By Alexander Jusdanis
By Alexander Jusdanis
Rabat – As the 20th edition of the Gnaoua and World Music Festival approaches, founder Neila Tazi explains why she believes celebrating Morocco’s sub-Saharan cultural heritage is critical for the kingdom’s growth.
Every summer, lovers of the music of the African diaspora make a pilgrimage to the Atlantic port town of Essaouira for the Gnaoua and World Music festival. Bringing together the maalems, or masters, of Morocco’s Gnaoua brotherhood and international jazz, funk, and soul musicians to perform in the squares and beaches of the 18th century port town, the festival has grown to become one of Morocco’s most popular festivals.
In a city of roughly 70,000, its first edition in 1998 saw around 20,000 attendees, while last year’s festival welcomed over 500,000 Gnaoua lovers into the Essaouira medina gates.
The festival is largely the brainchild of Neila Tazi, the founder of A3 Communications, which oversees the three-day festival. Tazi talked with Morocco World News about the runaway success of the event, the potential for cultural heritage to lead economic growth, and the festival’s increasing relevance in the context of the kingdom’s Africa-facing foreign policy.
Since its inception 20 years ago, the Gnaoua and World Music Festival has grown to become one of the most popular in Morocco. What was your initial vision for the festival, and how has it changed in the past two decades?
Neila Tazi: Our first intention was to put up a new style of cultural gathering in Morocco, one that would be based on the rehabilitation of a popular and ancient musical tradition, at the crossroad of various cultures especiallyby organizing fusions between Gnaoua masters and other types of music such as jazz, blues, santeria, qawali or any world music. We also wanted it to be an open air and free access festival, a festival where music brings people together in harmony.
A festival that would alsobe the expression of our African identity. We had never imagined that the festival would be such a success, and we obviously had to adapt to a situation we had not anticipated. It’s been a real experience in all aspects, something that contributed in bringing considerable changes in the cultural landscape and its connections with the social, economic and political world in general, at governmental, regional and local levels, as the dynamics around were also changing.
After 20 years I may say that the festival is an undeniable success for Gnaoua, for Essaouira and for Morocco. That there is a real Gnaoua spirit that has emerged from this experience. It is a collective success that proves here again, as it did elsewhere before, that there is a stronglink between culture and sustainable development.
Morocco has made several important achievements this year towards becoming a major economic player in Africa. Do you think the festival has helped Morocco connect with the rest of the continent?
Neila Tazi: A historical African figure such as Léopold Sedar Senghor believed that the marginalization of any culture would put the entire humanity at risk of disability. The desire to get the Gnaoua out of marginalization, to assume their slave past, is one of the positive steps that have been done in keeping with the values of freedom, identity, dignity and equality that we defend in Morocco today more than ever.
Experts of the African continent say that the cultural dimension is a major vector of construction in the relations with sub-Saharan countries and probably one of the best ways to build bridges with these nations and their populations. By enhancing on the origins of the Gnaoua masters, Morocco has demonstrated once again its desire to emphasize its cultural affiliation to the continent, the historical, musical, and spiritual heritage we have in common with many sub-Saharan countries.
In turn, how could Morocco’s emergence as an African economic center help Gnaoua music and the festival?
Neila Tazi: Africa’s relations with the rest of the world are being reconstructed, politically, economically, and obviously culturally. It is a dynamic that is growing year after year.Over the past decade Morocco has demonstrated a real leadership on the African continent and is recognized worldwide as a hub to the African continent.
ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has lately given its approval in principle to Morocco’s request for membership of this regional grouping whichisa recognition of the efforts of the Kingdom and its contribution to the development of Africa, under the leadership of King Mohammed VI who seeks co-development with and for Africa.
The institutional adherence of Morocco to this sub-regional space of West Africa will intensify the cultural, human and economic relations between the two parties. Inevitably, culture in general and any quality event aimed at strengthening cultural ties will also be strengthened.
One must keep in mind that African artists were almost invisible barely thirty years ago. Today they are represented by the greatest music labels, present in the largest contemporary art fairs…Over the last twenty years, the biggest names in African music have appeared on the Gnaoua festival scene. We have contributed in making some artists visible on their own continent, starting with the Gnaoua of course. This inclusive dynamic is important and the transformation of the economy into the digital era will also boost cultural contents and exchanges with Africa and the rest of the world.
The past few years have seen the unfortunate passing of several prominent Gnaouamaalems. In your view, what is the best way to help continue the tradition?
Neila Tazi: An important part of the work has been carried out. The festival has allowed the preservation of this culture, the Gnaoua have acquired their status as artists and their social rights. An anthology was realized for the re-transcription of the texts sung and of the music in its integrality, and finally the request for inscription on the list of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity of UNESCO is under consideration. It is true that many great maalems have left us and that we must not forget that this is an oral tradition that must be tackled to preserve.
A succession is ensured by the sons of these maalems and it is already important. It seems to me that today it is important to set up a school or a center of tagnaouite [the Gnaoua tradition], which can accommodate all the adepts of this art, musicians wishing to acquire an education at one level or another, and why not that traces the historical dimension of this tradition and its origins, a center which presents the anthropological and sociological works realized to this day…
Following this 20th anniversary edition, what are your ambitions for the festival in the coming decade?
Neila Tazi: Our ambition is always the same, see this festival last. See more and more maalems perform on international stages, engage collaborations with big names of the world music scene. Let this culture continue on the path of international outreach with its tremendous messages, tradition and modernity, history and future, humility and success, spirituality and peace.
The Gnaoua and World Music Festival will be held June 29 to July 1 in Essaouira, Morocco.