In Morocco, an annual music festival brings with it a cultural experience that lifts people’s spirits.
At the end of June, the winds of the old port city of Essaouira move to the rhythm of Gnaoua music when the annual festival takes place. At this time, the small Moroccan city on the Atlantic Ocean becomes a magnet for music lovers who are drawn to Essaouira from around the world.
For three days the maalems, the masters of Gnaoua music and tradition, enter a musical dialogue that breaks the borders of language and culture. During the Gnaoua festival, Essaouira is taken over by music, joy and happiness, and the people only speak one language: that of Gnaoua music.
What makes Gnaoua music an internationally-understood language is mainly its compatible and captivating rhythm. It can be paired and combined with different musical genres like jazz and the Blues and, therefore, many global artists are eager to indulge in fusing their music with the Gnaoua spirit.
Gnaoua music is an important part of Moroccan culture. The music is spiritual and its sounds are mystical, which can help the musicians fall into a state of trance.
However, their music is not only about joy and happiness, but it also tells a story of suffering and endurance. The ethnic group of the Gnaoua originates from countries such as Mali and Senegal, and they were trafficked as slaves to Morocco in the 11th century. During their journey to North Africa, they suffered under inhumane circumstances, and music helped lift their spirits so they could cope.
The Gnaoua people pass on their culture and stories from generation to generation, and their music is one of their means in sharing and preserving it. The festival, therefore, has an important function in keeping the traditions and narratives of the Gnaoua alive.
There is much to be discovered at the festival. The spirituality is not only a part of the music; it is also the basic way of life of the Gnaoua. Apart from the big performances, the real stories and authentic emotions can be discovered off the main stages — especially in the faces of those playing their guembri in small streets or those selling instruments in the main square, or in the faces of all those that seize the opportunity of the festival to live a little.
Even though the Gnaoua festival only lasts for three days, the spirit remains in every corner of Essaouira.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.