Morocco's Answer to Woodstock

November 1, 2012

Every summer for four days in June, tens of thousands of music lovers descend upon a small fishing city on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.They come from all over the globe to witness the magic of the Gnaoua World Music Festival, held inside the fortified walls of historic Essaouira. Like most people outside of Morocco, I had gone through my life completely unaware of the event. But when another traveler began regaling me with a vivid description of the festivities, it didn't take me long to make up my mind. I knew I had to go experience it for myself.

Night Shopping in Old Essaouira's Main Street

After flying into Casablanca and spending a night in the former imperial city of Marrakech, I arrived in Essaouira. I exited from the bus station and, in rudimentary French, asked a local how to get to the old city. A short time later I had checked into my hostel and was ready to go explore.  

Essaouira was designed by Europeans in the late 1700's under the direction of the then-Moroccan Sultan. It was to become Morocco's principal port for over one hundred years. While its importance to the Moroccan economy has since faded, the city has become a popular tourist destination due to its charming mix of narrow whitewashed streets and exotic ambiance.

The morning after my arrival I arose to find a sweet sense of anticipation in the air. In a few hours the festivities would be getting underway.

In the early afternoon I walked over to the square outside the main gate to the old city, where performing groups were beginning to assemble. Soon several hundred onlookers had gathered. Professional and amateur photographers alike huddled together to capture the boldly colored attire of the performers.

The excitement in the square was reaching a fever pitch. With a sudden flourish, the thudding of drums began and the masses started marching into the fortified city of Essaouira.

Once past the main gate, I gasped as I saw that the formerly calm streets had filled with spectators. People stood in every available space, and climbed up to watch on every rooftop.

This was the first time I'd ever been exposed to Gnaoua music, and I was electrified by its propulsive rhythms, infectious energy, and frenetic dancing.

Gnaoua is a type of Islamic spiritual, trance-inducing music that is traditionally performed in all-night healing ceremonies. It was created by descendants of West Africa who now live in Morocco and parts of Algeria. Percussion is provided by players of castanet-like objects called qaraqabs, and the melody is plucked on a three-stringed bass-like instrument called a guembri. As is common in music rooted in sub-saharan Africa, the master musician leads the group in call-and-response singing. But melodies are often played in Arab modes, giving the style a unique sound.  

Two large stages had been erected for the festival, one inside the old city and one on the neighboring beach. Given that it was a world music festival, international artists were slated to perform in addition to Gnaoua musicians. Some of the Western musicians would have difficulty connecting with the audience. But the several acts brought in from other parts of Africa absolutely brought the house down. Euphoria swept through the crowds as their kinetic polyrhythms had everyone dancing to the beat.

Gnaoua musicians on the old city's main stage

Without a doubt, the biggest response was reserved for the homegrown Gnaoua musicians. The most popular acts in the genre are veritable rockstars in Morocco. When they stepped up to perform, the crowds roared in approval, sang along and moved as one. 

For me personally, the festival was a tremendous ear-opening experience. Every night brought new musical discoveries and left me basking in the positive energy that permeated throughout Essaouira. In addition, I was grateful for the opportunity to meet many other like-minded musical souls. And given that the event was completely free, the festival practically justified the airplane ticket to Morocco by itself! The only hard part now is deciding whether or not to attend next year...


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