This year’s festival, which took place from June 20-24, attracted a large crowd of music lovers and travelers.
Rabat – Every summer thousands of visitors descend on the coastal town of Essaouira for the Gnaoua Music Festival. Unfortunately, the crowds don’t necessarily mean business for local merchants.
In the late 1960s, Essaouira morphed from a sleepy Moroccan fishing town to a magnet for hippies and travelers. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens spent time in the city, drawing visitors in their wake looking to walk in the footsteps of their icons.
But music was a part of the region’s history well before any foreign rockstar passed through the gates of Essaouira’s centuries-old medina.
Local Gnaoua music has its roots in the slaves brought to the area hundreds of years ago. They practiced a mystical, syncretic form of Islam where music was played to put the listener into a devotional trance.
Popularized by bands like Nass El Ghiwane in the 1970s, today Gnaoua music remains revered throughout Morocco.
Now in its 22nd year, the Gnaoua and World Music Festival draws up to half a million people to Essaouira in late June, including the shaggy-haired hippies that have flocked to the city for decades. Visitors come from near and far to see local Gnaoua musicians perform side-by-side with international superstars at the four-day festival.
The streets are packed, pedestrian traffic jams abound, and the main square full of music fans lounging about, dancing, and making tea.
Despite the massive crowds, local merchants said they don’t always see the annual festival as a boon to their businesses.
On Friday evening cafe Chez Mermoz was empty, save for a single table where three young Moroccans lingered after their meal. Moulay Hassan Square, home to the largest festival stage, was just a short walk away. Mohammed sipped tea in his cafe and waited in the hope that more customers would arrive.
Mohammed came to Essaouira 27 years ago, before the festival had started. “It’s changed, it’s changed a lot,” he said, admitting the event is not the same relaxed affair it used to be. These days branding and corporate sponsorship are as present as the giant backpacks lugged around by freewheeling travelers.
When asked about the hippies he laughed and waved his hand to dismiss them. They weren’t the ones coming to eat at Chez Mermoz.
According to a study published on the Gnaoua Festival’s official website, each MAD 1 invested in the festival, in turn, generates MAD 17 for the city of Essaouira.
The study, conducted in partnership with a Morrocan consulting firm called The Valyans Foundation, also showed overnight stays rose 30% between 2001 and 2013.
Concertgoers could purchase a ticket to watch the shows from a fenced off area right in front of the stage. Or they could watch the show for free from further back in the square.
The area reserved for attendees with tickets was dwarfed in size by the space in Moulay Hassan Square where people enjoyed the music gratis.
Not far from the square, Latif, who is also a musician, runs a shop selling textiles. He said he liked the festival for the music, which he said “brings people together from all over the world.”
“It encourages tolerance between people, Muslims, Christians, Jews, everyone,” Latif said. “We need that here in Essaouira. And everywhere else too.”
While he appreciates the openness the festival brings, Latif said his sales don’t increase much during the long weekend. “The people that come here for the festival don’t come here to buy,” he said. “They only look.”
Elsewhere in the medina, some entrepreneurs took matters into their own hands. Some hawked clothing or busked for change. Atman Hawari brought his pet peacock.
Atman has lived between Essaouira and Marrakech for 50 years. He has lost count of how many times he’s attended the festival. Instead of selling goods, he offered passersby a photo op with his peacock, named Nasim, in exchange for a small donation.
“It’s good to come together and dance and forget about all the s**t,” Atman said. He agreed that like other attendees, he wasn’t there to shop. Only for the music.
Further from the square, Mustafa works at a shop selling jewelry and other souvenirs. Like the other merchants, he didn’t see the presence of festival goers translating into more sales.
“It’s a right of passage, people hitchhike here, they even walk,” Mustafa said. “They come here for the music. They don’t come here to buy anything.”