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.