Thursday 13 July 2017

The Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival 2017 - PART ONE - PRESS PASSES AND FANTASIA

It was wonderful to be back in Essaouira after an absence of five years. Flying to Essaouira from Luton Airport made a big difference and I'm sure that many more people will visit Essaouira because of this direct link, which will be great for Essaouira.

We were staying at a new hotel - Villa de L'O - and it was a real find. A riad hotel set into the old walls with terrific views across the bay towards the village of Diabet, made famous by the visit by Jimi Hendrix way back. Our room was the terrace room at the top and we could see the beach and beyond even from our bed. Breakfast was on the terrace once we had scared off the seagulls. I must mention this breakfast because it was the best I've ever had: fresh orange juice, omelette, croissant, fresh bread, butter and jam or honey, yogurt, fruit salad and plenty of coffee. A great way to start the day.

John on the terrace


Me on the terrace


Seagull on the terrace

But the important thing was to get those wonderful press passes, which we had been given in the past, so that both John and I could film/record/photograph for our internet postings from the very best position right next to the stage.

We tried as hard as we could, even waited for an age to see the person in charge at Le Medina Hotel and explained our dilemma to everyone with possible influence but it just wasn't meant to be. The official line was that because it was the 20th anniversary of The Festival too many professional photographers had applied for passes and even some of those were denied.

However, the reality was that, apart from the first set on the Friday night when the press pit was absolutely heaving, many in the press pits were young women taking a few photographs on mobile phones and then spending their time dancing. I even saw people without press passes barging their way past the security guard into the press pit. To say we felt frustrated is an understatement.

We were, however, greatly helped by Loy Ehrlich of Band of Gnawa, who gave us two special VIP badges so we could go into the VIP areas of all the venues and therefore could get reasonably close to the stage. And it is thanks to him that we were able to record etc as much as we did. So, a very, very big thank you Loy.

Before The Festival started, John was invited by Ray Lema to his practice with Maalem Abdeslam Alikane and I tagged along. I took these two photos which aren't as good as I would have liked but I'm putting them on anyway. (None of my photos are of the standard I've achieved in the past but my little Lumix camera does not, I discovered, take good photos from a distance. Next year I shall come armed with a much better camera.)


Ray Lema is on the left

Ray Lema's saxaphonist and drummer

What was fascinating about this rehearsal was that they would play a piece of music and it would sound absolutely fantastic but at the end Ray Lema would suggest improvements and then they'd play it again and this happened repeatedly. It was incredibly hot and yet there they were, honing their skills: quite a dedication to achieve perfection.

And now to another form of perfection: The Morrocan Fantasia.

This is a age-old tradition which is still very popular, particularly for special occasions. It involves about thirty or forty horsemen, dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, who execute their skills by riding hell-for-leather in a straight line for about two hundred yards, stopping dead and firing their muskets at the same time so that it seems to be just one very loud shot.

This Fantasia takes place before The Festival and it's a delight to watch, even scary if you stand too close to one of the horses, as I did. The day before The Festival started, they performed this tradition on the beach. At first, all I saw from our terrace was two lines of people standing some distance apart from the promenade to the shore-line, and then I saw the riders practising so I got my camera and off I went to get a closer look.

Up close, it really is impressive and I'm pleased to say that at least these photos are sharp and focused.

On the next afternoon, the day that The Festival starts, there is a procession through town of many of the Gnaoua groups and you can hear the music getting closer and closer and that's also very exciting. And just below our terrace, near to one of the gates leading into the old city, the horses lined up on either side of the road for hours waiting for I know not what.

I had hoped that the procession would come through the gate and proceed between the line of horses but it just didn't happen. They stopped short of the gate and eventually dispersed. Had I not been in my dressing gown having had a bath, I would have gone down to investigate but a girl can only do so much. So, the horses and their riders also eventually dispersed but to stand without moving for several hours was very impressive and I hope you enjoy looking at these photos as much as I do.

View from our terrace

(By the way, there is at least one British Women's Fantasia team - some of the members were interviewed on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour).

It was interesting to watch the setting up of instruments on the stage at the main venue Moulay Hassan Square, all adding to the growing excitement of the music to come, particularly the familiar sound of the ditty-ditty-ditty-ditty noise of the Gnaoau  krakebs heralding the start of The Festival.

This shows the team getting ready for the Bill Laurance and Khalid Sansi set in Moulay Hassan Square. John and I arrived just at the end and we're really sorry that we'd missed most of it because it sounded terrific.

We missed quite a few sets that we would have liked to have seen and saw some that didn't impress at all so I shall be focusing on the three that were outstanding, starting, in my next blog (PART TWO) with the brilliant Band of Gnawa.


Lou said...

What a fantastic introduction to the festival. Wonderful description and great photos. I look forward to reading further updates.

Unknown said...

Fascinating read Maggie, shame about the press accreditation but sounds like the VIP passes were a good compromise. Glad to hear you had a good time and you can get John to buy you a nicer camera for next year.