Thursday, October 13, 2011

Gnaoua in Essaouria.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t pronounce either of these words. Just know that Gnaoua (sometimes spelled at Gnawa) is wonderful hypnotic music, and that the Moroccan city of Essaouira holds a Gnaoua Festival every year in June. I wasn’t there in June, but the town was still full of this trance-like music. 

Essaouira riad
My first experience of Gnaoua was when live music struck up during dinner. The restaurant had been playing western light jazz on CDs, we’d been eating fried shrimps and octopus, and drinking Casablanca beer. Then the character of the music changed, and we walked around the Moorish partition to find a two-man band. One was playing an odd rectangular guitar-like box: a hasty consult of the guide book disclosed that this was a gimbri (described by some as a 'bass lute'). The other guy was playing an electronic keyboard. The gimbri-player was wearing a traditional Moroccan cap with a long tassel, which he was rhythmically swinging around his head in time with the hypnotic beat. Both musicians were young: what we were seeing here was a new edition of Gnaoua, a marriage of the traditional trance music of the desert sufis, and modern reggae, jazz and hip-hop.

It is this marriage that inspires the Annual Essaouira Gnaoua Festival, and attracts western musicians to come and perform and improvise with their Moroccan brothers in music. After this revelation late at night in the restaurant (resulting in a 1 am return to our backstreet riad in the medina), the search commenced for some CDs of Gnaoua music. A number were eventually purchased, but nothing seems quite as special as those two guys amongst the exotic pillows of the restaurant bar, the gimbri-player with his tassel swinging.

Backstreets of Essaouira.
You never know what you will find.

Wikipedia has information on the origins of Gnaoua and the Essouira Festival.

And for the music itself: here’s a clip gleaned from You-Tube:

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