Tuesday, 8 December 2009


(January 4th - some direct links included but more to come.)
Miracles do happen: I've managed to finish the text part of this post before Xmas. However, after Xmas is all over and I'm sufficiently sober, I want to add some photos and direct links to some of the music I've been talking about.

So, all that's left to say for now is that I wish you all A VERY HAPPY XMAS/FESTIVE SEASON TIME/ HOLIDAY TIME AND A JOYFUL NEW YEAR!

To my great delight, I received a very long comment about this particular blog just a few days ago. Unfortunately, agentcoop had a very different experience to the one that John and I had.

In a few days time, I'll be posting that comment here so you don't have to do that endless scrolling down. And I'll also give my response.

Just to say, briefly, agentcoop, I remember the incident you were referring to. I, too, found it terrifying and I was on a balcony, not in the crowd. John was, though, filming the set, and when he returned, he found that one of his jeans pockets had been split open with a knife and the contents removed (just a useless battery to anyone without a specific type of camera).

So, I can agree with your comments whole-heartedly and will recount some of the problems John and I have had in Essaouira (for the sake of balance).

However, the bottom line is, we still go the the festival every year because the good bits, for us, far outway the bad bits. But YOU and your friends were definitely cheated and I'm so sorry for that.

Read your Essaouira tales with interest. I, too, was at this year's Festival and had quite a different experience.

I had been in Essaouira 7 years ago - not during the Festival - and loved the place at once. We stayed at the Hotel des Iles and loved every minute of it.

Thsi time we went back for the Festival and shared a house just up the road from Bab Marrakech with 3 other couples. The house was great but my experience of the Festival was very different to yours.

On the first night in Moulay Hassan, we were listening to Sixun, a French band and the mood was wrecked by conga lines of local adolescent boys constantly moving through the crowd and buffeting everyone. To make matters worse I had my pocket picked. Not a good night; we left early.

On the second night I saw Babani Kone in the square by Bab Marrakech - more families, less hassle and very pleasant.

The following night, on the long pedestrian street from Bab Marrakech into the heart of the Medina, someone tried to pick my pocket again (Stopped him just in time!) and by the time we returned to the square for the gig you mention with Karim Ziad and the German Orchestra, the crowd was huge and out of control.

Most of our party got scared and went back to the house but 2 of us hung on, determined to see/hear some music. It was OK for the first half-hour, give or take the usual business with the conga lines of adolescent boys again, but then a small fight broke out in the crowd near us, then minutes later a much bigger fight which cleared a circle about 50 yards across in the middle of the square.

Large numbers of people were simply running straight at us to get away and we nearly got trampled in the crush. That was enough for my friend Kathy, so we too left. I felt thoroughly cheated having managed to see only one complete set in three days... We watched the Sunday evening gig from one of the cafes on Moulay Hassan, but had to leave early as we had booked a meal back at the house.

By then, however, I will confess that I was feeling very jaded about the whiole experience. I would definitely go to Essaouira again, but definitely not whilst the Festival is on! To my way of thinking, the policing and crowd control are totally inadequate for a Festival of this size. I also found the locals much less friendly than on our prior visit.

I blog myself (agentcoop.wordpress.com) and may well follow your lead and write my version of Essaouira 2009 - sadly, it will be by no means as positive!


Have been giving your comments a lot of thought because I don't want any of you to think that the Festival is without its downsides.Because if you do fork out all that dosh to go there and then find that it's not all hunky-dory, then you'll be disappointed and I wouldn't want that.

I only starting blogging a few years ago and so have only posted our experiences this Festival and last year's Festival. Therefore I haven't shown how this passion has evolved over the years.

But I will now. (Come on, no groaning!)

There have been references in both of these blogs to some difficulties we have had but I guess we've learnt so much, particularly in accepting things that can and will go wrong, and how to minimise them. So they fade quickly from our memories once we get home and I tend to write mainly about what I've really enjoyed about the Festival and Morocco generally.

So, beginning at the beginning.

It was John who suggested and arranged a three-centre package holiday Xmas trip to Morocco some years ago. As a hippy in the sixties, he had stayed at the small village of Diabet (where Jimi Hendrix stayed) a few miles outside Essaouira. Great, I thought. Sunshine. A tan. Let's go.

It was not a brilliant holiday, though. For a start, it was raining when we arrived and did so for days. The clothes I had packed were summer clothes and it was so cold that I tended to wear lots of clothes at the same time just to keep warm (hardly a great fashion statement).

In particular, I only had open sandals so had to buy some sturdy, water-proof boots from a shop in the new part of Marrakech, which is hardly an inspiring place, although it's much improved now.

The hotel we stayed in in Marrakech was new and massive, with no character, surly staff and a disappointing breakfast in what was like a computer-belt canteen with poor service and even poorer food. Plus, the pool was too cold to swim in.

Then we spent several days in a beautiful retreat hotel in the Atlas mountains, which was definitely a plus. Log fire in the bedroom, gardens full of lush flowers and plants, enchanting bird song (one of the many things I like about Morocco). Two outdoor swimming pools, one indoors, but too cold to swim in. Plus, a group of us guests had to fight tooth and nail not to partake of the 15 course Xmas Eve meal, at a phenominal price not included or mentioned in the brochure.

Things perked up, though, when we returned to Marrakech on Xmas Day. The sun was out, it was fabulously hot,and lunch on a roof-top terrace over-looking the Square, watching all the wierd entertainment (transvestite belly-dancers, snake charmers etc), was exciting beyond words. A great way to spend Xmas Day.

Then the rain returned and we swashed our way around. Went to the famous souk: a vast indoors warren of extremely narrow streets lined with stalls selling Moroccan tat, mainly, and bursting with people and aggressive store-holders. Carts bulldozed their way through. It was very muddy and rain dripped from holes in the roof. I hated it.

Mainly because, agentcoop, and here's the irony - I hate crowds and can have a panic attack no probs if I feel too enclosed.

But, I did discover the wonders of the Moroccan hamans: vast, dark, hot caverns of steam, with Moroccan ladies who sure know how to give a good massage. Costs about a fiver (well, it did then) and you emerge back out of the uninviting, intimidating, tiny entrance feeling cleaner than you've ever felt before. (Many hotels have their own hamans now and charge a lot but the public ones are far more fun.)

Then it was down to Essaouira, which took A LONG TIME. But when we saw the glistening white city with the sea beyond as we approached from a height, I was overwhelmed by its beauty. The sun was now shining again and continued to do so for the rest of our stay.

However, the hotel we stayed at, some distance from the city, was another of these massive, modern, impersonal places that are springing up at an alarming rate in Morocco. No character. No atmosphere. And an unheated swimming pool so of no use to me whatsoever.

And by the time we had left our taxi and arrived at our room, my lovely new boots had 'disappeared'. So, yes, lots of possesions can 'disappear' in Morocco, one way or another.

But, I took to Essaouira immediately, far preferring it to Marrakech. It had a hippy, laid back feel to it and I relaxed into the less frantic, less noisy, less busy life style.

We found the cafe Chez Mustapha on the first day, on the street leading to Moulay Hassan (one of the main squares and right next to the Atlantic Sea). We just liked the look of it and found, straight away, that it was a good choice. Friendly staff, speedy service (not always the case in Morocco and that's definitely an understatement), delicious, inexpensive food, nous-nous (latte), lovely hot chocolate etc etc.

And the owner, Mustupha, was kindness and gentleness personified. A good looking Rastapharian (bet I've spelt that wrong) with impressive dread-locks, a beautiful, welcoming smile and a joyous greeting year upon year.

Sadly, he died a few years ago and his nephew, Hisham, has taken over. But he's just as lovely, just as welcoming. So, it's our choice of cafe in Essaouira whenever we return. And that's one of the secrets of a good holiday: returning to the same places. We do that in Italy, too, and so you build up a relationship that is far more than owner/waiter and customer.

I found a hole-in-the-wall hamman down a side street and had a hamman every day, which compensated for not having a swim, followed by a hot chocolate at Chez Mustupha with my damp hair swathed in a Morrocan scarf.

Took a taxi to Diabet and had an amazing lunch of omelette and bread in what is basically a shack, suitably called 'The Jimi Hendrix Cafe'. Loved the walk back to Essaouira on the beach, dodging horses and camels for hire.

Had fish soup at the restaurant right at the water's edge in the port. Marvelled at the brilliant sunset. Watched the stray dogs playing on the beach from our balcony. (Balconies play an important part in our Moroccan holidays).

Yes, Essaouira was more than alright. It had captivated me.

But what of the music, you may ask? What indeed.

It took approximately five minutes to have our first taste of Gnawa music, which neither John nor I had ever heard of before.

We were walking through our hotel lounge on our way out for supper in town and two young men in beautiful costumes and unusual instruments were playing this strange music. John asked them what it was. Gnawa music, they replied. It would have been nice to hear more but we were famished (actually, I was famished and had to chide John along) so off we went.

So, that was our introduction to Gnawa music.

But John's curiosity had been aroused and when we returned home, he trawled the web for info about Gnawa music and discovered that there was to be a Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essaouira the next June. Can't remember if this was actually the first one or second one. Anyway, it was still in its infancy.

Let's go, John suggested. Okay, I said but I want to stay in a hotel with a heated swimming pool, nearer to the town. So, we chose The Sofitel, just a bit further from town than the Hotel des Illes. I wasn't all that fussed about attending the concerts (because I don't like crowds) but the thought of returning to Essaouira, lounging by the pool, having hammans etc appealed.

Can we have a room that's facing inwards, though, I asked, because one of the venues was going to be on the beach opposite and I thought the music might keep me awake. Because, and here's another irony, I don't usually like loud noises.

This time, we stayed at La Villa Des Orangers, in Marrakech first. Travelling from Winchester to Essaouira in one go is exhausting, to say the least, so we usually factor in a night in Marrakech after arriving and then before leaving.

(We didn't manage this, though, on the return journey this year and since I had picked up a nice little bout of bacterial gastro-enteritis on the last day, that journey was a nightmare. (It was probably the Salad Nicoise with tap-water-cleaned lettuce that did for me). Shan't do that again i.e. travel in one day/have Salad Nicoise. I can't guarantee not getting a stomach bug again, though. No-one can.)

We'd already had a look-see at La Villa Des Orangers on that Xmas trip because it looked so attractive in the brochure. We'd had to wade through inches of rain water in the long entrance passage but fresh rose petals in large bowls of water were an encouraging feature. And as soon as we got inside, we knew this was the place for us: an old riad hotel, something out of The Arabian Nights. Beautiful beyond compare.

We go back there every year now and it's my favourite ever hotel and written about extensively in my 2008 blog. Plus, John has a video of it on his daftnot stupid site, set to music played by the two resident musicians, who play very traditional Gnawa music. I like to do my writing whilst they're playing - it's very soothing (although I do sometimes get up and dance a little.)

So, back to the June visit and off we went to Essaouira and The Sofitel. Again, we found that this is not our type of hotel because it's very large and modern and, again, we found the breakfast disapointing. But the pool was magnificent, a real pleaure to swim in, and our sea view from the balcony (no inward looking rooms left) gave a glorious view of Essaouira and the sea. (And I had no probs with the music on the beach).

And so to the music. John went mainly by himself but we did both watch a few sets at Moulay Hassan from roof-top terrace restaurants. But I just couldn't get enthusiastic about the Gnawa music. Too different, too loud, too repetitive.

Did amble along to see a set at Bab Marrakech, which was just a large piece of waste land then, and mingled with the crowd no probs but I left after a while. And then we tried to see an afternoon set in one of the smaller venues within the walls. Sat at a restaurant in the sun (to get a tan - STUPID) and waited and waited and waited. Food eventually arrived - grilled sardines, which I now feel dizzy just thinking about - but no music. Not a sausage.

And, of course, I got sun-burn and sun-stroke and spent a few very uncomfortable days feeling wretched and embarrasingly bright sun-burnt red. Tend not to sit in the sun, now, in Morocco!

John didn't suggest we go the next year, although he had really enjoyed it. I guessed he thought he might be pushing his luck (plus it's tres expensive). So we missed Zigi Marley, which still makes me want to spit.

The next year, though, John had come up with a plan. He'd noticed a hotel set in the walls opposite Bab Marrakech. The Hotel Blue. Extremely pricy but it had a swimming pool and we could watch some of the sets from the hotel's roof-terrace. Okay, I said, rather grudgingly. I suppose I can manage that.

And it was this, our second trip to the Festival, which changed everything.

But it was also the year that we had the awful experience I referred to right at the beginning of this post.

To get this into context, John is very tall and has no problems with crowds. I am five feet tall, have chronic muscle fatigue and a wonky back so I'm vulnerable if knocked. Plus, of course, I hate crowds.

We had discovered a quicker and less busy narrow back street branching off to the left about a hundred or so metres from our hotel to move around in within the walls. So, we used this back way to walk from Moulay Hassan, after the set there had finished, to get to our hotel.

All was well until, almost there, we approached the corner which joined onto a larger street. By this time, our back street had become very busy so turning round and going back wasn't an option. And what was in front of us was a mass of people, squashed together like sardines (bloody sardines again!) in a very confined space, all trying to go in different directions. It was not quite a stampede but had all the makings of one.

What had happened was that the set at the nearby Bab Marrakech, outside the walls, had just finished and people were trying to get inside the city through the gate. Other people, however, were trying to get out. So there were three streams of hundreds of people all jostling for space.

To make things worse, stall holders had set up food stalls right by the corner and along the wall, making a narrow space even narrower. Plus, there were lots of those infernal bikes, motor-bikes and carts causing obstructions (another negative of Essaouira).

We were so close to our hotel and yet so far away. At first, I froze in a blind panic but then realised that if I stayed still, I'd be knocked over and there wouldn't have been any space for anyone to bend down and pick me up. It was a momunmental crush and I was very frightened.

So, I said to John, I'm going for it and I did what I would never normally do: using all my strength, I pushed past people very roughly and headed for the hotel. For me, it was a case of the survival.

And obviously, we made it or I wouldn't be writing this now.

And when we got to our room, me weeping copiously in a state of shock, I discovered that I'd been pick-pocketed. I'd had an Adidas bag over my shoulders and the zipped apartment had been opened and my cigarette case (a lovely antique one John had bought for me in Portugal - not expensive but very pretty), lighter, credit cards and Rayban sunglasses had gone.

John cancelled my cards immediately and the next day, I bought new sunglasses (you can't be in Morocco without sunglasses unless you like eye-strain). But we were still alive and undamaged and, quite frankly, that was the main thing. Possessions can be replaced. Lives can't.

And, in fact, no-one was hurt. A miracle if you ask me. And as far as we know, no-one has been hurt in any of the festivals, despite the large crowds.

I remember that each day after that, I scoured every stall and rug sale for that cigarette case, because by now I was just angry. And if I'd seen it, I would have jolly well taken it back, making a big fuss as I did so.

So, you would have thought that that would have been IT for me. No more Essaouira Festival, particularly since I didn't 'get' the Gnawa music.

But strange things can happen.

Remember that it's the Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival.

After that crush incident, we still went to Moulay Hassan, experimenting with different ways to avoid the crowds (going the long way round the walls on the outside is by far the best way), so we could watch sets there or, occasionally, watch Bab Marrakech sets from the roof of our hotel. But I was sure I didn't want to return the next year. It was just too much hastle.

But then, one night, after we'd returned from Moulay Housan and were tucked up in bed, about mid-night, a group started up just outside. We didn't have a balcony room so we couldn't see anything going on in Bab Marrakech. So, I lay there for a while, just listening and liking what I was hearing. Then my feet started to tap and I had an overwhelming desire to see this group for myself and hear the music more clearly.

So, to John's surprise, I jumped out of bed, threw on my enormous white hotel dressing gown, told John I couldn't stand it any more and rushed out.

He thought I had gone down to reception to complain about the music (!) but eventually he found me on the roof. I was dancing, shouting and waving my arms, in sheer abandon. I had never heard such wonderful music in all my life.

It was a Paris-based group called Thalweg, who you've probably never heard of, playing African/Celt music, and it was sublime. I wouldn't have minded if I'd died of happiness and gone to Heaven there and then. It was a very spiritual experience.

And thus the passion was born.

And clinched by the last set of the Festival, which we watched from our hotel roof-terrace. Yusou N'Dour. From Senegal. With an enormous band. He's very famous as a World Music musician (been in our charts, played at televised Africa Aid concerts etc) and with a voice like velvet cream.

He did a ten minute rendition of the song 'Africa' which still gives me goose-bumps. John videoed just a minute or so on his little digital camera and it's still one of the most popular posts on his You Tube site. Again, a very spiritual experience. A real feeling of an audience of different nationalities, faiths, gender, culture etc all united by the music.

And I think, for me, that wonderful sense of connection in a fragmented world then made the Festival more important than just the music.

So, we've been back every year and seen and heard such sublime music that you could weep with joy. And I even 'got' the Gnawa music eventually. It stopped seeming strange and discordant and , instead, I recognized songs (even though they're sung in Arabic so I don't understand the words), appreciated the skill of the dancers, understood the Gnawa tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation, loved the fushion with other musical genres and, perhaps most of all, felt the spiritual context of the music - a joyous praise of God. And as a Christian, that delights me. I am sharing praise with mainly Muslims and we are all praising the same God.

John, of course, just loves the music, which he first recorded for sound only (a few years ago) but then progressed to both sound and visuals.

Morocco is in our blood now, Gnawa music under our skin, and so we will tolerate all the crap that often comes with a visit. And that includes knowing that we'll always come back with fewer of our possessions than when we arrived. The Festival is notorious for its pick-pockets - it draws them in from all over Morocco and beyond. And they're very professional.

I was even warned about this by a Morrocan friend in Winchester just before the very Festival when I was pick-pocketed. I thought I'd been careful, but obviously I wasn't careful enough. And who would want a battery for a very specific type of camera? I bet that guy felt more than a little disappointed when he saw what he'd knicked.

But it's more than that. If you accidently leave something on a counter, on a table, under a table, even for just a minute or so, it will be gone. The quickest 'disappearing' of possessions occured somewhere between Gatwick and Marrakech airport - two engraved Zippo lighters. Other possessions that have gone walk-about have been another pair of sunglasses, a really nice black pashmina, a broach and some paintings that John bought. Probably more, too, but I don't keep a record.

We try to take as little as possible that's valuable and when John is carrying his camera, I walk a little way behind and bad-eye anyone who looks suspicious. It's quite exciting actually. I really am a 'have-a-go' person and it could well be the end of me but, quite frankly, I don't care.

So, back to the agentcoop experience.

That experience in the Bab Marrakech Square was the worst I'd ever seen. I truly thought that something really terrible had happened. If my memory serves me well, the groups actually left the stage for a while. And lots of people were running frantically to get away, many crying.

And then it all calmed down, the music resumed and what the f... was that all about? I thought.

We were told the next day that there had been a fight, involving at least one knife, and that's not the kind of thing you want to experience at a music concert.

As for security, though, there's far more than you realise if you're just at ground level. The police and army have numerous trucks below our balcony and we watch what they do. There are a mixture of regular soldiers/policemen plus a splattering of 'big-wigs' with walkie-talkies. Always restless, always watching, always liasing.

And there are a lot of plain-clothes policemen, too, who occasionally come out of the crowd dragging some youth along, accompanied be a group of the 'innocent' youth's friends, yapping away, trying, I guess, to say the police have got the wrong person. They often put their captives in a police truck but always let them go eventually. So, the fight within the crowd that you witnessed was probably stopped by under-cover policemen.

Plus, there are numerous check-points on the route to Essaouira. (We even got stopped on the way to Casablanca airport - had to show our passports). So, I think that the authorities are keenly aware of the need for security.

Well, I can hardly believe this - I've just about finished this response... well, almost. Just to say, if you are new to my site, don't have the foggiest about what I've been writing about, and want to learn more about the Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festivals, you can read my two blogs on the Festivals here and here in the posts section.

I've also written a post about our private Lila session at Maleem Mahmoud Guinea's home a few Xmases ago. That's posted here on John's daftnotstupid site. Plus, of course, a lot of recordings, the last two years' being visual, and recordings of other music in other countries, and not just World or Gnawa music. (He did have some superb recordings of Van Morrison at the Glastonbury Abbey Festival taken a few years ago but had to take them off because of copy-right reasons).

If, though, you've been put off by agentcoop's experience during this year's Essaouira Festival or you've heard the music and don't particularly like it, then I wouldn't blame you at all for not wanting to go.

All I'm doing in my blogs, and what John is doing in posting his recordings, is give you a taste of how incredible the experience is for us and we just want to share it with others. (No-one pays us to do this, by the way. Pity! Could do with some dosh to help finance it all.) And if you do like the music but can't make it in person, then at least you can get a flavour of it from our web-sites.

One thing, though. I've always felt that I'm missing out on the atmosphere of being in the crowd. Had been considering being more adventurous next June, if we can go. (God Willing.) But I don't like the idea of being jostled by hyped up young men being stupid or having a fight, so I think I'll give that a miss.

So, thank you agentcoop. You've done me a great service. And thank you for taking the time to write your comments. It's always good to get feed-back.

Essaouira 2008 - Maalem Hamid Kasri - Moulay Hamid - Crowd

A lot of this video is quite dark because John forgot to change the setting but you do get a sense of the audience and the music. I have never seen the square and adjoining roads so full before. But what the video shows is both the audience participation and the fact that there were no problems with crowd control.

Ky-Mani Marley at Essaouira 2008 - T8 No Woman No Cry

I've included this video, unashamadly, because despite having it on the 2008 Essaouira blog, I think it shows here what I indicated with the Hamid El Kasri video. Ki-Many came on after Hamid El Kasri and was, in fact, the last act at Bab Marrakesh.

Listen, at the beginning of the video, to the roar of the crowd when they realise what song he's started to sing. (There's a tremendous respect for Bob Marley in Morocco, plus a love of reggae music.) It was one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had. The 'if I'd died then, I'd have died happy' type of feeling.

Essaouira 2008 - Coming into Esaaouira

Oud and Darbouka players at Villa des Orangers, Marrakech

1 comment:

Agent Coop said...

Hi Maggie,

OK, well you asked for it, so now there is a three-part epic about festivals in general and Essaouira in particular on 'Learning to say nothing' (agentcoop.wordpress.com) under the collective heading of 'Festivals and Moroccan Travel' (Pts 1, 2 & 3) Hope you and some of your other readers enjoy it - any and all comments welcome.