Sunday, June 27, 2010

Woodstock Morocco 2010: Totally Tagnouit, dude!

Summertime in Morocco means music festival season (keeping Kendra and Rod pretty busy). From the World Sacred Music Festival in Fes, to Jazz au Chellah in Rabat, to Fnaire Hip Hop Festival in Casablanca to this past weekend’s Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira.

Gnaoua music is actually a repertoire of slave songs from central Africa up to Morocco. Each culture had its own songs and venerated saints. Much of the music is now in Arabic, with influences of various african languages. Gnaoua songs are traditionally sung in leilas, or spiritual ceremonies that include certain foods, colors, insence, dances, and trances to call on the seven venerated saints or spirits. A total sensory experience usually for a healing purpose.

Mid last-century, some Gnaoua masters, or Maalem, thought to emphasize the similarities between Gnaoua and American jazz music: same slave history, same improvisation techniques, same complex rhythms. Both heal the soul, right? That’s when Gnaoua Fusion was born and it became part of popular music. It is now quite controversial amongst serious gnaouis, because on the one hand, it gets kids listening to this esoteric form of music that might otherwise be lost as the Maalem die out. But on the other hand, there are all sorts of debates surrounding the tagnouit (authenticity) of the “sell-out” fusion artists.

Anyway, for a more complete description of Gnaoua music, see Rod’s blog. His MTV-Fulbright Grant has him playing drums and meeting Maalem across the country. This is one reason why some friends and I decided to rent a car and an apartment for the weekend and cross the country for the festival in Essa.

This year’s festival included 58 concerts and 5 conferences on Gnaoua music . There were famous Gnaoua Maalems, like Saïd and Mohammed Kouyou, international artists like Algerian Amazigh Kateb and Pakistani Faiz Ali Faiz, and seemingly random performances by Georgian Ballet dancers, the Armenian Navy Band and H-Kayne, Moroccan hip hop.

Our Gnaoui adventure began with an 8-hour road trip south to the breezy sea port town of Essaouira. Essaouira is normally a sleepy blue and white town, built mostly within the Kasbah walls. It’s actually one of my favorite Moroccan cities. It has a substantial traditional port and amazing windsurfing (unfortunately, no good surfing though, which I've picked up pretty seriously here, btw). Did you know that Jimi Hendrix had a house in Essa? For a fee (of course), you can take a horseback ride down the beach to the house, which is now a pile of ruins and hippie hangout. The hippies come out in full force, as does most of the rest of Morocco, during the 4-day music festival. Basically non-stop music, dancing, brawls, dreadlocks, fabulous sunsets, tan lines, peace and love. Think: Woodstock Morocco, with no alcohol, and a lot more fish.

With Mustapha at the wheel, cheerleaders Rod and Sam in the back seat, a Tupperware full of gluten-free cookies, plenty of techno music and Bryan Adams (of course, this is Africa!), we arrived Wednesday evening and met a few friends staying with us. The schedule of our Gnaoui vacation went something like this:

8:30 am- Cath wakes up. Tries to make GF toast quietly on a stove burner.

~12:30pm- the boys wake up. Breakfast in a café. Walk around the medina.

2:00pm- Head to the beach. The boys apply Bronzage spray liberally, hoping to look like Shebakkiya, or Moroccan pastries, at the end of the trip. Cath applies SPF90, hoping to retain her cheese-like blinding glow. Light summer beach reading includes: Obama’s biography The Bridge (for Rod), Guns, Germs and Steel (Sam), Tazmamart: Cellule 10 (Cath), Barriers to Democracy (Andrew).

America’s finest, y’all. Nerdy and unapologetic.

Mustapha, Morocco’s finest pro volleyball player, has fun wasting teenage boys at beach volleyball. And wasting us at the tanning competition.

5:30pm- “lunch” in a café. This is a shameless plug for Earth Café. Vegan, vegetarian, whole, natural, local, creative recipes. Reasonably-priced. SUPER friendly Moroccan-Australian owner who opened the café just for us. There are Earth Cafes in Marrakech, Australia, and Los Angeles…and the Essaouira café has just been open 6 months. Sample meal: warm goat cheese, pumpkin, tomato, and zucchini salad with saffron, argon oil and balsamic vinegar. With ginger-beetroot juice and mint tea. Yes please.

Walk around some more. Try not to get pooped on by seagulls.

6:30pm- naptime back at the dar

9:00pm- walk down the boardwalk and pick a concert to watch at one of the many stages.

11:30pm- some semblance of dinner in a tiny crowded sidewalk stand.

12:00am- walk down to the beach. Pick more music. Repeat, repeat.

SUCH a lovely vacation-- and well-needed after all this talk of torture and human rights abuse-- but all too short. I barely had time to get the clacking of the karakebs out of my ears when I had to take the early-morning bus to Casablanca to catch the conference for the UN International Day of Torture Victims. (More on this in a post to come!)

There are former detention centers in Essaouira too! Who knew?!

I’m hoping that, when I wake up tomorrow, my pink sunburn will have turned into a warm bronze glow.



Sam and I share a moment on the beach, with some camel. Watch out, Olson.

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