By Jusdanis, Alexander
By Jusdanis, Alexander
Essaouira – Just three days after Eid al-Fitr, performers and lovers of Gnaoua flooded the streets of Essaouira Thursday night for the start of the Gnaoua World Music Festival.
“Festival time is always crazy in Essaouira,” says Andy, 51, a British artist who’s lived in Essaouira for four years, “but marrying it to the end of Ramadan is especially f–king crazy.”
It’s hard to disagree. The Atlantic coastal town reaches peak tourist for three days every summer, when Moroccans and foreigners from France to Japan travel to the city for the annual Gnaoua World Music Festival.
Last year’s festival saw around 500,000 attend, in a city of only 70,000. Joining together in what is essentially one continuous, amoeba-like crowd squeezing through the eighteenth-century port’s narrow streets, the huge audience attests to the festival’s success in its goal to bring Gnawa music to the world, or rather the world to Gnawa music.
“I grew up next to Zaouia Sidna Bilal [the central shrine of the Gnawa brotherhood in the Essaouira medina],” says Hmad, a 38-year-old taxi driver, “but I never once heard Gnawa music. In 20 years, the festival has made Gnawa, and Essaouira, known internationally.”
The magnetic pull of the city to “world music” lovers, hippies, and backpackers was clear from the festival’s kick-off, a gate-to-gate procession through the medina.
Dozens of Gnaoua troupes, as well as two from the Aissawa and Hamadsha brotherhoods, paraded along the old city’s main thoroughfare Avenue d’Istiqlal. Each ensemble processed in brilliant colors to the beat of their own qraqab and tabla, squeezing the clapping and selfie-taking onlookers onto the edges of the street and into adjacent restaurants and stores, reappearing on the windowsills above.
Some younger men had planned ahead and climbed onto the ramparts, chasing the parade along the rooftops like they were all Daniel Craig.
The parade ended near Bab Sbaa, where two columns of white-robed horsemen had been waiting, largely immobile, for over an hour and a half. The setting sun and sudden attack of chilly wind broke up the crowd, who then moved to the stages at the beach and Place Moulay Hassan to wait for the night’s first concerts.