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 four sons became masters (Maalems) of Gnawa music. Sadly, Mokhtar is the only remaining son, but his brothers - Maalem Mahmoud Gania, Maalem Abdelah Gania and Maalem Bilal 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 Elydouhori 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.