For the past 15 years Essaouira has been home to the Gnaoua World Music Festival. Every summer in June, for four days, the Gnaoua Festival welcomes famous musicians to participate, share their musical ideas and create one of the most elaborate concerts in the world. Starting in 1998, the concerts have regularly drawn crowds of more than 200,000 people. The festival provides not only a platform for musical exchange but a meeting point for open-minded dialogue between foreign artists and the transcendental Gnaoua musicians. It’s a place where Gnaoua music meets the rest of the world and exchanges ideas. This colorful patchwork of musical fusion provides a fantastic space for Gnaoua musicians to jam with jazz, pop, hip-hop, rock and contemporary world music masters in the coastal town of Essaouira.
Gnaoua music is a mixture of sub-Saharan African, Berber and Sufi religious songs and music. The musical style can be described as both a spiritual prayer and an important celebration of life. Like most music, much of Gnaoua’s style can be traced to sub-Saharan Africa. Today, its practice is concentrated in Morocco.
Gnaoua music is characterized by its use of instruments. The large, heavy iron castanets known as qraqab and a three string lute known as gimbri are vital to the rhythms of Gnaoua music. Bowed lutes, similar to banjos, are also used alongside large drums called tbel. Perhaps more important to the music than its instruments is the idea of ritual. Ritual and ceremony are vital to Gnaoua music. Traditionally, the musicians start by telling the story of the first sacrifice, the genesis of the universe through music. From there, they go on to call the seven saints, supernatural entities and seven colors. The whole thing is led by a master musician and a clairvoyant who decides what clothing should be worn during the ritual. Followers and audience members participate with rapturous dancing. Traditionally, there is an animal sacrifice performed the day before a concert. It’s important to remember that this music is mostly cultural and spiritual.
Today, Gnaoua music has been modernizing. Musicians from all over the world share stage space, jamming together rock riffs, jazz solos, and blues harmonies.
Famous past participants have included The Wailers, Paolo Fresu and Randy Weston. This year the festival is proud to showcase Carlou D from Senegal, Fareed Ayaz Et Abu from Pakistan and Nasser from France along with Moroccan favorites Hoba Hoba Spirit and the Mayara Band.
Passes ranging in cost from 100 to 500 Dirhams are available from the website and at the official festival boutique at El Minzah Square from June 20 to June 24.
Written by Megan Wood.
Photo by Vince Millett.