The Moroccan city of Essaouira comes alive annually with the spirit of ancient African Islamic spiritual songs and rhythms.
Gnaoua musicians and lovers of the music genre – both young and old – come from across the globe to share in the musical experience.
The music form which originated from the Gnawas who lived in the Sahelian region of west and central Africa, is considered the roots of music genres such as blues, jazz and even rock and roll.
Gnaoua music I first found was may be 15 years ago and it went inside, you know, something which was very familiar without ever having heard of it before.
Gnawas play deeply hypnotic trance music, marked by low-toned, rhythmic sintir melodies, call-and-response singing, hand clapping and playing of the cymbals.
Over the years however, organisers of the annual festival have sought to use the event to create a fusion between musicians from other genres such as jazz, pop and rock and Gnaoua music masters known as Maahlems.
American jazz drummer, Jeff Ballard who played with the likes of Ray Charles, Pat Metheny and Chick Corea is one of many western musicians who have caught the Gnaoua fever. He and his band were among the guest performers at this year’s event.
They had a session with Maahlem Mohammed Kouyou, one of Morocco’s best known Gnaoua maestros.
“Gnaoua music I first found was may be 15 years ago and it went inside, you know, something which was very familiar without ever having heard of it before,” Ballard told Euronews. So for him, “it’s something natural”.
This year’s festival was used to pay tribute to Doudou N’diaye Rose, the master of Senegal’s traditional drum, the sabar, who died last year at the age of 85.
12 of the 42 children of the Senegalese master drummer came to Essaouira to show their ancestors’ art of drumming which was used as a means of communication between villages as they could be heard from 15 kilometers away.
The Senegalese played with members of the family of Maahlem Mahmoud Guinea, one of the most iconic Gnaoui of Morocco who also passed away last year.
Also at the event was the desert punk / blues music group from Mali, Songhoy Blues.
The band was formed in Bamako after its members were forced to leave their homes during the civil conflict and the imposition of Sharia law. Their music has influences of hip hop and R&B.
The festival’s founder and director, Neila Tazi Abdi said the event was “not about showbiz”.
Rather, she described it as “a laboratory where music and art merge, where we bring together artists from different horizons. And today, with all the musicians who have come to Essaouira over the past nineteen years, we now have ambassadors around the world who leave this place with extraordinary memories and a powerful experience, and they share this experience, and that’s the best way to give our project artistic credibility.”
Thanks to this festival, a once endangered music genre has been revived and is now the toast of the international music scene.