Thousands flock to Morocco's mystical music festival

02 June 2015 - 02:00 By Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon & Adriana Cunha

Each year, droves of tourists head to the Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival to celebrate a sound that acts as a cultural bridge between intimate spiritualism and the global music market

The voice of Maâlem Mahmoud Guinea swims on the swell of the accordion, the horse-hoof clatter of metal castanets or qarqba and the deep bass of the three-stringed guembri across the crowd, past the sea wall and the port’s stone citadel and into the waves.

Thousands gathered to hear this famed son of the Moroccan seaside city of Essaouira; a fitting final concert for the annual Gnaoua and World Music Festival (Gnaoua Musiques du Monde). The festival, which took place in May, is a platform for Gnaoua (or Gnawa) music but also hosts an eclectic range of artists from Morocco and abroad.


Gnaoua, a form of trance and divination music, emerged from the healing rituals of West African slaves and is becoming part of “world music” in combination with jazz, electronic and other styles. 

Guinea, who performed with Algerian jazz percussionist Karim Ziad, epitomises the diverse influences in Gnaoua and the festival. His grandfather was a Malian slave, and he grew up in Essaouira, the centre of Gnaoua today, performing in local rituals and later touring internationally.

Gnaoua is a music of crossings. It represents a cultural bridge between Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, between rebellious Moroccan youth and their elders, between intimate spiritualism and the global market.

The festival attracts a radically diverse crowd from Morocco and abroad: grandmothers in hijab and men in grey pointed djellaba (the ancient religious robe) flow with punks, pink-shirted anarchists, ear-ringed surfers, Rastas, and West African traders.

This year’s festival featured an array of Gnaoua masters (or Maâlem) including Abdelkebir Merchane and Hamid El Kasri (watch his performance below). The festival also hosted international jazz musicians including Kenny Garrett, Sonny Troupé, and the Mikkel Nordsø band as well as the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen. Franco-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra, popular in Paris and Marrakech, with her voice of smoke, suspicion and prayer, performed with dreadlocked guembri player Mehdi Nassouli.

Essaouira itself offers a vast array of accommodation from expensive seaside resorts to hostels. We stayed with Abderrahim and Michelle Boutazar, a Moroccan and North American couple, who run a small guesthouse called Dar Nora where one can rent a modest but comfortable flat for R200 per night in the Medina (the old city).

Abderrahim is a musician, he grew up playing Gnaoua and still performs regularly. “The festival started small and mainly for local musicians,” he told us over breakfast, but explained that with its growth local musicians are less included. 

“Essaouira is a very open town and foreigners are welcome if they come with an open mind and are willing to be respectful of Islamic culture and local traditions,” added Michelle.


The city navigates a difficult path between hospitality and maintaining its integrity, but for centuries it's been a site for travellers and creative types.


Orson Welles shot his Othello there in 1949, while an apparent visit by musician Jimi Hendrix is cloaked in a myriad of rumours. Most recently it was the setting for the town of Astapor in Game of Thrones.

Its markets offer luxuriant array of goods: argan oil from the pale green orchards which surround the city, carved wooden boxes, Berber carpets, hand-woven cloth, raffia shoes, and of course a proliferation of pirated DVDs and CD’s of African musicians. Young men sell hashish and opium in the dark passages of the Medina at night.

The day after the festival we were invited by Abderrahim to watch the ceremony called Lila with its ritualistic trance music, generally accompanied by dance. During the festival, excerpts of the ceremony are presented in streets and stages to illustrate what Gnaoua is.

Outside of the festival, the ceremony still happens inside small and sacred rooms. The ceremony can last the whole night: starting with a pilgrimage on the streets to gather people; the entree, which is the presentation of the musicians and each dancer; and the trance, which invites the audience to be part of the healing process while dancing over burning incense.


On the way back from Essaouira through Marrakech, we met a Senagalese trader who had been selling cloth and bracelets at the festival, called Idrissa*. He lived in crowded quarters deep in the Medina. Many of the Senagalese here are saving money en route to the Northern coast from where they will attempt the dangerous sea route to Europe. 

Idrissa had taken the route across Mauritania to Marrakesh, but unlike many of his compatriots chose to go no further. He said that life was better in Morocco then Senegal, but still difficult. “There is racism in Morocco, particularly by the police, but it is better than France, Spain or Italy.”


He travelled to Essaouira for the festival and said that his trade in Senagalese cloth and bracelets was good. He had felt welcomed there. "I liked to see Salif Keita," he said, "It was the first time I had seen him.”

Keita played with his classic group Les Ambassadeurs alongside Cheick Tidiane Seck and Amid Bagayoko. Keita greeted the crowd: “Morocco, you are an example to us.” 

The deep swing of wind instruments, the joyous dance, and Keita’s awkward elegance and deep charisma were not immediately related to Gnaoua in rhythm, but perhaps in spirit.

If the festival made migrants from Mali or Senegal feel, for a moment, at home then it was perhaps because Essaouira and Gnaoua itself expresses a deeper movement across the continent and beyond, a continuation of older lines of migration, healing, trade and hospitality.

*Not his real name.