Sunday 28 August 2011


As I wrote in a previous post, the emphasis this year was on gnaoua music. Thus it was most fitting that the Festival should close with four Maalems.

It was an emotional performance, the Maalems working well together, not trying to upstage each other. You have to remember that for Moroccans, gnaoua is their own special music of which they are very proud, and quite rightly so. And they adore their Maalems. Each Maalem has his own recognisable sound and their interpretations of the same piece of music can be very different.

I had hoped that the stage would be flooded with all their dancers because the dancers bring tremendous energy and skill and colour. Over the years, I have learnt to recognise individual dancers and to appreciate their abilities. However, each Maalem brought with him just two of his dancers and there were two extra dancers who acted as Moroccan flag bearers, although it was impossible for them not to do their own little dances, despite carrying these enormous flags.

Those of you who follow my Festival posts will know that I have a very special place in my heart for Maalem Mahmoud Guinea and since I hadn't seen his performance at the awful Scene Medital on the beach, I was pleased to be able to see him in this grand finale. Disappointed, though, that neither of his sons had been chosen to dance. But pleased to see that Hassan, whom we met a few years ago, was one of the flagbearers.

As you can imagine, this was a very popular performance. Each Maalem led a number and then, to finish off, they all played together. What was particularly exciting was that towards the end, the music was enhanced by a group of horn players. This provided a spectacularly vibrant sound and really got the audience going. So this year the festival was literally blasted to a close.

Afterwards, we managed to blag our way backstage again through the hordes of people trying, mainly unsuccessfully, to talk their way beyond the guards.

Again, we found frantic activity as well as exhausted performers. To the right, Bob Wisdom was giving an interview, and to the left, at the entrance to one of the tents, Maalem Mahmoud Guinea was also being interviewed.

But when that was finished, I was able to give Mahmoud the photograph album which we had prepared for him consisting of various photographs that we took of him and his group last year and at the special Lila we attended at his home a few Christmases ago. It was our tribute to him. He has given us so much pleasure over the years that we wanted to give something back.

So then all that was left to do was to stagger to Bab Lachour (our favourite restaurant in Essaouira) to drown our sorrows in beer and rosé wine. Another Festival over, hundreds of photographs to file, reports to write. It's tough going, but someone has to do it!


This set took place on Saturday, 24 June at Scene Meditel on the beach and I found it an absolutely dynamic performance despite the difficulties detailed further down this post.

Darga is a young group from Casablanca with a charismatic lead vocalist who, like Errol of Jazz-Racines Hiati, reminded me of Freddie Mercury because of his energy and the way he not only used the stage but climbed up some of the side rigging as he kept on singing. And at one stage he took off his top and sang bare chested.

The audience, which was spread right along the beach on both sides and towards the sea, went wild with enthusiasm.

The music itself was a fusion of a whole range of styles: reggae, ragga, funk, jazz and trad jazz. It was all very exciting and this is a group that I'd like to learn more about.

BUT the area in front of the stage, for VIPs and press ( a large stretch of concrete in-between the stage and the beach wall) was highly dangerous and the guard's identification machine wasn't working so there was no vetting of entrants.

To get to this area we had to walk down an unlit sloping, narrow sidewalk of rough ground, which was tricky to navigate.

The raised sections for photographers in front of the stage consisted of two shabby sets of two steps which were so insecure that John and I had to hang on to each other from time to time to prevent ourselves from falling. Anyone taking photographs or a film of us trying to do our work would have ended up with very amusing photos/films.

To add to this, there was a long drop between the top of the steps (which were very difficult to manoeuvre along) and the stage. There was nothing to get hold of except each other.

And, the only way to get onto the beach wall in order to sit down was via a number of high, rough steps with lots of cables in the middle and a piece of cloth roughly covering the steps which was loose and flopping over the side.

It would take a lot of persuading to get me to photograph at this stage again unless safety was significantly improved.

BUT Dargo were fantastic!



There is a delicious irony to this report and it's proof that sometimes the best things can happen by pure chance.

But let me explain first what a Residence means.

For several years, John and I wondered how so many gnaoua groups were able to fuse their music with musicians from other genres e.g. jazz, hip-hop, heavy rock, reggae etc. Such performances were always so professional and one of the questions I wanted to ask in an interview was how they managed to do it when they had never played together before, had probably never even met before, and for it to sound so good.

Well, now we know. What happens is this: – the performers practice together over a period of several days before their performance, often all day, in a private venue, to acquaint themselves with their particular types of music, experiment with ways that they can fuse their music and to establish a playlist that has been rehearsed over and over again.

And we know this because months before the Festival, Hassan Boussou e-mailed John and asked him to film the practice sessions and then the performance onstage to show the progression from practice to performance, which, of course, John was very happy to do. However, somewhere along the line, we arrived at Essaouira without knowing where the private venue actually was.

Luckily, though, John met the manager of Jazz-Racines Hiati at the Sofitel hotel when he went to pick up our press passes and they went along to the Residence together, which was in a restaurant down a side street.

So, John was able to meet Hassan Boussou, whom he had interviewed the year before, and was also introduced to the members of Jazz-Racines Hiati, whom he found to be very friendly and hospitable. And he took a lot of brilliant photographs at the Residence, which he will no doubt be posting at some stage, and, and I write this through gritted teeth, are far superior to my pathetic efforts using my little Lumix. As you can see quite clearly from the examples at the beginning of this post, I didn't get the lighting right although I had been practising for months previously.

But the reason why I was able to take these photographs was as follows: the next day I ambled along to the Residence just to see how things were going. John was already in there because he was wearing his press badge. However, there were guards at the door and they wouldn't let me in because I couldn't show my press badge because it wasn't ready.

Undeterred, though, I explained that John was already inside and, standing on tiptoes and raising up my arm, described John as being very tall and all they needed to do was to ask him to come out and confirm my accreditation. To my astonishment, and possibly because they wanted to get rid of me, they simply ushered me in without finding John.

The restaurant was very pleasant indeed and it was easy to find where the practice session was located. There were several other photographers/filmers there as well as John. I gave him a wave and then looked for a good position to take photograph. I hadn't planned to do so but it was too good an opportunity to miss.

The musicians were in the left-hand corner at the back of the restaurant and directly in front of them was a sunken fountain area which was totally dry so I clambered down and knelt on one of the steps.

I was clicking away quite happily, totally unaware that my lighting was wrong, until Erol, the charismatic lead singer of Jazz- Racines Hiati, started to sing a solo number that was so beautiful that I instinctively switched my camera to recording. Then it developed into a duet with Hassan Boussou. It was so haunting and so powerful that I just kept recording. And then the gnaoua players and Jazz-Racines Hiati musicians joined in, totally changing the mood into a forceful, full-bodied fusion of gnaoua and jazz.

John, however, had already been asked to leave the venue, having been told that he had been there long enough. Apparently, photographers/filmers were only allowed to stay for a short time so that they didn't record too much of the practice. I, on the other hand, was left totally alone to do my recording. Am I really so ferocious that I am best left alone? I certainly do hope so.

Therefore, I was able to record the same song in both the practice session and then the polished performance onstage, although I didn't realise at the time that this would happen. Thus, I was able to do what John had been asked to do: to show the difference between practice and performance.

John, of course, took enough footage at the Residence and the performance to show that progression as well and he has, as I write, just finished a lengthy film weaving the two together. And, of course, it's infinitely better than mine. But I am a writer, I don't claim to be a proficient photographer or filmer but if I'm there in the right place, at the right time, then I'll do what I can to the best of my ability even if I don't have the best equipment. It's the story of my life, I suppose. And I have to laugh at the irony.

to watch my recording click here


Friday 24th of June at Moulay Hassan.

This was a stunning performance. Hassan Boussou and his gnaoua group is one of the best that there is. Hassan Boussou is a highly versatile musician, playing not just the gumbri but other instruments too. Plus, he's very pleasing on the eye; a very handsome young man, totally dedicated to his music. Therefore, it is always a pleasure to watch him and to see the good rapour that he has with his group.

I have never been a great lover of jazz but Jazz-Racines Hiati has changed that. It was a delight to hear them play, particularly when members played a solo piece. And as for Erol, the lead singer, he has a tremendous stage presence and a sense of theatre. In fact, so dramatic and dynamic that he reminded me of Freddie Mercury.

Erol is also a voodoo priest with several churches and you get a sense of that in his performance. He, too, is a strikingly good looking man with strong cheekbones that many women would die for and he takes full advantage of that. He appeared to going to some form of trance and with large, startled eyes he went into some sort of primaeval dance, bending low and staring out at the audience, the dance enhanced by his long white wrap over skirt which revealed very shapely legs.

(After the performance, John and I were able to go backstage and I was able to shake Erol's hand and compliment him on the performance. That has to be a first for me – shaking hands with a voodoo priest. The drummer is also a voodoo priest so the whole experience for me was unique.)

As with the practice, I was busy taking photographs until I heard that beautiful, haunting song and so instinctively I switched to filming. In the practice, the piece was relatively short but

the actual performance lasted about 14 minutes.

Because I was so tired and hungry (I hadn't eaten since breakfast), I was stuffing down crisps right in front of the performers as I photographed and filmed. And eventually, I just had to take a break. So, as you will see from the film of the performance, I left the photographers area, put my camera down facing the sky, had a drink of diet cola that I had brought with me in a plastic beaker, and had a cigarette. So all you can see for a while it's the sky, a brief view of my face, and a whiff of smoke.


Last year, one of the best experiences for me was to be befriended by a group of small children whom I called 'mes enfants.' We danced together and I gave one of the girls my white cap. So, I was hoping to meet them again this year and to my delight, I spotted this particular girl in the VIP area at Mouley Hassan. I recognised her immediately but it took some time for her to remember me. But when she did, she cuddled me and pulled me out of the VIP area to meet her dad, who was one of the Festival's officials.

John joined us and then Hischam from our hotel, Heure Blue, and we all sat outside the café for VIPs and just chilled out. Grandmother was also there and it was a lovely to meet so many friendly people. Getting back into the VIP area was rather tricky because I hadn't formally left so we went through this funny ritual of me being signed out and then signed back in.

At some stage, John lost an important piece of equipment and thought it was gone for ever. But the next evening it was returned to him via my little friend's father for which John was very grateful.

BACKSTAGE I had never been backstage before and had previously thought it would be a wonderfully calm place for the performers to relax before and after their performances. However, it turned out to be a stiflingly hot and claustrophobic place and far more hectic than outside. There were a lot of interviews going on and a multitude of photographs taken in it seemed quite clear to me that for the exhausted performers, their work had not as yet finished.


This was the final set at Moulay Hassan on Thursday the 23rd of June and I certainly missed a trick with this one. It was way after 10.30 when the performance started and I was so tired that I just took a few photographs and then made my way back to the hotel. However, John recorded the music for his daftnotstupid You Tube site and he played his recordings a number of times when we were in our room and it sounded wonderful so do go to his site and check the music out. It sounds sublime.


This was the second set at Moulay Hassan on Thursday 23rd of June – a traditional gnaoua group. This year the emphasis at the Festival was definitely of gnaoua music, both traditional and fused with a variety of world music genres.

these photographs give a flavour of the performance


This was the opening performance at Moulay Hassan on Thursday 23rd of June. With its mixture of traditional gnaoua and African drums, it was an excellent start to the Festival –colourful and joyful with an exciting variety of sounds. The performers were obviously enjoying the experience and they really got the audience going, even some of the seated officials, which is quite an achievement in itself. these photographs give a flavour of the performance


Each year is different at the Festival and this year was particularly so without our beloved Bab Marrakesh Square as a venue.

It made a massive difference in two ways: –

* In previous years, when the square was used, we had a ring side view from our hotel balcony. This included watching the stage go up, and, at the end, being dismantled, the lighting checked, the sound system tested each day using the most delicious of music, and various rehearsals by performers. This all added to the atmosphere and the increasing excitement beforehand. This year, however, the square was used as a car park and so there was no atmosphere there at all. In fact, you would hardly know that the Festival was taking place.

* Normally, I would watch all the performances at Bab Marrakesh on the Friday and Saturday nights so I would see at least eight performances from start to finish. This year I saw far fewer because the remaining venues were some distance away. This meant that I spent a lot of time walking from a venue to venue zigzagging around a multitude of pedestrians and very often actually missing what I intended to watch.

However, having press badges again this year meant that the performances I did see I saw close up and I can't tell you just how exciting that is. So I can't really complain too much, plus I reckon I've lost about half a stone in weight because of all the walking, which is no bad thing.

And yes, it was a great festival again and I have come away with countless photographs which I shall be posting as soon as I can, and many wonderful memories, not just of the music but also of the people I met from all walks of life from the old lady begging on the street outside our hotel to meeting the American actor, Robert (Bob) Wisdom again plus his lovely wife.

Also, I have come back in a much better state physically. Last year I seriously compromised my back so this year I had small magnets placed all the way down my back on either side of my spine, plus, for performances I wore a support belt for my lower back and a tens machine. And that worked an absolute treat.

What I shall be doing next is to post individual reports on each of the acts that I saw at the Festival. But I will leave you with a brief summary of what lingers on my mind: –

*People are more important even than music.

*I never before realised how fortunate we are in Great Britain to have freedom of speech.

*There are logistical difficulties in trying to cover several venues in an evening and, at the same time, fitting in intake of food. So I now know what it is like to eat 'on the hoof'. One evening, for example, I ate nothing from breakfast until 11.30at night, when I managed to buy a barbecued corn on the cob which tasted far less appetising than it looked. And another evening, and I can hardly believe this, I found myself, at 1:30 am, shoving crisps into my mouth as I took photographs of Hassan Boussou and Jazz-Racines Haiti right below them on the photographers' plinth.

*Treating my time in Essaouira during the Festival as a job rather than a holiday worked well for me. My typical day was as follows: sleep in until about 11.30, have breakfast in bed, eventually wander up to the roof terrace, have a coffee and ciggie, do my exercises, have a swim, a spot of lunch if I could be bothered and then a kip on one of the wonderful space-ship shaped loungers protected by a blue latticed wooden covering, another drink and ciggie, wander back down to the room, have a bath, get ready, leave the room about 7.30, off to a venue or two to take photographs, grab some chips and crisps if possible, return back to the room in the early hours. Listen to some of John's recordings, check the photographs and get to bed about 4 AM. A very pleasant routine indeed.

*Meeting Bob Wisdom again was a pure pleasure. He is such a genuinely nice person, so charismatic and fun to be with and with a real generosity of spirit. Plus, he's a great fan of gnaoua music, which makes him my kind of person. And, it was lovely to meet his wife too. She has a serene air of composure which I found very calming.

*I now, much to my surprise, like jazz thanks to Jazz-Racines Haiti and Salif Keita.

*And, finally, I have found a new exciting band from Casablanca called Darga who I definitely want to learn more about.

P.S. For some strange computer-is-stupid reason these posts are all in the wrong order. I shall get my computer manager to fix this at the week-end.