Thursday 1 July 2010



Two years ago, John and I apply for press badges for the Essaouira Festival - John for his videos of live recordings for his daftnotstupid You Tube site and me for my blog. However, we are unsuccessful, so we don't bother last year or this. Strangly, though, and probably on the strength of the quality of John's videos, which receive over 500 hits per day, we are offered badges for this year's festival without even asking. Quite a surprise and very much an honour, if a bit scary.

What these treasured passes allow us to do is to not only gain entrance to the VIP/guests/family enclosure at the front but also to the smaller inner sanctum reserved for photographers right below the stage.

John doing his 'Hollywood Director Thing'

We can also interview some of the artists, which I hope to do but never manage... bad back, excessive day-time heat and all that.

However, bad back or not, I am up there on one of the two plinths taking photographs at either Moulay Hassan or Bab Marrakech for four nights on the trot. Dance a lot, too, in the VIP area. Hence the need for two oesteopath treatments to keep me mobile. But I'm not going to miss an opportunity of a life-time.

Most of the photographs, therefore, on this post, are taken close to the performances and, given that I'm a total amateur with just my little Lumix camera, and I'm really a writer, not a photographer, I'm delighted with them. I hope that they give you some idea of the whole visual effect of Gnaoua and World Music, plus the vitality and quality of the performances.)

I am rubbing shoulders with professional photographers but most of the time I feel really confident in what I am doing. Just occasionally, I feel a bit of a fraud but when two photographers from Cassablanca laugh at my little Lumix, I give as good as I get. And I shall send them some of my photographs just to show that a little Lumix can be pretty damn good.

Three things that I discover:-
  1. I am instinctively looking for 'the shot'
  2. My Lumix does not take the shot immediately when I press the button, but flashes several seconds later, and it is that shot that is taken. But because I've seen a lot of Gnaoua performances, I often know what the dancers/Maalem are going to do next, so I press the button to capture the action about to take place.
  3. I sometimes forget to aim the camera above the front drop of the stage and have to keep reminding myself to aim higher so I just capture the action on the stage. (However, John has just taught me the art of cropping, which is brilliant, so I can mainly get rid of that grey drop.)

This photographer is not me - I think she is a French professional photographer with a particular interest in Daby Toure. There is not much chatting on those plinths - people are just too busy. I do, however, manage to talk to Artak Gevorgyan, the Director of The Armenian Navy Band during a lull - more on that later.


Come with me into our hotel room at 'Hotel L'Heure Bleu'. It's spacious, with a study area, bed, seating area and en-suite. It's just full of Moroccan colour - the windows and verandah doors have bright, primary coloured segments at the top, which glow from the outside sunshine, and the furnishings are deep burgandy and white. The whole effect is pleasing to the eye and mind and room is welcomingly cool.

It's a new hotel, built into the old city walls and in the riad tradition of floors built around a central, open area. Doormen man the doors. It's spotlessly clean and restful and the staff are highly professional and extremely friendly. In fact, friends now.

I've been lazing about on the roof-top terrace in the afternoon, chatting with Hisham in terrible, stilted French (most Moroccans speak fluent French), but want to see how the opening ceremony is shaping up. It's due to start at 6.30 so there's about an hour or so to go. John is already out, ready to film.

I open the balcony doors. A fresh breeze hits me - it's always windy in Essaouira. The sun is shining brightly, reflecting brilliant whiteness from the Bab Marrakech Square in front of me and the new buildings opposite and to the left. To the right I catch a glimpse of the sea. I can't see the beach from here but I know it will be like a massive, informal area of dozens of impromptu football matches - the Moroccans love football. Le football, in French.

The stage is already set up, ready for the performances which start here tomorrow. The vast square facing it is not empty, though. There, in front of me, is a huge semi-circle of magnificantly dressed horses with Arab horsemen already mounted. These are the Fantasia Allems - five groups altogether, led by Abdellah Annouze, Abdelkrim Haddar, Moulay Allal Idrissi, Hadj Ahmed Machtoune and Moustapha Dalam.

The tradition of Fantasia, born in the 15th century, simulates military cavalry attacks thus displaying the skill of the horses and horsemen. In present days, these displays are often used to celebrate special events - like the Essaouira Gnaoua and World Festival.

It might be windy but I know it's hot out there but these horses and horsemen barely move. There might be an occasional nodding of a head or small side-step (the horses, I'm talking about!) but otherwise they are stationary. The discipline is tangible.

And along the road below me, cordoned off, are the brightly dressed Maalems and their Gnaoua groups. They are waiting, too. There is much greeting of friends and press interviews. It's a beautiful scenario.

I grab my valued press badge and make my way outside. I have to weave through the crowds from the hotel entrance and the twenty or so yards to the large gateless gate that marks the exit from the old fortress city to the vast Bab Marrakech Square.

There's a woman sitting just before the gate, with a small boy and a bundle, which I later discover is a beautiful baby sporting a black and white head-scarf. She has been sitting there all day, holding out some tattered documents, and quite clearly begging.

I've passed her so many times without stopping but this time I just can't pass. I sit next to her on the ground and she shows me her baby. John and I have so much in comparison, she so little. We're about to enjoy the festival; she desperately needs money for food and shelter. It's that bitter-sweet aspect to life that I've written about in an earlier Xmas blog.

I dash back into the hotel and the room, scoop up what money we have on the table, dash back down and give her the money. It's only a small gesture - about five pounds or so - but I feel I have to do something. (She's gone when I return and I don't see her again, so hopefully what I gave her will have kept her going for a few days.)

Then I push my way through the crowd for about twenty metres and come to one of the many security checks. This is the first time I've used my badge. I am let through and there I am, among all the performers and press. I take out my little Lumix and start taking photographs. It's magic. Just magic.

These are pigeons which will be released later but I miss this bit plus the cannon shot, which I do at least hear from the room and has me almost jumping out of my skin.

I manage to say hello to Maalem Mahmoud Guinea but I don't think he recognises me at this stage. (We went to his home for a special Xmas Night Lila a few years ago.) He must be thinking :'Who's this mad English woman?!'

(The dancer in the foreground is the spitting image of Michael in 'The Wire' although it can't possibly be him.)

Later on, I go back into the room and onto the balcony and take photographs as the Gnaoua groups start their procession, making music and dancing as they go along. They make their way in a winding spectacle of colour and noise around the edge of the city walls, the horsemen following, to arrive at Moulay Hassan, the large square close to the sea and within the city walls on the other side of Essaouira. I don't follow: I need to prepare for the first performance at Moulay Hassan later in the evening (i.e. have a drink, some cake and a ciggie.)


It's nearly eight and still light and very warm. I've taken my usual short cut, using alleys within the city walls, to avoid the crowds. I arrive at the first check-in point near the stage to get me into the VIP area. My badge is scrutinised and I am let through. Then I come to the next check-in, where my badge is digitally swiped. I'm let through there (phew!).

The VIP area is set up with chairs in formal rows for VIPs, friends and families. An official is giving a speech in Arabic in front of a photograph of King Mohammed VI, who helps sponser the festival. I'm new to all this, so I don't ask who he actually is. Great journalist I am! Anyway, I'm eager for the music to start.

After the speech and the introduction from the stage of yet another official I don't get the name of (!), wearing a very distinctive top (the type I might have made in my knitting/sewing days), I attempt to procede into the photographers small enclosure in front of the stage. My badge is checked again for the camera symbol and then, wonder of wonders, I'm through. I'm very impressed with the security. I position myself on one of the plinths with the other photographers, hardly believing that I'm actually there.

I peep through the partially open curtain at the side and spy several male Georgian dancers waiting to go onto the stage. They look so dashingly handsome that I'm thinking: this has to be a dream, surely....a fantastic dream... a best thing in the world dream...a what have I done to deserve this? dream.

The first set starts in a typical Gnaoua playing symbols, ryhthmic druming, the distinctive deep resonations of the gumbris (Gnaoua guitars) and the crisply melodic voices of the Maalems. There are two Maalems (brothers) and their groups: Maalem Mohamed Kouyou and Maalem Said Kouyou. I'm enthralled and start clicking away.

Then they are joined by members of The Sukhishvili Georgian National Ballet. I count five in all but they move so quickly it's hard to tell. And the two sets of dancers -The Georgians and the Gnauoans - challenge each other with their different styles of dancing. It's very exciting, breathtaking stuff as they leap higher than would seem humanly impossible (not evident in these photos so you'll have to take my word for it).

This is far, far better than watching from a balcony. I can see clearly the interaction between the dancers and musicians plus their physical strength and their facial expressions. They are quite clearly loving performing as much as we (the audience - particularly beyond the VIP area) are loving the performance. This is real quality...joyous music and dancing...highly professional and skilled. Eat your heart out Take That.

I had expected the Georgians to be women, dancing in a semi-circle as if their feet are on wheels, but these are some of the men, dressing and dancing like Cossacks (think great Russian novels like Doctor Zhivago and War and Peace.)But the Gnaoui are more than a match for them. In fact, I claim here and now that the Gnaoui are the best dancers in the world. Not only is the Gnaoua dance so complicated and unusual (try as I may, I can only emulate just a few random steps), but they can dance in many other styles when there's a fusion session.

The Armenian Navy Band are due to be part of the act but they aren't there. I am intrigued by such a group and do actually get to see them later and they're not at all what I expected. But very, very good.

Most of the VIPs are sitting rigidly, particularly the military/police chiefs on the front row (I suppose it's not cool for them to show too much enthusiasm) but I can see heads moving in tune with the beat and the beginnings of body movements. The audience behind, though, are going wild.

I can't help it, I start to dance to the music and eventually I'm asked to leave the plinth. Fair enough. I've learnt one of the many lessons I've learnt this year about conducting myself appropriately as a member of the press. For the rest of the festival, I move down into the VIP area if I want to dance.

Step Africa

Not a very good photo, unfortunately, but these are just some of the Step Africa dance team in the VIP area. I meet them quite by chance. I am making my way through the VIP crowd when I spot a man with a Hiati emblem on his sleeve. Me being me, I launch into a 'How are things going in Hiati?' kind of thing because the earthquake was so horrendous. Turns out he is Dan Cassanova from the Step Africa team.

I tell him about the disruption caused by the invasion of Cyprus and we chat about the dance team. They are due to perform with Maalem Mustapha Bakbou at Moulay Hassan on the Saturday evening. John goes over there to record them while I am at Bab Marrakesh.

John and Hisham(from 'Hotel L'Heure Bleu')

Hisham buys us drinks after the first set at the cafe next to the VIP area. We have a much needed rest and it is a delight to share our love of the music with Hisham. To see other photos of Hisham, look at my previous festival posts. He is one of the nicest people I have ever met and very handsome, too. Just wish my French was better.


By now I am pretty wacked, so I don't take many photos (both body and mind in revolt). Maalem Hassan Boussou is a young, powerful Maalem with a voice like clear honey. He's fast becoming John's favourite. See John's daftnotstupid site for John's interview with Hassan. This isn't a fantastic photo but it's the best I took.

I go back to the hotel shortly afterwards and collapse onto the bed. Exhausted but happy.


Without the audience, the show would mean nothing. I've written about this before but I'll say it again. The audiences at the festival are so enthusiastic, vocal, responsive and obviously delighting in the music that sometimes it's a joy to turn round and photograph them. It's a sign of recognition of their importance. Here are just some of the shots I took:-


For the next two evenings, I cover the performances in Bab Marrakech, whilst John concentrates on those at Moulay Hassan. And I'm going to post my photographs rather than describe in lots of words: Gnaoua is so visual that photographs really do reveal more than the written word. I'll only add comments when I've something special to say. ALL the performances were fantastic so take that as read.

Maalem Abdullah Guinea

I'm pretty sure that this is Mahmoud's brother. There are a number of brothers performing here: just goes to show how the Gnaoua tradition is carried down from father to sons. (Not sure about daughters!)

I am very impressed with this dancer, who seems to be part of several Gnaoua groups. He's got this wonderful ability to dance in a crouching position and often his robe swirls around him, forming a magically coloured material cylinder.

Daby Toure

Daby Toure has a great rapour with the audience: he has us eating out of his hand, directs us as we sing to his music and makes us feel as if we're part of the performance. Certainly a performer to learn more about.

Maalem Mahmoud Guinea

This is the best peformance by Mahmoud that I have ever seen: he's certainly in top form. I'm learning to recognise the differences between Gnaoua Maalems; they each have their own style and sound. Mahmoud displays such authority, totally in charge and directing all his dancers and musicians that I'm quite in awe. This is certainly the best performance of all that I see during the festival.

Hassan, his apprentice, has a leading role - he's learnt his craft well. And to my pleasure, both of Mahmoud's sons are in the group and what talent they already show. They dance with such ease, such fluidity as if the music is flowing through them...and always with serene smiles, obviously loving the experience. I am captivated.

Maalem Mahmoud Guinea and Daby Toure

Instead of adding individual photos to the post, John has created a slide show on Flickr with photographs from this set. He says it makes the page faster to load and the post easier to read. (Just click on the playlist to make it play. Click on the bottom-right icon on the playlist to make it fullscreen.)


Fatima Tabaamrant

I am sitting on the balcony when Fatima comes on the stage. I am intending to wait a while before tripping down to the press area but as soon as she starts to sing, I am off my chair, grabbing my badge and key and rushing along to the lift. (By now, I am just using the lift to conserve energy - I usually prefer the stairs but there are a lot of them and when you've got important work to do...)

From a distance, she looks like a female matador but up close she is all woman...very glamorous...very attractive...and with a deep voice that projects itself right into the distance. This is what I call a woman with balls but oozing
femininity, as do her three dancers.

She courts the photographers, kneeling down and singing to us so we can get a good photograph. I've never seen this before and I appreciate the gesture.

I have no idea what she's singing but I find myself singing quietly to the rhythm. No I idea what I'm singing but it just feels right...exciting...joyful.

Maalem Aziz Bakbou with Daniel Zimmerman and The Armenian Navy Band

John and I only have a few days before the festival to research some of the performers. Daniel Zimmerman is one that I chose. I have learnt from the internet that he is German, speaks English and is a heavy rock musician. I have even requested an interview with him.

But when we read our special press reviews about the festival, John says to me:'It says here that Daniel Zimmerman is French and is a trombone player.'

Apparently, there are two David Zimmermans who are musicians. Bet you didn't know that! Anyway, the one I see now is very good but I have already cancelled the interview. I don't like to interview people if I haven't done my research.

And now for The Armenian Navy Band. I think I can be forgiven for expecting them to be a formal group sporting white naval costumes and playing traditional band music. But, in fact, they are jazz musicians. When I talk to their director, Artak Gevorgyan, I am driven to express empathy because of our countries misfortunes with Turkey. So, yet another person who must be thinking : 'who's this crazy English woman?'


Amazigh Kateb

This has been a wonderful evening. I cannot remember enjoying myself as much as this. It has been magical. As well as taking photographs of the artists performing on the stage, I have danced, chatted, laughed, and been befriended by a group of charming young Moroccan children in the VIP area. I am calling them "Les enfants".

Unfortunately, after the set photographed here, I do not realize that my camera has ran out of space. Therefore, though I take lots of photographs of the next sets - Amazigh Kateb, Maalem Abdeslam Alikane, and Amzigh Kateb with Maalem Abdeslam Alikane and Tyour Gnaoua, I have absolutely nothing to show for it. All I can say, is that they were excellent. So much for the budding photographer!


Concert de cloture

This is the last evening of gnaoua. There are just two sets to be played. Firstly Iguadar at 5:30, and then Maalem Hamid El Kasri and a number of guests to follow at 6:30. I have an osteopathic appointment that afternoon and am delayed. In fact I am so delayed that I am convinced that the whole performance will have ended. As I make my way along the back streets with a very sore back and holding a cushion to sit on, I mutter to myself because I am sure that I have missed this final concert. There are many people walking away from the area which seems to me an indication that this is so. I can actually feel tears salting my eyes.

However, as I approach the back of the stage, I am delighted to hear that there is still music playing. I have missed Iguadar, but Maalem Hamid El Kasri, on of my favourite gnaoua maalems, is now playing.  I rush through security and take my place on one of the plinths. Because this is the last set of the festival there are many photagraphers jostling for a place.

I have given my white cap to one of the children yesterday and so am wearing my white straw hat with a flower in it. This is not a good piece of headware to wear when photographing on a plinth with an eager audience just behind you wanting to watch. Eventually I am shooed to one side by some of the audience and I can't say that I blame them. I shall not make this mistake again.

I sit on the edge of the plinth to catch my breath after all the excitement of the evening, and then I am tapped on the shoulder by an official. "oh dear!", I think, "what have I done now?" However, the official is pointing to our good friend Hisham who has managed to get himself yet again into the VIP area.  It is a delight to see him and I take these photographs.

Maalem Hamid El Kasri

By now, my battery is dead so I can't take any more photgraphs. Time to sidle away, squeeze our way through the dancing crowds, and haul ourselves up the steps to our favourite restaurant - Bab Lachour - with the terrace that overlooks the square.

We sink gratefuly onto chairs and listen to the rest of the music from there.

This is the sad part. The sun has now set and we are near the end of the 11th Essaouira Gnaoua and World Festival. We are absolutely shattered and have much work to do when we go home. But ... words cannot express just how glorious this has all been and we hope,insh'alla, to come back next year and to watch some more of this incredible music. You really don't know what you are missing.


  • Ibtissam Alaoui from The Festival Office, Essaouira, who issued both John and I with press badges. And also for acting as translator for John in his interview with Hassan Boussou.
  • Docteur Charif Toufelaz,Essaouira -osteopath - for not only keeping me mobile but enabling me to continue to take photographs (and to dance - probably not advisable but I just couldn't help myself!).
  • The staff at Hotel L'Heure Bleu, Essaouira.
  • The staff at Villa Des Orangers, Marrakech
  • John Knutson of daftnotstupid for posting my photographs using flickr.
and finally

Aziza and Khadija of GIPSY SURFER
Gipsy Surfer is a beach/surfwear shop at 14, rue Tetouan, Essaouira which sells modern, chic beachwear, sunglasses, bags, etc.

I usually make at least one purchase every year and this year was no different. After a good chat and discussion of the festival, I came away with a vivid orange beach top - loosely fitting and nicely flattering - and a delightful cotton bag with a bright green, orange, brown, and white floral pattern. It's special feature is brown, beaded webbing at the front and brown wooden handles.

Lou took one look at it and it became hers. She's not to be seen without it, now.

So, thank you Aziza and Khadija. I love coming to your shop and enjoy your excellent service. Insh'alla, I shall see you next year at festival time.

Aziza and Khadija of GIPSY SURFER


My nail beautician, Claire, at New Midas in Winchester, used to be a bouncer at big UK festivals. She tells me of horrific stories about guarding the stage from 'crazy' fans.

Apparently, there are two rows of bouncers at the front. The first row - nearest the crowd - catch 'surfers' who use the crowd to propel their horizontal bodies towards the stage. The second row - in front of the stage - gives the extra protection. But these bouncers have to be changed every 15 minutes because the noise from the amplifiers is so loud that their hearing could be permanently damaged if they stay there too long. Nice job if you can get it. As in NOT!

So pleased, therefore, that the audience at the Essaouira Festival don't need such drastic management. This, I think, is a trbute to the Moroccans.