Essaouira’s atmospheric festival will immerse you in the music of an ancient African culture, while WOMAD just skims the surface
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Essaouira is situated on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, 70 miles (113 km) from Agadir and 106 miles (170 km) west of Marrakech
WHEN The festival takes place each year over four days at the end of June
VISITORS PER YEAR 450,000
Since 1998, the music of Africa’s funkiest, most mystical religious brotherhoods has been celebrated at the Gnawa and World Music Festival.
Unlike Britain’s WOMAD festival, where the range of music can seem overwhelming, this progressive event champions just one culture. Morocco’s Gnawa people are descendants of sub-Saharan slaves who celebrate spirit possession through ritual music and dance. Today, the Gnawa are feted by many for their spectacular religious performances that mix Islamic Sufism with African traditions.
The pentatonic (five-note) sounds of Gnawa music underpinning the festival in Essaouira have been adopted by many Western rock, blues, and jazz musicians, including Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens who both stayed in the town in the 1960s. According to the Gnawa’s Maalem elders, their music cannot survive without stretching its boundaries, so each year international musicians are invited to jam with them. The mix doesn’t always work, but at what’s been dubbed “the biggest jam session on the planet” the element of risk is all part of the excitement.
A typical jam might see Gnawa superstar Maalem Mahmoud Guinea strutting the stage in cowrie-shell-bedecked robes and wielding chords on his guimbri bass. Behind him a line of male musicians in colorful leather slippers dance like Cossacks and clack huge metal castanets shaped like egg poachers. A packed crowd – young men with girlfriends on their shoulders, children and parents, the odd tourist – cheer them on. The riffs loop over each other, echoing the singers’ repeated chants to Allah in Arabic and the occasional word in West African Bambara.
Essaouira’s neat size means that the nine festival stages are within easy walking distance of each other. Crowds of around 450,000 pack the town’s indoor acoustic concert venues and swarm around its large outdoor stages. Mainly Moroccan youths convulse to its late-night lila rituals – healing ceremonies in which spirits are invoked and trances entered into.
The Gnawa Maalems say that music frees the soul. And nowhere is that better exemplified than in Essaouira each June.
THE BUILD-UP Pioneered by the musician Peter Gabriel and various others back in 1982, the UK’s annual WOMAD Festival has become a byword for quality live music from all corners of the planet. World Music’s mainstream acceptance is largely due to this family-friendly festival, treasured by many as an institution on the alternative festival scene and held in July at Wiltshire’s Charlton Park.
THE LETDOWN WOMAD’s wide-ranging program can mean the choice of who to see is overwhelming. The feeling that you might be missing the next big thing is palpable; the phrase “you should have been there” widespread.
GOING ANYWAY? Don’t just stand there watching – join in: WOMAD has an extensive program of dance and percussion workshops that get you closer to the cultures concerned. Then unwind: there are yoga sessions, cookery classes, and even a WOMAD spa. Can’t put up a tent? There are tipis, yurts, and people to do it for you.
Getting There and Around
Royal Air Maroc and various low-cost budget airlines fly into Marrakech. Transfer to Essaouira by bus takes about 3 hours; a taxi will take about 2 hours. Essaouira’s walled medina is compact enough to be explored by foot.
Where to Eat
Numerous restaurants serve great Moroccan and international cuisine, but the highlight of Essaouira’s food scene is the grilled fish and seafood straight off the boats. Try one of the many stalls in the harbor or Chez Sam, Au Fond du Port.
Where to Stay
There are numerous good hotels in the medina, but it is essential to book ahead for the festival. Try the serene La Maison du Vent, 25 rue Mourabitine or the atmospheric Dar Ness, 1 Rue Khalid ben Walid.
Daytime Temperature 67°F (19°C) in June.
Budget per Day for Two US$160 for accommodations, food, and travel.