By Lynn Sheppard
Essaouira – Every year in autumn, Moroccan Jewish diaspora, music lovers and cultural enthusiasts gather in the southern Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira for the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques (Atlantic Andalucía Festival).
The town is much better known among fans of World Music for its Gnaoua Festival in June. However, ‘Les Andalousies,’ as locals call it, highlights a completely different facet of the multicultural heritage of the town formerly known as Mogador. And from this small port town emanates a message for the world.
This year’s 11th edition, held from 30 October – 1 November 2014 brought together the great masters of the Andalusian genre, alongside new talent from Essaouira’s Conservatoire, such as Hicham Dinar Souiri and Rachid Ouchehad.
Andalusian music is associated with the Jews and Muslims who fled the Iberian Peninsula following the fall of the Moorish-ruled Al Andalus at the end of the 15th century. Naturally, these exiles settled in the north of Morocco in cities such as Fez, Tetouan and Tangiers. However, by the early 19th century, Mogador (as Essaouira was then known) was thriving as Morocco’s principal port where Jewish merchant families, European consuls and Berber and Arab Muslim officials and tradesmen were living and working side-by-side.
This economic dynamic and the fact the Jewish merchants’ origins contributed to a musical excellence unparalleled even in those northern cities. When Sultan Moulay Abd Er Rahman received a French delegation to the capital Meknes in 1832, he brought an Andalusian orchestra to play for his guests. Although the piece they played, the Qoddam Jdid was never written, Maalem Ketani recreated it and it was performed by the Orchestra of the Conservatorire d’Essaouira on Friday 31 October.
Andalusian music has its roots in cultural interchange, collaborative creativity and inter-religious tolerance and these themes were reflected across the range of performances at the festival, including that of Chekara Flamenca and their special guests.
Jalal Chekara, band leader, vocalist and violinist, was born into a family of Andalusian musicians and trained at the prestigious Conservatoire de Musique Andalouse de Tetouan. To watch a performance of his orchestra is to understand the fluidity of the exchange between cultures – cultures then cohabiting in Al Andalus, and today on all sides of a troubled Mediterranean.
If we were to believe the press, we would think it impossible that one single performance could encompass a Spanish flamenco dancer drawing on the gypsy traditions; a Jewish rabbi considered among the world’s top liturgical performers and a female vocalist dressed in the Moroccan traditional takchita kaftan singing in Arabic.
But this was not a recital of ancient history – even though it is worth reciting simply because this history of shared ideas among peoples of different faiths is still not widely known. By bringing Andalusian music to a broader audience, by highlighting the deep Arabic, Amazigh, Muslim and Jewish roots in a genre such as flamenco, we might imagine what many claim is impossible: that peoples of different races and religions can not only live together in peace, but that they can work together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
This is the true message of the Autumn Festival in Essaouira. This is not art for art’s sake; this is art for the sake of a potentially better and more peaceful world – one strike of the derbuka drum, one bow stroke of an upright violin and one strum of the oud at a time.
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