Friday, 3 August 2018

MY REPORT ON THE 2018 ESSAOUIRA GNAWA AND WORLD MUSIC FESTIVAL








Maalem Mohktar Gania playing with Africa Gnawa Experience at The Borj


I can't really remember life before I started coming to the festival round about 2001 but I'm sure it was much duller than it is now. For someone who didn't like Gnawa music to begin with, I've done a complete turnaround and am now one of its keenest fans. So, the festival, which usually takes place in June/July and now lasts for three days, is always an exciting delight and each year is so very different from the others, discovering fantastic music that I've never known before, and this year I witnessed, again, some truly remarkable music.

But before I write about the music, I want to make two points:

Firstly, the weather was unusually kind: hot but not unbearable during the day, pleasingly warm in the evenings and nights. So often, we have had to battle ridiculous winds, sand storms and cold temperatures so the good weather was a real bonus.

Secondly, I need to tell you about the Festival Press Office because for the second year running they have totally alienated two of the festival's keenest Internet reporters - John Knutson and myself  (The DaftNotStupid Team) - making our jobs (unpaid) far more difficult. If you want to take good videos and photos you really need to be in the press pit and for three years, the Press Office, recognising our contributions to coverage of the festival, granted us camera press passes. Last year, however, they refused, saying that since it was the 20th anniversary of the festival, there were too many requests for such passes. Fair enough, we thought, although there were a fair number of young women taking the occasional photo on their phone in the press pits and then chatting and dancing. And at the beach stage there were barely any photographers at all.

Same thing this year except the Press Office didn't even respond to our request. We only learnt from a third party that they had yet again refused our request. They just never replied to us. And again there was plenty of room most of the time in the press pit at Moulay Hassan and, barely a photographer at the beach, and all those young women with phones.

Luckily, we had bought VIP badges but at Moulay Hassan they proved to be almost worthless. That venue was packed to bursting with some people actually sitting on the floor. I reckon that they sold far more VIP passes than there was room for and I predict that if this continues, someone will be injured. And John was stopped from videoing in the VIP areas so he only recorded the sound which is not in any way as good as a decent video and John has been posting decent videos from the festival for years. With more than a million viewers he was obviously doing something right. BUT NOT THIS YEAR.

As for me, I managed to get near the front to record Imarhan at the beach and was right at the front at the Borj for Maalem Mokhtar Gania and Africa Gnawa Experience so I captured some good videos and photographs. But as for Moulay Hassan, it was impossible to squeeze in at the front of the VIP area because I encountered such unpleasant opposition from people who were way taller than me and trying to get back out was also a nightmare.

Therefore, our coverage of this year's festival is far more limited than in the past and we missed some performances we really wanted to see, including Maalem Said Oughessal with the jazz trio Holland, Hussain and Potter, Asma Hamzaoui and Fatoumata Diawara (oh, how I am all for girl power and the short recording I saw later sounded absolutely awesome) and Maalem Hassan Boussou with Benin International Musical.


So, if any festival performers or anyone who has influence at the festival read this post and value our coverage, could you please contact the Press Office next year and put in a good word for us. Thank you.

***

So, to the music.

The festival opened at Moulay Hassan with Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Snarky Puppy and what an inspired fusion that was. Hamid is a real master of Gnawa, working the audience almost into a frenzy but also encouraging his audience to join in so by himself he is a formidable talent. But team him with Brookly-based Snarky Puppy, who play funk, jazz and R and B, and the music was very, very exciting. Snarky Puppy have such a following that there are people who are jealous that I actually saw them playing live. The violinist in particular was brilliant, playing so quickly that you could hardly believe that that was possible. Watch this video and you'll see what I mean:-


  




Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Snarky Puppy - Essaouira Gnawa and World Festival 2018


(Since the festival, Hamid has played at The Royal Albert Hall with 23 year old musical whizz-kid Jacob Collier and the Metrople Orchestra as part of the BBC Proms and he and his four Gnaoui dancers blew the audience away. He was then due to play at Nells Jazz and Blues Club in London, organised by Raxa Mehta but that was unfortunately postponed due to unforeseen circumstances. However, he did have an impromptu playing at Mo Mo Restaurant in London, which I attended, and then performed at Womad. Maalem Hamid El Kasri is most certainly on a roll.)

***

Then I had to make a choice between Hoba Hoba Spirit at Moulay Hassan and Maalem Omar Hayat in a much smaller venue: Zaouia Issaoua. I saw Hoba, Hoba Spirit some years ago and they were fantastic but I met Omar at Xmas so my loyalty was with him. John calls him: "The Little Richard of Gnawa" because on a big stage he is such an outrageous showman, with flag bearers and I don't know how many Gnaoui dancers. But at Zaouia Issaoua this was obviously a Lila, which is a very spiritual form of Gnawa music, with some people going into trances. Omar emerged with his Gnaoui like a wild man but very soon they sat down and I couldn't see Omar because there was a pillar in front of me. The Lila goes through a process of seven colours with incense and coloured cloths and by colour number four, I had had enough. As you can see, the guy in the red shirt was on his phone most of the time and another prat next to me kept singing along badly and calling out Omar's name and a woman from the audience did some kind of trance dance which diverted attention from the music. Not even sure if it was genuine. Anyway, it was well after one o'clock in the morning and sometimes enough is enough. But here's a little taster. I do, though, prefer Omar on the big stage.



Maalem Omar Hayat


***


The next evening, I was determined to see Algerian group Imarhan at the beach so got there in time to get to the front of the VIP area. I had no idea what to expect, except that the beach venue often has young, exciting groups performing there but as soon and they started, I knew I was watching something rather wonderful. Not Gnawa but World Music. My Facebook post later that evening started with the words: "Wow, wow and wow again."

They reminded me of the French group Thalweg, who played at Bab Marrakesh way back when it was one of the venues and, in my opinion, the best, and who ignited my love of World Music. However, Imarhan are an incredible group in their own right and I danced almost non-stop as I recorded and took videos. The percussionist all in desert white drove the music along and again, here's a little taster:-














Imarhan playing at the beach venue

***

It was returning to Moulay Hassan to watch the fusion between Maalem Said Oughessal and Holland, Hussein and Potter that I found the VIP area so very, very packed. It was such an unpleasant experience - one woman almost spat in my face - that I vowed that I wouldn't do that again. Here is the solitary photograph that I took of the jazz trio (the concerts were over-running big time) before I turned tail and struggled my way out.
 




Holland/Hussain/Potter Trio



I collapsed into the arms of a friend who was right at the back and after eating half of his chick peas, I returned back to my hotel so shaken up was I. However, the evening was not totally lost because we chatted with two fellow Gnawa fans: Cherbatli Yassine, who paints Gnawa pictures, which are really very good. He's based at the moment in beautiful 'Blue City' of Chefchaouen high up in the Rif Mountains; and Ricci Inagaki, who is Japanese. Apparently, Gnawa is becoming popular in Japan and these two are writing a book about Gnawa, which should be very interesting, particularly if it includes some of Yassine's work.

***

Saturday night and a performance at the Borj to watch Maalem Mohktar Gania and Africa Gnawa Experience. I have a particular interest in this group because I was privileged to interview them at Yacine Ben Ali's recording studio Planet Essaouira at Xmas and I wrote a post about them on my blog. They were preparing an entirely original piece of music and had already been working on it for months. And just before the festival started, during Ramadan, John, myself and our dog, Betsey, saw them rehearsing at Dar Souira. So, I knew how hard they had been working and I knew how good the music was.

The setting of the Borj was perfect. It's a much smaller and therefore more intimate venue, set in a turret within the city walls, with the audience sitting on cushions. Very comfortable, thank you very much. It was one of those calm, barmy evenings with a bright blue sky transforming into a midnight blue night, colours which complemented the luxurious colours of the costumes, Mohktar looking particularly handsome in his, like a Regal King. There was an important addition to the group who I hadn't seen before - the renowned jazz saxophonist and improviser/composer Geraldine Laurent.

Those of us who want Gnawa to take a more prominent role in World Music, are very excited about this music because it crosses so many musical genres and is beautifully sublime. It didn't take long for people to move to the sides and the back of the turret so that they could dance...it's just that kind of music. A European woman actually danced in the aisle for a while and she did the Gnawi dance in a most impressive way.

This music will hopefully be recorded with the addition of French/ Moroccan vocalist Hindi Zahra, who has a large following in both France and Morocco and has an incredible voice that can make the chandeliers shake or be as soft as a gently flowing stream. So watch out for the recording when it becomes available. For now, here's a little taster:-






                          




Maalem Mohktar Gania and Africa Gnawa Experience


We were watching this performance with Raxa Mehta who has set up a company called The London Jukebox which books exciting World Music musicians to play in the UK, Maalem Hamid El Kasri being just one. She was very impressed with Mokhtar and Africa Gnawa Experience so there's another space to watch. (I think that their music would play rather nicely at The Royal Albert Hall (home of The Proms.))

Afterwards, the three of us - John, Raxa and myself - set off to find a street vendor selling crepes so we could eat as we walked along the to the beach stage but we just happened to pass the famous fish restaurant in Essaouira - Sam's Restaurant - and we were all agreed that they were emotionally spent and decided to have supper there. And what a good decision that was. We certainly needed that break. Listened afterwards to some street music played by the lovely Simon who is doing film studies at The University of Ouarzazate. We became friends with him and his little rascal of a puppy called Puppy at our campsite. (Puppy will most certainly have an important role in my sequel to Walkies - my light-hearted novel about a group of friends who just happen to be dogs.)

***



However, I was determined to catch the final act at Moulay Hassan: Maalem Hossam Gania with his Gnaoui dancers, led by Miizo Gania (his brother), and Shabaka Hutchings, Nyugen Le, David Aubaile and Omar El Barkaoui. I remember Hossam and Miizo when they were small boys and we were at their home in Essaouira for a Xmas Eve Lila led by their father - the great Maalem Mahmoud Gania, who sadly passed a few years ago. So, how were the boys shaping up? I wondered. And did I dare return into the VIP area after my bad experiences on the Thursday?

Raza suggested that I stand in the VIP area by the side barrier almost opposite the green room and that is what I did and it worked very well for me. The concerts were again running way overtime so I caught the tale end of Snarky Puppy, playing for the second time, with Maalem Hamid El Kasri, although it wasn't billed on the programme. Hearing them again certainly put me in a good mood, as did not being pushed and insulted. And during the interval I got to chatting with a group of young Moroccans, some of whom I'd met before, and we had a delightful conversation. There were also a few Moroccan mums with their children and we managed to communicate in French. The mood was so very different from the Thursday. The audience was much younger and far friendlier. Perhaps it was because the people around me were Moroccans and not Europeans which had been the case on the Thursday.

And how did Hossam and Miizo shape up? Well, pretty darn well. In fact, pretty wonderfully. Hossam has the makings of a very good Maalem and I particularly liked the way that he took control of the stage as a good Maalem should. I also liked the way that he held his head back and steady as he played his guembri and sang. Your dad would be proud, I thought. Because of where I was standing, there was some light distortions on my videos but they are still reasonably good. Take a look for yourself.





The traditional opening of a Gnawa concert with Maalem Gania Hossam and his Gnaoui, led by Miizo Gania




The full fusion group with Maalem Gania Hossam, Shabaka Hutchings, Nguyen Le, David Aubaile and Omar El Barkaoui

***

The set finished at 5a.m. (!!!!!!!!!!!) but I danced along merrily, so pleased that I was there and enjoying every minute. The fact that I could hardly walk for days afterwards seemed a small price to pay.

So, the festival is now over and I have so many good memories as well as a lot of decent videos and photographs that I'm still posting on Facebook. I shall be downloading my videos onto my You Tube site and I'll also be posting my photographs on Instagram instead of Flickr where I have a lot of photographs from previous festivals if you'd care to take a look. And as for next year, who knows what that will bring. I'll probably faint if we get press passes next year but what I know is that the music will still be fantastic and Insh'allah I will be there to enjoy it.










































Sunday, 17 June 2018

Maalem Hamid El Kasri plays Essaouira and London 2018

The great master of Gnawa, Hamid El Kasri, will be playing at Nells Jazz and Blues in London on Wednesday 25th July 7.30-11.30 with guest artists rapper and saxophonist Soweto Kinch Official  and drummer Omar El Barkaoui and I can guarantee you that this is going to be one heck of a terrific gig.


Hamid is one of the most respected Gnawa Maalems in Morocco with his distinctive mellow voice and perfect diction and is a great advocate for Gnawa music, not just in Morocco but also throughout the world.

Hamid was born in El Kebir in the north of Morocco close to the Spanish enclave of Sebta (Ceuta), which is just a half an hours boat journey to Gibraltar and mainland Spain.

He was introduced to Gnawa music and the guembri at a very early age by the Sudanese husband of his grandmother. Hamid learnt the art of guembri playing from his grandfather and other great Maalems from the north of Morocco, so much so that it has been said that "he is to the guembri what Jimmy Page is to the guitar."



Photo taken at a different performance at Moulay Hassan Square

But Hamid is also a master of fusion, blending Gnawa music with other genres and this will be demonstrated at The Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival (set outside and mainly free) starting on Thursday 21st June, where he will open the festival with Snarky Puppy, a group of musicians who combine jazz with rock and funk and who have already won three Grammy awards.

Snarky Puppy is led by Michael League (bassist, composer and producer) and pianist Bill Lawrence, who played at the festival last year with Khalid Sansi and this is going to be an intriguing combination of sounds and something I'm very much looking forward to.

The Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival, now in its 21st year, is the showcase of Gnawa, Gnawa Fusion and World Music and it would be inconceivable that Maalem Hamid El Kasri would not be one of the star turns.

One of my favourite memories of the festival, which I have attended since 2001, was a Hamid El Kasri performance in 2008. It was the Saturday night at Bab Marrakesh Square just outside the city walls. Hamid was the third act on just before Ky-Marni Marley (son of Bob Marley). It was a beautiful night with a clear dark blue sky and just a hint of a breeze. I was watching from my hotel balcony which faced the square so I had a panoramic view of everything.

Bab Marrakesh Square was packed - I've never seen such a large audience at the festival and they had come to see Maalem Hamid El Kasri. In fact, the audience spread beyond the square and towards the sea and up the avenues leading to the square. And then Hamid started to sing and his voice rang out clearly to all of Essaouira and out across the sea. And it was electrifying. He had the audience with him right from the beginning because Maalem Hamid El Kasri really knows how to play a crowd. He let them sing the refrains and they sang with him too. They danced, they clapped, they cheered and I did too on the balcony. When he had finished, I ran down several flights of stairs to celebrate with others but I couldn't get out of the hotel because the street was jam packed. You don't forget that kind of experience in a hurry and in my case never.


Video of the crowd during Hamid's 2008 performance taken from my hotel balcony

So, when Hamid plays at the Essaouira Festival I shall be right there and when he plays in London I shall be there also and if you can get yourselves some tickets then you'll have an experience you'll never forget.


*Nells Jazz and Blues is at 3 North End Crescent, London W14 8TG

* For those of you who don't know Gnawa music, here is a very basic explanation: Gnawa music was brought by the Gnawa people who travelled to Morocco mainly as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. A  Gnawa group usually consists of a Maalem or Master who plays an instrument called the guembri which has a unique deep sound and he or her also sings songs passed down through the ages. With him are his Gnawi dancers who also sing and play kraqebs which are something like castanets. They wear very colourful costumes so it's a very visual performance

* Essaouira is a beautiful white and blue old Portuguese fort city on the Atlantic coast between Casablanca in the north and Agadir in the south and popular with Hollywood directors

*  Video courtesy of DaftNotStupid

*   Maggie Knutson is an author, blogger and Gnawa and World Music fan


Monday, 22 January 2018

Majid Bekkas Maroc Jazz Trio with guest Goran Kafjes - Essaouira - Xmas 2017



This performance was at the same venue as Othman El Kheloufi, the magnificent Dar Souira, but was a very different music style of music, wonderful to watch and wonderful to listen to. For a moment I thought that I was back at The Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival, that deep guembri call to attention, shaking through your body.

Majid Bekkas is a Gnaoua and jazz musician of great acclaim and like Othman he has an interesting background and wealth of experience. As well as being a musician, playing the guembri, banjo, oud and keyboard, he is a singer, composer and former classical guitar teacher. Also, Majid has been Co-Artistic Director of Chellah Jazz Festival in Rabat since 1996 as well as being involved in many international jazz projects and festivals. Plus, he gained a Bachelor Degree in Information Science in 1981, has been part of the civil service for a while and has held several positions in The Ministry of Culture. As I said, he's a very experienced man. Plus, he has many albums to his name. (A recent video I posted of John Knutson at Bob Music in Essaouira had one of Majid's albums playing in the background.)

Majid's style of playing reflects his love of fusing traditional Gnaoua music with Afro-American Blues and that's an exciting mix, and his fellow musicians complemented that sound.


GUEST ARTIST: GORAN KAFJES

Goran is a Swedish trumpeter, composer and producer who enjoys mixing Afrobeat, Ethio-jazz and Big Band Funk. The winner of the Nordic Music Prize and many Swedish Grammis Awards, he leads the group Subtropic Arkestra and is part of many other bands. He also runs his own record label: Headspin Recordings. That such a busy musician took the time out of his holidays to travel all the way to Essaouira to play with Majid is a testament to not only the pulling power of Majid Bekkas but also to the reputation of Essaouira as an International Centre of outstanding music.


OTHER BAND MEMBERS WERE:

Mohamed El Babarti
and
Mohamed Boufassi

We, the audience, were captivated by the beauty of the music and a standing ovation led to an encore. Pretty darn good if you ask me.


 



You can watch the entire Majid Bekkas concert on this video playlist, recorded by DaftNotStupid.com. Here's the first number:


Sunday, 21 January 2018

Othman El Kheloufi at Jazz Sous L'Arganier - Essaouira - Xmas 2017





Picture the scene - we, the audience - sitting on very comfortable chairs (always a plus as far as I'm concerned) in the beautifully restored riad called Dar Souira, when Othman El Kheloufi appears on the stage with his group of musicians and the energy and enthusiasm he generates is palpable. And then they start playing jazz but not as you know it. (The short video above was actually one of the more subdued pieces.) Everyone is jiggling to the music and I'm sure we would have danced if there had been enough room.

Othman is a fascinating musician unlike any I've come across before and his decision to focus on jazz, with the saxaphone as his main instrument, is not the usual path for a Moroccan musician. But he is not just a muscian - he is the teller of stories.

Othman did not originally want to be a musician and his CV is as eclectic as they come: a lover of football, a maker of furniture, a dancer, an artist, a scenographer, an accountant, a manager. Plus, he is a Professor at The Higher Institute of Drama, Art and Cultural Animation and also at The National School of Architecture.

For him, it just happened that music became such an important part of his life. It all kicked off when he took to the stage with the Lebanese jazzman Ibrahim Maalouf at the Jazzablanca Festival in 2014 and the two of them improvised together. And since then, he has played concerts not just in Morocco but also internationally.

Although he plays the clarinet and the ghayta ( a sort of oboe played by snake charmers in Jamaa-el-Fna Square in Marrakech), he chose the saxaphone as his main instrument because he felt that it was the instrument which most complemented his voice. That he is self-taught tells you something of his drive and passion, and during performances, he often switches from one instrument to another.

His songs are inspired by everyday life going back to childhood and reflect emotions, stories and sensations he has experienced and before each number he gives a brief description of his inspiration for that particular song.

His music, he says in an interview with Bouthaina Azami, is 'halfway between jazz, world music and pure Moroccan and popular tradition. He calls it a 'jazzy' approach - 'beldi' jazz where the audience can both dance and go into a trance.

His fellow musicians were:-

Yassir Zaitat
Philip Holzapfel
Martine Labbe
Oussama Mougar
Oussama Chtouki
Imad Innouri 


 



All in all it was a very exciting performance.

You can watch and listen to the performance on this playlist, recorded by DaftNotStupid.com, and here's the opening number:






Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Yacine Ben Ali, Pascal Amel and "PLANET ESSAOUIRA"

Listen up, folks...you'll hear it first here. Yacine Ben Ali, Pascal Amel and Maalem Mokhtar Gania plus a group of very talented musicians are recording an album of amazing Gnawa Fusion music in Yacine and Pascal's Planet Essaouira state-of-the-art music studio (Essaouira, Morocco) and when the album is released later this year, it'll blow your socks off.

Gnawa music was brought to Morocco by the Gnawa people of Sub-Saharan Africa. It's very exciting music with a lead gumbri musician (very often a master or Maalem) with his (or her) Gnawi singers and dancers, all of whom wear spectacular costumes and can perform dances and incredible leaps which take your breath away.

The traditional form of Gnawa - called lilas - are in small gatherings and are quite spiritual, trance- like occasions and are said to be very healing. Then there is the performance Gnawa, playing to a much bigger audience, and lots of fun to listen to and dance to. And then there is Gnawa fusion, where Gnawa music is fused/mixed with other musical genres such as jazz, reggae, hip-hop, heavy metal, pop, Sufi....in fact, just about every form of music. In fact, because this works so well, it's probably true to say that Gnawa is one of the most versatile music genres in the world.

Although Gnawa groups and artists perform throughout the world, the real showcase for all three forms of Gnawa (also spelt Gnaoua) is The Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival which takes place every year (usually in June). It lasts for four days and is, on the whole, free. It's an incredible festival and world-class musicians come from all over the world to perform with Gnawa groups.

Now Yacine Ben Ali and Pascal Amel want to bring Gnawa Fusion music to a wider audience with the album Yacine is recording. John Knutson and I were very privileged to be invited by Yacine to the studio, tucked away in the old city, over the Xmas period to meet the musicians and listen to some of the music. Even at this stage, when more processing is needed, it sounds very new and very exciting. Of course, at this stage, we didn't record any of the music but I can give you a brief synopsis of  the musicians involved.

Yacine Ben Ali is the President of the studio. He's the producer of the album, composer and musician. He is also very involved with music festivals in Essaouira, including the Jazz Festival this Xmas. This album has been eighteen months in the planning and now three months into recording.





The main Gnawa influence, around which the music is based, is Maalem Mokhtar Gania, one of the most respected Gnawa musicians not just in Morocco but beyond. For example, he has recorded music in Copenhagen with Torben Holleufer, the Danish journalist, reviewer and musician, who also managed Mokhtar for a number of years.

Mokhtar comes from a most distinguished Gnawa family, who originally travelled to Morocco from Mali. His father was the legendary El Maalem - Maalem Boubker - and all three sons became masters (Maalems) of Gnawa music. Sadly, Mokhtar is the only remaining son, but his brothers - Maalem Mahmoud Gania and Maalem Abdelah Gania - were all renowned in their own rights.

Mokhtar has an amazing voice and can sing soft and sweet or so deeply that you can feel your body vibrate: a gentle man with the voice of a lion.




Youssef Iferd, based in Los Angeles, has been staying in Essaouira for some time to work on the recordings. He is a music producer, a composer and a singer and very much involved with Moroccan radio. He also plays the guitar and guembri. Youssef has spent the last ten years fusing Gnawa with other musical genres and so his expertise is vital to this project.




Elkhabou Che Anoir from France is an arranger, composer and lead guitarist. He also plays the oud and mandolin.




Nasr El Jaouhari is a composer and singer and is also involved in music festivals in Essaouira.





AND FINALLY

Pascel Amel from France is the Director General of Planet Essaouira. Pascal is a renowned writer, director and art critic: he is editor-in-chief of Art absolutely, which is a contemporary art magazine, and has had stories and poems published as well as several books on art. And - and this is very close to my heart - it was Pascal's idea to have a music festival in Essaouira which led to the very first Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival in 1997, now in its 21st year.

Pascal's aim for Planet Essaouira is that it provides a safe haven for talented Moroccan musicians, both established and emerging, to create their own music from recording, to production and then broadcasting, all to international standards. So, Yacine's album will be one of many. To have Essaouira at the centre of this fantastic enterprise is thrilling for all of us who love Essaouira.


Yacine's group with Mokhtar plan to play at this year's Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival in June and John Knutson and I, Insh'allah, will be at there June 21st - 24th and enjoying their performance. It's quite something to look forward to.

     Yacine Ben Ali and Maggie Knutson. 


Friday, 5 January 2018

Marcus Ruud and Simohamed Hallhoulle - Essaouira - Xmas Eve 2017



 

'Silver' and 'Curly' playing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Mary Jane's Last Dance


Imagine the scene - John Knutson and I sitting outside our favourite restaurant in Essaouira - Chez Ben Mostafa - lunch-time on Xmas Eve. Not a harrassed last minute shopper in sight, no rain clouds or drizzle, no snow, no piped Xmas music blasting out of shops. Instead, we are sitting very comfortably watching the world go by, warmed by a gentle sun, greeting friends, talking to strangers and generally chilling out.

Now, Essaouira is famous for its music. There is the massive Gnawa and World Music Festival every year (now in its 21st year) which I'm crazy about, and even during our short stay, we heard fabulous music in the making at Yacine Ben Ali's PlanetEssaouira studio (more about this in my next post) and there was also a two-day Jazz Festival (and more about this in a further post). And there is also street music, particularly opposite cafes, and there's some pretty horrible stuff - pretend Gnawa that makes you cringe. But some of it is pretty darn good.

So, back to Chez Mostafa's. Not too far away to the left is the gorgeous sweep of beach heading off towards the desert and to our right is the large Moulay Hassan Square, one of the venues of the Festival, and beyond it the rather splendid but fierce Atlantic. And John and I are in relax mode but I can see two musicians opposite ready to start playing. On the left is a Nordic looking musician with long white hair and an enviable tan. On the right is someone I remember seeing at the Festival last June at Chez Mostafa. I remembered him because he looks like Jimi Hendrix and who doesn't like Jimi Hendrix?

At first I think they're going to play separately. "This will be fun," I tell myself, "they'll be competing against each other. I wonder who will win." But then it becomes obvious that are playing together and it sounds really good. In fact, it's so good that I take the trouble to get out of my chair and video the number they are playing on my phone.


                                         'Silver' and 'Curly' playing John Lennon's Imagine

After they've had a break, they get up and so do I, and to my great pleasure, they start to sing John Lennon's Imagine, one of my favourite songs and probably the most appropriate songs for Xmas. And it's not just them singing, everyone joins in: me, customers at Chez Mostofa's and people passing by, most of whom respect my videoing and pass behind me. And in the 'cool corner' of Chez Mustofa are Yacine Ben Ali of PlanetEssaouira studio and friends and Yacine is very interested in these two.

What a brilliant way to spend Xmas Eve.

Talking to them later, I discover that Marcus Ruud is Norwegian but lives in Essaouira and Simohamed Hallhoulle is Moroccan. The two have know each other for a couple of years but have only started to play together recently. I have no idea what the future holds for them but judging from these videos, I think their future will be very bright indeed.




Friday, 29 September 2017

NEW BOOK REVIEW - BLACK WATER by LOUISE DOUGHTY

I have just finished reading this novel and I have to say that I'm glad that I've finished it. It's not that I didn't enjoy reading it because I did but I didn't feel as engaged with it as I have with other novels.

I was first introduced to Doughty's writing when I read Apple Tree Yard last year, well before the excellent BBC adaptation, and I really loved this novel. Firstly, because the main theme of a middle-aged woman finding sexual excitement when she least expected it appealed to me and secondly, because I really admired her writing style. Envious in fact.

But Black Water is a very different kettle of fish. For a start, I didn't like the beginning which made it clear that something really nasty was going to happen to the main character, John Harper, and personally I don't think it's a good idea to give away the ending at the beginning. I could see Doughty's reasoning as she weaves a story - zig-zagging from different times and different countries - leading to the ending. Clever writing, yes, but perhaps too clever by half.

So, the central character, John Harper, which is not his real name, has had a difficult childhood with a dead father and erratic, alcoholic mother, who drags him from Holland to America where she marries into a lovely African-American family only to drag him back again to Holland after an awful tragedy.

Because he is of mixed race, he is of use as some sort of secret agent in Indonesia but he feels a misfit, belonging no-where. His job is to secretly pass on lists of potential communist members and sympathisers to the authorities in Indonesia. It's dangerous work and at times he has to be ruthless to save himself.

As a balance to this unsavoury work, he has a brief affair with Rita, a teacher, whilst he is hiding out in a shack just outside a town in Indonesia. Rita is everything his wife isn't and for a time we hope that his dream of a simple life with her (buy a small piece of land, build a house and just enjoy being together) will come true but given the beginning, it looks like an impossible dream, thus denying us any sense that at long last he will have a happy life.

I really liked the portrayal of Rita. She's a well-built lady with loads of confidence and understanding. Non-demanding and fun to be with. I could have done with more Rita in the novel. But as for Harper, I couldn't really connect with him. Not my kind of guy and with few redeeming features. And yes, the dreadful thing did happen so no surprise there.

I shall certainly read more of Doughty's novels because she is a splendid writer but for me Black Water didn't really work. Shows just how important character and structure are.



Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Dog In The Pram

Dog In The Pram
by
Maggie Knutson


Maggie Knutson ©2011
Maggie Knutson has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work.

This is one of my short stories inspired by Archie, our previous dog, who had a very penetrating but endearing stare. It was a runner up in the Exeter Writers Short Story Competion a few years ago.



The dog would simply not budge. I hissed as loudly as I dared: “Scram … Scat … Scoot … Push Off … Get Lost” but he just stood defiantly in my Grass Enhancement Area and fixed me with his gaze. I took my shoe off and hurled it towards the creature. It struck him on the chest and pain flickered across his eyes but still he would not move. I am not given to anxiety but I could feel panic spreading through me like an injected drug.

“Go away,” I breathed. “Please go away.” I sank onto my allocated Square Block of Patio and switched off my mind for a moment to gain some composure.

The dog sank down, too, his back legs sprawling outwards like plump, furry chicken legs and his front paws crossed comfortably, as if he had settled down to watch The Screen or was waiting for supper. But one thing was for sure: he was in no hurry to leave.

In The New World, governed by the only political party left - the B.C. Party (originally the Politically Correct Party, then the Be Correct Party and now just the B.C. Party) - there were three categories of dogs: Working Dogs To Help The Human Race, Laboratory Dogs To Advance Science, and Pet Dogs To Reward Key Workers.

All dogs were chip coded, collared according to type, and monitored regularly by special vets, who had the authorisation to exterminate any dog that showed signs of sickness. All dogs had their teeth and voice boxes removed on birth to eliminate barking and biting, and breeding was strictly supervised. Added to this, no dog was allowed to wander freely and, appertaining to my own immediate dilemma, was to be reported instantly to The Peaceful Life Police. Every moment I delayed, placed me in greater danger.

It, the dog, was locking our eyes together with his penetrating stare and I was not so much hypnotised as mesmerised. I had long learnt not to engage in meaningful or prolonged eye contact. If one wished to progress at work or survive amongst neighbours, it was essential to adopt the Submissive Eye Technique. But, to my surprise, I felt pleasantly exhilarated by this unexpected canine encounter.
It was a contact, a communication with another living being and it was stirring something within me, a hazy memory flittering shadow-like across my mind, of pleasurable times when all creatures, human and non-human, were free to interact. And, shockingly, I knew that by allowing these memories to surface, like a nuclear submarine flouting the rules and taking a little peek at life above the sea level, I was entering extremely dangerous waters.

I sighed. You could get me into a lot of trouble, dog, I thought, as I looked into his deep brown eyes.

I know.

I went as rigid as a corpse.

Can you read my thoughts? A silly question to be sure because he had just done so but it went against everything I had previously known or experienced or even read about.

Yes. This single thought-word scared but thrilled me.

But it’s not possible. You’re just a dog. Still disbelief.

Excuse me! I’m not just any dog!

A thinking dog with attitude – just what I needed!

Obviously! I replied.

This was becoming surreal. I drew within myself and considered the implications. Perhaps my imagination was playing silly tricks on me. But…I was also intrigued. If this was a laboratory dog, and its thin grey steel collar indicated as such, then who knows what kind of experiments he had undergone.
It always chilled me to see the latest advances in science as shown on The Screen. Only last week, we had been told of a breakthrough in the use of DNA from horses to help fybromyalgia sufferers. Although these advances were to be welcomed on a personal level, it often worried me that we had crossed some kind of unnatural boundary.

The mixing of human and animal genes was, I believed, experimenting dangerously with the unknown. I might have called it playing God but religion had been outlawed and it was unsafe to express such views. Still, despite my distaste for such experimentation, I had to deal with the fact that I had a feisty dog-like-no-other lounging on my lawn.

He was a beautiful, too, with soft, short fur, which was predominantly white but interspersed with a splattering of fudge-coloured splodges over his eyes, ears and back, like a child’s inexperienced painting. He was compactly built and certainly some kind of hybrid. In this state of ultra concentration, I could see his nose twitching rabbit-like and one ear stood erect, as if it were an antennae.

His face was amazingly structured, a canine version of a piece of delicate art worked with bones and veins. His small chest was strong and muscular, and fanning out from the base of his spine was a long, pure white, furred tail that I was sure would feel soft, if I did but dare touch it. And here was another memory, even more clearly formed than the last, of the deliciously sensuous touch of rich velvet, rose petals, fine silk, and yes, the naked body of another human.

But, suddenly, the dog tensed. He sat up, all muscles alert. I strained to hear what he was hearing but in the fading evening light, I could only detect the muffled domestic noises of my fellow neighbours.

Turn your Screen back on the dog commanded.

What?

Turn your Screen back on! he repeated, only this time more urgently.

My first instinct was to object. It was bad enough taking endless orders from my Sponsor, Irma, but to do so from a dog rankled. However, it wouldn’t hurt to put the damn Screen back on. It was mandatory, after all, and switching it off was certainly reckless.

To me, The Screen was not only intrusive but often obscene. The latest craze for Murder Reality TV disgusted me, and The President’s Daily Address assumed that we were all gullible idiots. Perhaps we were, but surely we didn’t need to be constantly reminded. So, I had spent one rain-swept weekend sitting cross-legged next to the controls and drinking endless cups of Happiness Tea, learning how to adjust both the vision and the sound so I could turn off either one or the other or both. At least my time as a technician with IBM (now both bankrupt and discredited) had been educational.

What about you? I asked the dog.

I shall stay here.

I was sure I would wake up in the morning and realise that this was just one of those strange dreams you get when you drink too much Happiness Tea. Nevertheless, I dutifully trotted into my living area, readjusted The Screen and settled down to watch.

It was The President: a youthful, well-groomed man who spoke with an air of benign authority although I did sometimes wonder if he were the absolute power he claimed to be. Perhaps the B.C. Committee pulled the strings or even The Faceless Ones who were alluded to in muted tones at work. My speculations were too radical to articulate publicly. And anyway, who would I tell them to? Friendships were frowned upon and so I had no friends.

“I wish to remind you all,” he was saying, “that your Screen is state property and must not be tampered with. The punishment for doing so will be immediate removal to The Correction Area …” and so on. I had heard enough. Adding two and two together and making five, I deduced that there must be others, too, who broke the rules. My spine tingled with excitement at this idea. I was not alone.

It was then that I heard the ominous roar of powerful motorbikes. The Peaceful Life Police had arrived and I was in no doubt as to whom they were to visit. Thank God I had readjusted my Screen.

On gaining total supremacy of the country, The B.C. Party had immediately resolved the on-going problem of too few police and too many prisoners. In a neat and effective move, they had released all prisoners and transformed them into a new, ultra-tough police force, whilst locking up all police officers.

My visitors were two teenage girls: the most brutal of all the police. They might look like caricatures with their black leathers, chewing gum and layers of spiky mascara but their heavy silver chains clanging by their sides were feared by all citizens.

These two looked as mean as hell, so I kept my eyes averted. I could smell their disappointment on discovering the loud flickering Screen. They moodily poked their batons to displace the few possessions I had, but they could find no reason to give me a Chastisement and they brushed out as dismissively as they had entered. I listened as their boots echoed menacingly around the deserted streets (we were now past curfew time) and then the shock of engines as they sped away to some other hapless citizen.

I wondered who could have reported me but that was futile. It could have been any one of my neighbours. Life had become like that. After this unpleasant experience, I was tempted to pop a Diazepam (standard issue for all) but I sought out the dog, instead, inexplicably hoping that he had not been frightened off.

I couldn’t see him but I could feel him watching me.

“Thank you,” I whispered, and the shade of darkness altered by the wall as he emerged into moonlight.

And then, Come on, Dog, I projected. Come inside before any of my nosey neighbours see you.

You called me Dog. Is that your name for me?

I guess so.

I’ve never been given a name before.

And I swear that Dog swaggered inside.

I fed him warm cereal mixed with milk and sat on the floor close by, with a cup of tea, watching as he sucked in his supper, his eyes closed and long, ginger lashes resting gently on his cheek-bones. His chest was rising and falling in rhythm with his heartbeat and it occurred to me that this must be how new mothers felt, before their babies were taken away to their Allocated Homes.

But I checked this impulse of sentimentality and once he had finished his meal, I allowed my rational self to take control.

I could get into serious trouble doing this.

I know.

So, what do you want from me?

I want you to take me to The Land Of No Return.

I looked at him in horror.

That’s impossible.

No, it isn’t.

I’ve got too much to lose.

Silence.

‘I have a good job…this flat...’

More silence.

I’d be risking everything I’ve achieved and then there really would be no return.

But Dog did not answer. Instead, his eyes became like a pair of secret screens that showed flashes of scenes of unspeakable brutality. I shrank back in shock and my heart, frozen for so long, burned with anger. I was seeing, as if I were there myself, the awful truth about animal experimentation and it was not the painless, cosy scene that we had all seen on The Screen. It was indescribably foul.

Dog showed little emotion but the earnestness of his expression revealed an anxiety for me to know. Yet, still, I demurred.

You’re asking a lot of me.

You are my last chance… as I am yours.

I sucked in breath.

Let me sleep on it.

Sleep was a surprisingly peaceful sensation that night, given all that I had witnessed, for Dog was curled into a tight ball at the foot of my bed, so obviously trusting of me, and the last thing I could remember was hearing the sound of his gentle, controlled breathing, which was strangely comforting.

I resolved to go into work the next day. I needed to be able to think without Dog’s pleading eyes absorbing my every thought. All was normal until lunchtime, when I was leaving the office for my mandatory Teeth Perfection Treatment, and I felt an unaccustomed movement on my cheek. Instinctively, I checked myself in the mirror, which, in magnified form, covered all walls and ceilings.

There was a small black insect crawling over my cheekbone and the instant I realised that it was some form of dog parasite, my eyes locked straight into the puzzled stare of Irma. Irma had a Reward Dog: she would know about such things. I flicked the insect away casually and, with disguised haste, set off for my appointment but, once away from the building, I paused against a wall to regain my breath and to curb the surge of undiluted fear that threatened to betray me.

Irma was a loyal Party member. She would report me for illegal contact with a dog, despite my value as her most senior software creator. I would be arrested on my return, secretly bundled out through the basement and whisked away to a miserable destiny. My flat would be repossessed and Dog returned to the hell that I had seen in his eyes.

I ignored my appointment and headed straight for home. A Young Mother was carrying her baby inside a nearby flat and her brief, miserable glance my way strengthened my resolve. I must escape.

Dog was waiting for me, sitting as alert as radar, eyes bright with expectation. Quick! We’re leaving! I swept into the kitchen and pushed provisions into two plastic bags. Then I hurried to my secret hiding place and retrieved my most treasured possessions, all banned items. There was a well-thumbed photograph of a vase of sunshine yellow flowers, a mouldy bar of milk chocolate, and a battered old brown leather cigarette case containing a lighter and one cigarette.

I shoved them hastily into my pocket and opened the front door, Dog at my side. There, in front of us, was the baby’s shining new pram with sufficient room for one dog under my two bags. The problem of how to smuggle Dog out had been my most pressing priority and yet here the answer was provided for us. It was then that I realised that God had not deserted me.

Dog and I did not need to communicate, our thought patterns now so in tune, even after such a short period of time. He jumped as lightly as a soufflĂ© into the pram, I placed the bags on top of him and thus we set off…

So, that is how the amazing partnership between Dog and myself came into being. And how did we reach the safety of The Land Of No Return (which is actually called The Land Of Freedom)? Now that’s a fascinating story. Perhaps Dog will tell you that one, when you have managed to escape, too.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Essaouira and World Music Festival - FINAL POST - BOB MUSIC- THE MUSIC SHOP IN ESSAOUIRA WHICH CELEBRATES BOB MARLEY

Bob Music is probably the quirkiest and most interesting shop in Essaouira and well worth a visit. Owned and run by Abdul Oubella, it celebrates both Gnaoua music and Bob Marley (hence the name.) Bob Marley, as we all know, was a reggae musician, not a gnaoua musician, but he is VERY popular in Morocco and in a way, Abdul helps keep his name alive by his impressive display of Bob Marley photographs, just as many Moroccans do by sporting incredible dreadlock hairstyles, which are extremely fetching.

Inside the shop, which is at 3, Rue Youssef Ben Tachfine (close to 104, Avenue Sidi Mohamid Ben Abdallah) there are a wide range of musical instruments ranging from guembris (the Gnaoua equivelent of the guitar) to drums to krakebs to....just about everything.There is also an impressive selection of records plus posters of Bob Marley for sale. Added to this, is Abdul's knowledge of music - he's like a walking, breathing encyclopedia of music. Ask him a question and he'll probably know the answer.

When Ky-Marney Marley (one of Bob's sons) was in town to play at Bab Marrakesh (an absolute fantastic set I might add), he payed a visit to Bob Music and below is a photo of Abdul with Ky-Marney.

Ky-Marney Marley and Bob




Abdul was at prayer when I took the following photographs but his assistant, Hamid was there.

John attempting to play a guembri


 


Hamid on krabebs, John on the guembri






Bob Music shop





Some of Abdul's photos of Bob Marley






































 


Quite frankly, I could look at photos of Bob Marley all day and not get bored. I don't think he will ever be forgotten: his legacy most certainly lives on.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Abdul now also has a silver shop at 104, Avenue Sid Mohamed Ben Abdallah, close to Bob Music. This is worth a visit, too, because he has a fantastic range of beautiful jewellery. I bought four pairs of ear-rings and they are very much admired - and reasonably priced, too. And, good quality.





My four ear-rings






And Finally - my motto for The Festival is IT'S ALWAYS ABOUT THE MUSIC





Insh'alla, I shall be reporting on The Festival next year






Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival 2017 - PART FOUR - RAY LEMA and MAALEM ABDESLAM ALIKANE (with special thanks to Mohamed Ali El Barnoussi)

To start at the end, we, the audience, would not let Maalem Abdeslam Alikane and his eight dancers off the stage. He would finish a number and take a final bow and then we'd plead for another song and so he'd very kindly oblige and then, when that song had finished and he took a final bow, we'd plead for just one more song.....and so on until, was it two in the morning or later?...probably later...and Abdeslam looked in no hurry to vacate that stage. It was a truly great way to finish The Festival.

So, back to the beginning. In 2007 John saw Ray Lema (piano/keyboard player from Congo) and Maalem Abdeslam Alikane play the last set at Moulay Haasan Square whilst I was watching Asian Dub Foundation with a Gnaoua group (can't remember the name) from the comfort of our hotel room balcony overlooking Bab Marakech Square. When John returned, I said: "You missed a fabulous set," and he said: "So did you."

And then he played what he had recorded and it was pretty darn good and is one of our favourite pieces of music to listen to, particularly on holiday.

Now we jump to 2017 and we've arrived early in Eassouira days before The Festival and John blags his way into the Residence where Ray Lema is practising with, yes, Maalem Abdeslam Alikane, in readiness for their set on the Saturday night. And during a break, John chats with Ray Lema about that memorable 2007 set and told him that he had recorded it and actually had a copy in the hotel room. Would Ray Lema like a copy? (John had brought loads of different recordings to give away to anyone who loves the music.) Of course, Ray Lema would like a copy and so John goes and fetches it and takes it  back to the Residence and gives it to Ray Lema's agent.

So, the next day, I tag along with John to go listen to them practising again. Ray Lema's agent doesn't want John to film the practise but I sneak these two not brilliant photos. But the important thing is that they sound really good and once they've played a section, they go over it again and again to perfect it, which is most impressive. Had I had my wits about me, I would have asked the names of Ray Lema's drummer, guitarist and saxaphonist but I didn't so I can't tell you. (I was rusty about the whole Festival thing because we hadn't been for four years. I managed to get myself into top gear just as The Festival was finishing but I'll certainly hit the ground running next year... with a better camera!)

Ray Lema, Maalem Abdeslam Alikane and Ray Lema's guitarist







Ray Lema's drummer and saxaphonist





Now we jump to Saturday 1st July and 'Scene De La Plage' - the venue right next to the beach - and Ray Lema and Maalem Abdeslam Alikane were due to play the very last set, starting at midnight. Thankfully, the weather was quite mild compared with the evening before when it had been so cold and windy we couldn't face walking along the promenade to get to this venue, missing some acts we really would have liked to have seen.

The last set of The Festival is always a poignant affair because it heralds the end of The Festival and I really felt I hadn't heard enough music; partly because The Festival was only three days this year and not the usual four; and also because there's no such thing as 'catching a quick supper in a restaurant between sets.' What I really wanted was more Gnaoua Music and, thankfully, that's what I got.

Anyway, the VIP area was not so crowded at the beach venue compared with Moulay Hassan, which was pretty hectic, and I managed to wriggle my way almost to the front. The only thing between me and the barrier were two young Moroccan men. So, I asked if I could stand in front of them to take my photographs and they very kindly agreed.

Whilst we were waiting for the set to start I got into conversation with one of these charming men and he told me his name was Mohamed Ali El Barnoussi and that he was a great Roger Federer fan - even had a photo of him on his phone. I'm a great Wimbledon fan so we could have chatted for ages, plus we were both fans of the music, but then the set started and we focused on having a great time. So, thank you Mohamed Ali for allowing me to stand in front of you - it was very much appreciated. (We're now Facebook friends and hope to see you at the Festival next year, Mohamed Ali.)

With two lovely young men behind me, I also had a small child on either side of me who were fascinated by it all and a very pretty young Moroccan woman, totally dressed in white with a white headscarf, who almost knocked me off my feet because when the music started she began to dance in almost wild abandonment, so clearly enjoying herself. So, the only thing to do was to dance myself, obviously being careful not to knock either or both child over. Pretty crazy, is how I'd describe it and lots and lots of fun.

What Ray Lema brought to the set was his own Afro-jazz fusion with his guitarist, drummer and saxophonist so in a way it was a double fusion and the moving in and out of Gnaoua and jazz and then both together made for an exciting sound, as you can listen to later on. My only critisism is that Ray Lema's group were very much in the background and I would have liked to hear a few solo pieces from them. However, it was still a most enjoyable set.


Some okayish  photos but I hope they capture the essence of the set




































 






 








 








 



Curtain call, or so we all thought


 

But after Ray Lema and his team left the stage, Abdeslam and his dancers remained and that's when we had a real Gnaoua fest. So, it was best of both worlds: we had fusion and Gnaoua. And those dancers should receive medals because they had to keep dancing and dancing and dancing. It was fabulous.




To see the DaftNotStupid videos of this set click below:






THE FESTIVAL HAS ENDED - LONG LIVE THE FESTIVAL !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!



LAST POST - coming soon - BOB MUSIC - THE MUSIC SHOP IN ESSAOUIRA WHICH CELEBRATES BOB MARLEY