands most popular among the younger audience in Essaouira, many of whom travel miles without a penny in their pockets to enjoy the concerts and sleep on the beach. Darga, a band from Casablanca, play a set which is a fusion of traditional gnaoua and other Moroccan styles, such as chaabi, with more Western influences such as reggae. On the main stage, Hindi Zahra has a challenging late night slot on Saturday night, but her remarkable voice – compared to Patti Smith, Norah Jones and Beth Gibbons, combined with her social conscience and mélange of Berber, Blues, Soul and Jazz is bound to be a hit.

Darga Beach Stage Fri, 23:45
Hindi Zahra Place Moulay Hassan Sun morning, 0:40
  1. The Borj Bab Marrakech

Hamid el Kasri at Gnaoua FestivalMy favourite venue for just about anything in Essaouira is the Bastion, or Borj, at Bab Marrakech. During the Gnaoua Festival it comes into its own. For the ‘intimate concerts’ around midnight, the roof is carpeted in Moroccan rugs, cushions and pouffes. As the musicians prepare themselves and tune up, you can lie back and listen to the waves lapping the beach and watch the seagulls swoop overhead between the stars. The previous format has been sets by a Sufi and an international artist followed by a fusion jam, or two groups representing two different Sufi traditions come together, such as Hamid el Kasri and the Essaouira Hmadcha in 2014. The published progamme only features single acts, but be ready for some surprises! The event is ticketed, so the audience is a little more discerning that at the main stages. Tickets are 250 dirhams; dress warmly!

Timbuktu Fri, 23:00
Maalem Abdelkebir Merchane Fri, 23:57
Issaoua de Fes Sat, 23:00
Mariat Sufi Band Sun, 23:57
  1. Hamid el Kasri

Essaouira Gnaoua FestivalI enjoy all the Sufi and Gnaoua acts, but I have to give a special mention to Hamid el Kasri. He has taken the gnaoua genre and developed it into something more modern and popular, without losing any of its traditional appeal. Born in northern Morocco and seamlessly combining Gnaoua musical traditions from across the country, Maalem Hamid el Kasri has collaborated with stars such as Cheb Khaled and Karim Zaid. Possibly the gnaoua maalem most known for his cross-genre and international collaborations, he still manages to retain his authenticity. His songs, featuring the typical call and response pattern of Moroccan gnaoua music, are the ones that prompt he most audience members to sing along. It wouldn’t surprise me if Karim Ziad appeared behind the drum kit at el Kasri’s concert in Essaouira, or if he brought his young trainee maalem son along to accompany him – both phenomenon have been known at the Gnaoua Festival!

Essaouira has gained a reputation as a festival city, but it is the Gnaoua Festival which draws the largest crowds and for good reason. If you take advantage of the new Easyjet flights to Essaouira this May, be sure not to miss it!

The programme is now available online. FOr more background on the 2015 Festival, read my post for Travel Exploration. If you are travelling to Essaouira for the Essaouira Gnaoua Festival, check out my downloadable e-guide, The Best of Essaouira.


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