x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sounds of Africa: the Festival of Gnawa in Morocco

This year's Festival of Gnawa in Essaouira, Morocco, had a more intimate feel than in previous years.

There was also awareness of the Arab Spring at this year’s event.
There was also awareness of the Arab Spring at this year’s event.

Times have changed for the 14th Festival of Gnawa, an annual celebration of the traditional music based in Essaouira, Morocco. When Asian Dub Foundation played here in 2007 to an audience that swamped the vast Bab Marrakech outside the fortified walls of the old medina, what should have been a brief journey from one gig to another could easily take a half hour, shuffling through narrow streets with half a million other people.

At this year's festival, which wrapped last weekend, there was just the one main square - Moulay Hassan by the port, one of the most scenic venues on earth, with the long, wide sands of the town beach to the east and the wild Atlantic and a 16th-century Portuguese fort set upon a rocky outcrop to the west.

The African slaves who built the fort and the massive fortified walls around the medina are the forebears of the masters of gnawa, called "malaams", who wield their instruments as though they are conductors for spiritual awakening, drawing the biggest crowds and chants from the festival's predominantly young audience. After an opening parade of shrieking ribab pipes, drums and vocal chants pressing through the medina's equivalent of a high street, Avenue l'Istiqal, the festival's opening act was in many ways representative of the epitome of its original purpose - a natural, flowing fusion between sympathetic musical parts. In this case, those parts were played by the Bamako-based band of Baba Sissoko's Mali Tamani Revolution and Malaam Kbiber from Marrakech, an old festival hand when it comes to working with guest musicians, whether they be from Reunion, Brazil or Europe.

It proved a magical mixture as the low, deep bass of the ghimbri, a three-stringed lute, merged with the ringing notes of the high ngoni, a tiny instrument with a big presence, all while the African sun set over the ocean and the crowd swelled and spread to the back walls of the port, looking out over jagged rocks pounded relentlessly by powerful waves.

The festival's focus this year was on a more intimate experience over massed gathering. This was exemplified in a new venue, the Bastion Bab Marrakech, on the southern corner of the medina. Built in the 19th century, and one of Morocco's largest defensive edifices, each evening this historical monument became an atmospheric open-air venue for several hundred people.

An interesting and still-experimental group of women, Bnat Gnaoua - one of the only female gnawa groups in the country, led by the malaam El Meknassi from Meknes - opened the new venue on the Friday evening, followed by a late-night fusion concert between the popular malaam Mustapha Baqbou (who performed with the Step Afrika dance troupe in last year's edition) and the remarkable young Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan, who first began performing festival jazz in his home country at the age of 12 and went on to study American jazz and Armenian music as a protégé of Herbie Hancock.

The trend away from mass gatherings comes after this year's events across north Africa and the Middle East and the tumult of the Arab Spring. The decision made sense logistically, too, as the yearly swamping of the town left Essaouria - and the multitudes of festivalgoers - struggling to cope. This return to its source has resulted in one of the most relaxed gatherings of recent years. The musical experience, however, remained deeply potent.

What is vital to remember about gnawa, an ancient source music, is that it is a modern, contemporary force in Morocco. As Lamia El Bouamri, a writer and editor of Marrakech's "Made In" series of films, articles, guides and blogs on the cultural festivals of Morocco, puts it: "The reason why gnawa is so popular with young Moroccans is because, for them, it is as much the sound of today as the rap of Knaan." Whereas in many other countries, traditional music has a halo of nostalgia, here, gnawa is as contemporary as a car horn.

The festival's focus this year was on musical pan-Africanism, with Saturday night's main acts including not only the Mogadishu-born Knaan, performing classics including his 2010 World Cup anthem as well as tunes for an album to be released this autumn, but the "golden voice" of Africa, Salif Keita.

But the most potent fusion of all was, without doubt, that of the malaam Hassan Bekbou and Jazz-Racine Haiti. Playing after midnight in Moulay Hassan, in the space of a few minutes, their combination won the accolade of this year's defining festival moment - a stunning vocal duet between the gnawa Malaam Bekbou and singer Erol Josue, a Haitian-born Voodoo priest turned R&B singer-turned-Haitian-Voodoo-jazz frontman of one of America's most extraordinary new groups.

Jazz-Racine Haiti is made up of numerous disparate moving musical parts, including the Guadaloupe-born saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart, the Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles, the roots drum master Jean-Baptiste Gaston, also known as Bongo, and the outstanding voice of Josue, who must surely be one of the most flamboyant frontmen ever to hit the stages of Essaouria. The huge after-hours crowd at Moulay Hassan dutifully went nuts in response to his feline onstage athleticism.

Voodoo's roots are in Benin and central west Africa, just as gnawa's roots extend farther south than the Moroccan Sahara. The blood-family ties were immediately obvious as Josue's quavering but powerful voice combined with Bekbou's powerful chants.

Josue was born in Port-au-Prince, moved to Paris and later landed in Florida, where he refashioned himself as an R&B singer among Miami's sizeable Haitian community before relocating to Brooklyn, New York, to join Schwarz-Bart, who himself had been engulfed in the musical rhizome of Haiti from a young age. The combination is perfect, creating a band screaming out for international attention.

It is indicative of Essaouria and the Gnawa festival that it was here, in this stunning seaside town at the heart of one of the greatest festivals of contemporary traditional music in the world, that the music of Haiti via the jazz traditions born of old New Orleans, found its voice, and its global reach.