Tim Cumming joins in the 20th anniversary celebrations in Essaouira
Some ten hours after pulling an all-nighter at an off-festival lila (the all-night healing/trance ceremony of the Gnawa) at Zaouia Bilal in the depths of Essaouira’s medina, I was shuffling sans sleep through Casablanca’s international transit lounge wondering if this was what taking the drug spice felt like. I then heard the familiar bass sound of the gimbri, and spied a young man in Gnawa robes on a sleek sofa set outside a luxury goods concession, arranging his robes, fingering his strings and looking decidedly decorative in a setting far removed from Gnawa culture’s sources. Gnawa is almost a brand for Morocco now, and 20 years of Essaouira’s Gnawa & World Music Festival has helped make it so.
Earlier that night, from mid-evening to about 3am, I’d sat with Mokhtar Guinea’s band of Gnawa as they shuffled in and out of the back room behind the musicians and trancing audience crowding around them, three young women up on their feet and head-banging right in front of the musicians, sheets of white cloth draped over their heads as the spirits of the lila descend into them one by one in the form of specific songs with specific symbolic colours attached, accompanied by the scent of incense, hashish and mint tea.
In its 20th year the festival must accommodate both extremes – of cultural decoration, and of personal immersion and revelation. Both are quite real, and both play out across Essaouira’s stages, decorated with sponsor Renault’s advertising. The old rules forbidding cameras at the intimate, after-midnight performances at places such as Dar Loubane clearly do not apply to smartphones these days – will the spirits of the lila survive smart-screen culture, or will they fade to local colour, then fade out? I think not, because what underlies it is as hard and resilient as the music itself, a common currency, and everyone of all ages in Morocco seems to know and to sing the songs of the Gnawa.
For its 20th edition, the festival had its wings clipped – four days cut to three – and a paucity of prominent jazz headliners, Snarky Puppy’s Bill Laurance aside. Why a fairly obscure, self-aggrandising soul-blues singer named Lucky Peterson got three hours of main stage on the closing Saturday night is inexplicable. Luckily, Bahia artist Carlinhos Brown opened (with maalem Mohamed Kouyou) and closed the festival with two excellent sets, while Friday saw festival regular Titi Robin joined by rising Moroccan star Mehdi Nassouli and percussionist Luis Nascimento at the intimate Dar Louban with maalem Abdenbi El Gueddari, where the following night a young all-girl Gnawa group, Bnat Timbouktou, led by Asmaa Hamzaoui, was joined by one of the festival’s founders Loy Ehrlich. Female Gnawa are rare – for the moment – and Bnat Tombouktou were one of the gems of this 20th edition.
The next night, Nassouli and Nascimento joined Hindi Zahra’s band on the windswept Borj Bab Marrakech for an outstanding set featuring two drummers as the sun sank in the west behind the white rooftops and minarets of the medina. Ah, but how the wind blew. It was at its very worst for this edition. The beach stage, bedecked by the likes of Speed Caravan and Houssam Guinea, felt a little like being in a speeding hurricane. But the music never stopped. The wind blows, and the Gnawa play all night – it seems that here, the natural creative order doesn’t change, even as Gnawa becomes a brand for Morocco, a kind of symbol of its luxury goods.
Gnawa is reputed to have healing properties, and even this reviewer found it so – I flew in with a frozen shoulder, left loose-limbed, body healed and mind blown by rhythmic air and the raw pure Gnawa that takes you right down to the bottom and through a door into a dynamic world of rhythmic sound and raised spirits that can knock you out like a plank of wood. Those rhythms are a key that can unlock the mind and free the body. One of the great pleasures of this festival is watching the crowds, all 300,000 of this year’s visitors, and how they unleash themselves as the music takes hold. However far you have to come to experience it, it’s worth taking the trip.
To see more images of the Gnawa & World Music Festival by Tim Cumming, click here