About This Festival
Each June, the sleepy fishing port of Essaouira comes to life with the rhythmic beats of the Gnaoua World Music Festival. This charming 18th century port town with its whitewashed houses and iconic blue window shutters swells in size as it plays host to Morocco's biggest summer festival.
From humble beginnings in 1998, the Gnaoua World Music Festival celebrates the music and arts of the Gnaouas (or Gnawas), promoting the ancestral and musical contribution of the Gnaoua people to the world. This fascinating festival has grown rapidly in popularity and now attracts close to 500,000 visitors over the course of the four-day event.
Mystics and Healers
The Gnaoua are a spiritual brotherhood of mystics, easily recognizable by their colorful robes and tasseled hats. They are descendants of slaves and mercenaries from sub-Saharan West Africa, mostly from the region of the old Mali empire dating back to the 16th century. Their background is reflected in their belief system, which draws on both Islamic Sufism and pre-Islamic Berber, Arab, and African spiritual traditions. They are known as healers, spiritualists, and musicians, with their songs making frequent reference to the ancient spirits of the Hausa, Bambara, and Fulani ethnic groups.
When the sun goes down the magic begins, and even the most reserved onlookers cannot resist the urge to move to the rhythm.
The Gnaoua music predominantly makes use of only three instruments—castanets (qraqeb), drums (tbel) and lutes (hajhouj), combined with one phrase or a few lines that are repeated over and over again (not unlike many modern pop songs). This hypnotic repetition of a series of Arabic chants can go on non-stop for several hours at a time, creating a trance-inducing atmosphere.
In addition to the traditional songs, the festival provides a melting pot between foreign artists and the mystical Gnaoua musicians. In recent years the festival has been fused together with other popular genres including jazz, blues, reggae, and hip-hop.
Don't be surprised to see an impromptu jam session mixing musical genres.
What sets this festival apart from many of its competitors is the fact that most of the performances are free to watch, with the larger concerts dispersed throughout the public squares of Place Moulay Hassan, Bab Doukkala, and Scene Meditel. You will often hear the clickity clack of castanets emanating from the narrow streets followed by a procession of people as the musicians make their way to the stage.
The Chance to Interact
Apart from the main stages, there are a number of more intimate performances that allow visitors to get up close and personal with the musicians. If you are looking for a real treat, then it is worth checking out a lila(Arabic 'night') or derdeba. This ritual of song, dance, music, incense, and costume is performed to awaken and communicate with the spirits. Lilas are a treat for the senses and generally take place each night at around midnight in any one of the maze of alleyways.
The Maalem (master musician) will begin with some slow chanting as he strums on his hajhouj. The other performers build the tempo with the steady beat of a drum and the chiming of castanets. All of a sudden the beat will quicken as one of the group leaps into the air with a flurry of movement consisting of lunges, jumps, and knee-bends. As the beat rolls on, he spins and turns as the crowd begins to sway in a rhythmic fashion. These lilas continue through the night, often until the sun begins to rise.
The Discussion Tree is also one of the must-see events at the Gnaoua World Music Festival. Created in 2006 as a forum for conversation and debate, it is held every afternoon at 5pm at the headquarters of the Franco-Moroccan Alliance. This is an opportunity for visitors to meet with some of the Gnaoua artists in a friendly, open atmosphere over a coffee or tea.
Something for Everyone
By day the frantic pace dies down as everyone takes their chance to rest and recuperate. If you still have the energy, the beaches are known as some of the best in the world for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Alternatively take the opportunity to wander the streets of the medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Browse one of the souks (markets) with its many trinkets or simply relax in a courtyard and wait for another evening of excitement to unfold.
Essaouria has a magical quality that transports you to another time. It's no wonder the likes of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix found inspiration here in the 60's and 70's or why the festival has been referred to as the "Woodstock of Morocco."