Sam Halsall explores the hypnotic Gnawa music festival in Essaouira
As drums pulsate on the main stage, groups of young men dance in a trance-like state, while surrounded by a sea of bodies, heads bowed or gazing up at the stage, all with their minds fixated on the all-consuming music. This is the Gnawa music festival in Essaoiura, a phenomenon that happens once a year for four days, attracting approximately 500,000 people, and turning a quiet seaside port town into a throbbing musical centre.
Essaoiura is relatively small, with a population of around 78,000 people, and it is noticeable for its liberal attitude to Western ideas and tourists. This is perhaps due to the town’s notoriety as the centre and origination of world-renowned Gnawa music. The name Gnawa refers to the African tribes who were brought to the west coast of Africa by Colonial powers, who established Mogador (currently known as Essaouira) as a slave trade port – one of the biggest on the African west coast. As seen in African-American jazz music, the development of music in such an environment was a necessity to uplift spirits and as a way of practicing faith when the normal method of doing so was prohibited. Gnawa music is characterised by its repetitive chant-like lyrics alongside two different lutes, (usually) goat-skinned African drums, and a kraken, which makes a noise similar to that of clanking chains, representing the chains of slavery. Due to its monotonous repetitive rhythm which can go on for hours at a time, it is not unusual for listeners to go into a trance-like state – particularly frequent when it’s accompanied by hashish – a substance widespread and very popular across all demographics in Morocco. One group of Moroccan friends were insistent on telling me that hashish is the biggest contribution to the Moroccan economy. I’m not sure whether this is true or not as it’s still illegal and so there are no official figures, but it does make an amusing anecdote.
I was in Essaouira for approximately 5 weeks during summer, arriving during the last week of Ramadan, a time of year when the routine of daily life seems to become completely inverted. Eating, drinking, smoking and other activities, are forbidden between sunrise and sunset, therefore many people, especially due to the harsh African heat, sleep during the day and emerge when the sun is down or after midday. Outside of these times the streets are eerily quiet, until the اذان(call to prayer) sounds from the Mosque, and people start to appear from the cool stone buildings. Sunset in Essaouira is at 8.30pm in summer, so once people emerge, they stay out for the night as if it was the day.
My original motive for staying in Morocco was to learn Arabic whilst working at a local surf school, but the experience became so much more. Arab people are one of the most welcoming cultures, and highly encourage any attempt you make to speak their language. As well as this, everyone you will meet in non-rural areas are usually fluent in French, which makes for an interesting cultural blend of European-Arab-North African. On spending such an extended period of time in Morocco (I spent about two and a half months in total there), you begin to glean an insight into the political climate. Underneath the calm front seen by tourists, there is ethnic conflict between the Berbers and Arabs of Morocco. Some Berber people claim they still suffer from Colonialism, surprisingly not from Europeans but from Arabs who settled in the country in the 8th Century AD and created political institutions to overrule the Berbers who settled in the region some two thousand years ago. Until two years ago, Berber languages were not allowed to be taught or spoken in schools and had to include an Arabic name in their name in order to register with the authorities (e.g. for a passport). This political clash often came to the centre of conversation, yet during the festival there was recognition that differences are to be laid aside to appreciate the music celebrating a culture and history.
At the end of Ramadan, the two stages (one in the main square, one on the beach) are built piece by piece and the area began to fill with young travellers and music lovers from all over the continents: Moroccans, Europeans, North and West Africans. A place normally relaxed and calm becomes suddenly alive night and day for four days a year. The musicians begin their performances in the late afternoon and they last until the early hours of the morning. In between musicians’ sets, the maze of tunnels beneath the city are throbbing with youths, these can be explored if one can persuade a local to take you. At night, the atmosphere is phenomenal; there is a magic wildness to the atmosphere, magnified by the dreamlike trance state of the crowd.
Feature image credit: Geckos Adventures