When some visitors travel to Morocco, cultural experiences are an enticing attraction. This is why so many venture to the port city Essaouira to participate in the World Gnaoua Festival. Also known as the Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival, the event brings together global music traditions as well as those of the Gnaouas, a blend of African tribal music and Islamic rituals. The music itself incorporates drums and other instruments to bring the performers to a trance-like state.
Essaouira is one of those picturesque seaside places dotted with houses painted in bright white and blue. It is a popular resort location situated just below the Atlas Mountains and attracts travelers who want to indulge in its relaxing environs and take advantage of its excellent beaches. The town is a former Portuguese settlement dating back to the 18th century. While waiting for the music events to begin, you can absorb some of the local history by touring old fortresses or browse the myriad shops that house Essaouira’s many artisans and craftsmen.
The city creates a curious backdrop to the vibrancy of the Gnaoua Festival. For twelve years, the premiere music festival has drawn more than 500,000 visitors from around the world. (The event was held for the first time in 1998.) Jazz, rock and world musicians gather at approximately ten different concert sites around the town to perform in the afternoons and evening hours, which allows visitors to enjoy Essaouia’s other attractions during the daytime. It’s common to spend the day wandering the markets and souks, enjoying a lunch of fresh grilled fish. The Djemaa el-Fna, a public square, is bursting with an almost carnival-like atmosphere during the festival. Snake charmers, so-called musicians and storytellers gather to wow audiences.
Besides musical performers and snake charmers, the Gnaoua World Music Festival includes its share of mystics, clairvoyants, healers and religious celebrants. It is an exciting time to be in Essaouira. There is more than enough to entrance your senses and satisfy your hunger for good food and great music.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the town which hosts the World Gnaoua Festival has long been an inspiration to musicians from all over the world, including many classic American music legends. 1960s-era performers including the Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix have credited Essaouira’s beaches as the muse for some of their music.
Even today, musicians and artists from around the globe continue to flock to the whitewashed fishing town both during the Gnaoua Festival and at other times of the year to soak up Essaouira’s particular atmosphere. Visitors in the area for the festival will have ample time to spend both in the town and in surrounding areas. Following the close of the concerts, there is no reason why you can’t extend your visit to take in more of Morocco’s wonders.
Written by Shaun Kilgore.
Photo by Vince Millett.