The mid 20th century saw several jazz A-listers working with the Gnawa, the Sufi healer musicians of Morocco: Archie and Ornette, Randy and Pharaoh, But each year for the last 20 an array of free-thinking musicians from the Motherland and beyond have come to Essaouira, a whitewashed town of cawing gulls and cleansing winds tagged the ‘jewel of the Atlantic’, to jam with these mystical brotherhoods with their leaping dancers, pentatonic rhythms and repertoire of ancient African Islamic spiritual songs. Remarkably – given that the festival is run by a Muslim woman, Neila Tazi, and champions the music and culture of a once-derided people – this was the 20th anniversary of the Festival Gnaoua & Musiques du Monde. A sense of occasion was palpable, even if hard times had trimmed the programme from four days to three; the so-called “biggest jam session on the planet” was still all that, and more.
Tens of thousands of Moroccans (and few hundred Westerners) turned out for the free events on the main Moulay Hassan stage, where jazz rock outfit Band of Gnawa (named in honour of Hendrix’s 1969 album Band of Gypsys, pictured above) featuring French jazzers including keyboardist Jean-Philippe Rykiel, percussionist Cyril Atef and multi-instrumentalist (and festival co-founder) Loy Ehrlich and Gnawa musicians led by Maalem Said Boulhimas on the thudding three-string guimbri bass-lute mixed pieces of the Gnawa repertoire with classic rock standards. Invested with Gnawa energy, with call-and-response chants and those driving, hypnotic rhythms, tracks such as Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ and Hendrix’s ‘Power of Love’ have never sounded so good. It was an opening concert that set the bar high for another main stage act, Bill Laurance (pictured top), he of Grammy-winning Stateside collective Snarky Puppy – and a keyboardist long used to collaboration.
Still, working with the likes of David Crosby and Lala Hathaway is one thing; jamming with the guimbri-bass-strumming Maalem Khalid Sansi and his chanting, metal-castanet clacking crew is another. Laurance’s dreamy, evocative stand-alone set (as is customary, each invited guest did their own thing before being joined by a Gnawa maalem/master and his musicians) was a departure from his Puppy-esque good-time funk. A pairing with Sansi’s loping Gnawa rhythms lent the sound a cinematic quality as Laurance improvised looping minimalistic riffs to which the Gnawi lent ancient cachet.
On the Scene de la Plage stage overlooking the wind-buffeted, wave-smashed Atlantic Ocean, the great Paris-based Congolese keyboardist, percussionist and vocalist Ray Lema teamed with Essaouira Maalem and festival co-founder Abdeslam Alikane and his group Tyour Gnawa and rediscovered the chemistry they displayed on their acclaimed joint 2001 album. It was a pairing that reinforced the deep African roots of Gnawa music and forged links between the patterns of the metal kraken castanets and the percussion grooves of Lema, the latter’s seasoned versatility and honorary Gnawa status (he spent a lot of time here, back in the day) enthralling the young thronging crowd, who danced, tranced and shouted chants along with, and back to, the musicians on-stage.
Jazz gems were to be found in the medina, in smaller ticketed venues including Dar Loubane, a cosy, carpeted space in which a capacity audience sat on the floor to watch acts including the French composer, oudist and musician Titi Robin (above) create something precious, of the moment, with devotional Pakistani qawwali singer Murad Ali Khan, Brazilian percussionist Ze Luis Nascimento on cajon, the venerable Maalem Abdenbi Gueddari and his Gnawa musicians, seated cross-legged and variously chanting, wielding krakeb or leaping up to dance languidly on the carpet, the tassels on their skull caps twirling.
It was this grouping, expanded for the main stage on Saturday (variously with Robin’s trio, feted Hindustani sarangi player Murad Ali Khan, progressive Gnawa jazzer Mehdi Nassouli, and a full set of percussion for Nascimento), that proved the highlight of this 20th anniversary event. Fittingly so, given that peace, love and cross-cultural understanding is intrinsic to the festival’s remit; here, galvanised by the rhythms of the Gnawa, those sentiments swirled, entwined and took all participants, musicians and audience, to a higher, more hopeful place.
– Jane Cornwell
– Photos by Sife El Amine