Wednesday 26 July 2017


Just occasionally, The Festival throws up a performance that you were totally not expecting - totally, different, totally unique and totally wonderful. I'm thinking, in particular of The Korean Drummers  (Samulnori Molgae) and The Ali Brothers - Mehr and Sher (from Pakistan) from way back when Bab Marrakesh was used as a venue. (In my opinion, this was the best venue of The Festival and it was such a pity when they stopped using it. I noted this year that it's been dug up - no doubt for shops or housing - and the place looks all wrong, bringing the new part of Essaouira far too close to the old part. Since writing this, I have discovered that in fact this square is being made into mainly gardens, which I'm very pleased about.)

I was reminded of both performances when listening to the set I'm about to describe: The Korean Drummers because they displayed an amazing sound and energy just using drums that quite took your breath away; and The Ali Brothers who were so spiritual that it made the hair on your back stand on end.

The Titi Robin et al set had both these elements and more because it also included a remarkable Gnaoua Group, led by Mehdi Nassouli who brought Gnaoua element into the mix, plus four remarkable musicians: Titi Robin, Shuheb Hasan, Murad Ali Khan and Ze Luis Nascimento.

Here's a little taster which, by some miracle, I managed to record on my little Lumix camera:

So, to start at the beginning, this was the first set on The Saturday night, the first of July, at Moulay Hassan Square and I really wasn't expecting to hear such Divine music which just got better and better as the set progressed until I really didn't want it to stop and still can't get out of my mind even several weeks later.

What follows are brief descriptions plus some okay-ish photos of the performers (going to get a better camera for the next Festival):

Medhi Nassouli and Titi Robin


Titi Robin from France is a composer and improviser, and plays the guitar, buzuq, mandelin and oud. He has been influenced by a whole range of music - Mediterranean, Gypsy, Oriental, European and Arab - plus poetry and paintings, and he's also written the film score for a number of films, as well as recording a number of albums. So, quite a talented musician to say the least.

Even more so since I have just discovered that Titi composed most of the music for the set, chose the musicians personally to perform the piece, weaving in some of the traditional Gnaoua music and allowing individual improvisations and directed it all whilst playing the guitar or a mandolin (with holes in!) That explains why it was such an exceptional, haunting set and now I know it's unique, which pleases me no end.

Medhi Nassouli is one of the most talented musicians I have ever seen or listened to and having watched numerous videos of him on You Tube in order to research this post I am actually in awe. He is far more than a Gnaoua 'Maalem' and that is no disrespect to Gnaoua 'Maalem's. Officially I couldn't find anywhere in my research that labelled him a Maalem but he certainly acted like one in this set, directing his four dancers with a small nod of the head or a smile.

I've found descriptions of Medhi as being an artist musician, a singer, a bassist and a frame drummer. But the truth is that his talent can't be fitted neatly into one label. In the many videos I've watched of him, he is often the star of the performance and he's worked with many, many other musicians. I suspect, though, that his collaboration with Titi is the most intense.

His main instrument as far as I can see is the guembri. For such a seemingly basic instrument it can make an incredibly vibrant, distinctive sound and Medhi appears to adapt it to the genre of music he's playing. I particularly liked the jazz videos and I'm wondering just how far Medhi can go in revolutionising the use of the guembri. Am I being fanciful in thinking that Medhi can do to the guembri what Jimi Hendrix did to the guitar?

So, Medhi travels the world playing with different musicians and playing different types of music but at The festival he led his Gnaoua group and played the guembri and a frame drum. I've never seen him perform before because we missed the last four Festivals but I hope to do so many times in the future because he has such a tender, expressive voice which glides effortlessly through the air, and a beautiful smile, which could melt a thousand hearts. And sometimes his face is so expressive, it was as if he was telling us a story that he cared passionately about.

One thing I haven't mentioned before are the wonderful Gnaoua costumes. I'd love to have a look at some close up to see just how they are decorated and I must admit I was green with envy seeing all the outfits that Medhi has. He has an eye for design and style as well as an ear for music.

Medhi and Titi have played together before a number of times and there seems to be a really good understanding between them, sometimes sparring against each other with their instruments. There are some delightful videos on You Tube of the two playing together and they have released a CD called Taziri (which I have ordered from Amazon) which also features Ze Luis Nascimento, who also played in the set.

Mehdi's Gnaoua Dancers (plus singers plus krakeb players)



Shuheb Hasan and Murad Ali Khan


Shuhab Hasan is a vocalist from a distinguished musical family in India, also with an incredible voice and lovely smile. Whenever he opened his mouth something beautiful came out. His hands were most expressive and he also appeared to be telling a story. And at times he sang a repeat so quickly and for so long I had no idea how he was able to breathe. Although I'm no expert, I'm pretty sure that this was Sufi singing, which is most spiritual.

Standing serenely, in his pink tunic and black trousers and his hair ruffled by the wind, waiting to sing, he looked for all the world like a Bollywood Film Star. And, I have to admit that I was intrigued by what appeared to be connected buttons down part of his tunic made of what looked like diamonds. But whatever they're made of they looked very classy.

Murad Ali Khan is also from a distinguished musical family in India. In fact, he is a sixth generation sarangi and sitar player, with an impressive CV including playing the sarangi in many major music festivals around the world as well as in India, and has won many awards. He's also played with Lady Gaga and Yoko Ono and for Bollywood and Hollywood films. He enjoys playing both classical music and rock and fusion music.

The sarangi is an incredible instrument. I'd never heard it before but I am truely hooked. Apparently, it's popularity was declining in India and Pakistan until Murad brought it to audiences around the world, raising its profile, which was Murad's intention. His passion no less. It's wonderfully melodic (with up to fifty strings) and at times sounds like a human voice. It complemented the voices of Medhi and Shubeb and one flowed into another into another effortlessly.

Unfortunately, I have no full photos of Murad because he was sitting down and because I was in the VIP area not the press pit, I couldn't move around to take good photos of either him or Ze Luis Nascimento, both of whom were mainly masked by photographers.

Just to let you know that both Murad and Shuheb play in an Indian fusion rock band called Soul Savaad with records available and Murad also has records also available.

 And finally:-

Ze Luis Nascimento - the Brazilian drummer and percussionist whose face expressed sheer joy and whose energy and skill was exciting to watch and to listen to. Ze Luis trained initially as a dancer with Bahian Folk Ballet before becoming a musician, which doesn't surprise me because he seemed to let the music invade his body through the drums, which he played with just his hands.

Ze Luis has developed his own unique style of playing and is in great demand as both a solo artist as well as working with many other musicians. He has an impressive list of CDs and albums, participating in the recording of over a hundred international albums. So, we were very lucky to see him perform in Essaouira. An absolute delight, in fact.

The world-renowned Persian percussionist Habib Mefta was due to play with Titi Robin et al but unfortunately had another engagement and couldn't make it. Perhaps next year they can all play again at The Festival, including Habib. Now that would be something. Come on Festival organisers, an early request.

But back to the set on the Saturday. What I was really impressed with, as well, was that each musician communicated with each mainly just using eye contact and their smiles showed just how much they were enjoying the fabulous music they were making.

Here are some more photos:-




Can't tell you how thrilled I was to find another short video on my camera so here it it is:-

And to view the whole set, courtesy of daftnotstupid click here and .....enjoy.

But a final plea.I have spent hours watching videos on You Tube in order to write this post and have been highly entertained. We all do it, those of us who love music. But we don't pay a penny for it and the musicians don't get paid every time we watch them on You Tube. So, my plea is this: if have enjoyed a musician's music and he or she has a CD out - BUY A COPY. I have also ordered a copy of Murad Ali Khan's sarangi playing from Amazon and will explore how to find CDs recorded by Soul Samvaad, currently not available on Amazon.

NEXT POST - coming soon - Ray Lema and Maleem Abdeslam Alikane

Wednesday 19 July 2017

The Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival 2017 - PART TWO - BAND OF GNAWA

The last time I saw Band of Gnawa perform at The Festival was in 2007 from the balcony of Bab Lachour Restaurant overlooking Moulay Hassan Square with its spectacular view of The Atlantic Ocean close by and its small islands dotted tantalising close to the land. Firstly, when they practised the whole set on the evening before The Festival whilst we were having supper and then when they played for real during The Festival.

I had never experienced music like that before: musicans moving from one genre of music to a totally different genre so effortlessly. I wrote about this and also included some photos from previous Festivals in a recent blog, which you can see by clicking here.

Their two performances counted, for me, among the best that The Festival has had to offer and there have been many outstanding sets, I can assure you.

So, when I saw that Band of Gnawa were playing again this year I was delighted. They were to play in Moulay Hassan Square at 23.30 on the first day of The Festival, Thursday 29th July. Really wasn't sure whether I would make it because I'm still recovering from major heart surgery but I needn't have worried: I coped with staying up very late, enjoying the music and doing a fair bit of dancing. It's amazing what a person can do if they're having fun.

No press passes, of course, but armed with those wonderful VIP badges that Loy Ehrlich of Band of Gnawa gave us - thank you again Loy - John and I were able to get close enough to the stage to do our recordings.

So, how did their performance pan out? It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. The Band had the audience in the palm of their hands. We were dancing, singing, cheering and loving every minute and again, it was one of the best sets of The Festival.

First on the stage were Maalem Said Boulhimas with four dancers/singers and they played three numbers. I guess you could say they were acting as the warm-up band and, indeed, we were nicely warmed up thank you very much before the Western musicians joined them on stage. To see the first three songs click here.

(I do wish that Festival programmes would actually name the Gnaoua dancers because they are just as important as the rest of the musicians and without their input, the sets would be very diminished because they add a tremendous excitement and energy.

Having watched Gnaoua dancers over many years, I can safely say that they are world class dancers as good as the best. Watch their performances as they dance and sing for several hours and, from time to time, jump high into the air and wonder if you could do even a tiny part of that. Even their 'basic' dance is pretty complicated. And all this whilst whirling the toggles on their hats. You or I would be off to the chiropractor if we tried that.)

(Apologies for the quality of the photos: they were the best I could do under the circumstances but at least you can get a sense of the set and the action.)

Maalem Said Boulhimas

Maalem Said Boulhimas and his Gnaoua group

The Gnaoua group - my favourite dancer is second from the right. He worked with Ray Lema and possibly other groups too this year.

And then Band of Gnawa came onto the stage and it all changed: guitarists Loy Ehrlich and Eric Lohrer, drummer and percussionist Cyril Atef, seemingly as mad as a hatter in his green cutout fez, bright red shirt and orange and white checked trousers which I could have sworn were pyjama bottoms, Jean-Philippe Rykiel, keyboard player, Tao Ehrlich (son of Loy), drummer and percussionist, and last but not least, Akram Sedkaoui, lead singer, strutting around the stage in tight black leather trousers and a nifty little jacket for all the world as if he owned that stage and with a beautifully haunting voice once praised by Bono of U2.

From left to right - two Gnaoua dancers, Tao Ehrlich, Maalem Said Boulhimas, Cyril Atef, Akram Sedkaoui, Loy Ehrlich and Jean-Philippe Rykiel


And then they started playing the Beatles song - Get Back and we, the audience, were all singing away because we know the words and we're bopping along until, seamlessly, it all changed into a Gnaoua song and the Gnaoua musicians came to the fore. Now, I have no idea what any of the Gnaoua songs are about because I don't speak or understand Arabic but it doesn't stop me from loving the sound, the emotion, the energy and it being so very different to Western music.

Every so often, the Dancers strutted their stuff and the audience were whooping and cheering at every jump and twirl and glide across the stage (reminiscent of The Georgan State Dancers). These Gnaoua Dancers can adapt their dance to every musical genre, even including hip-hop, and what's even better is that they look as if they're having an absolute ball.

Then the music morphed into another Beatles number  - Come Together and the Western musicians took centre stage.


And so it continued as we were led through Immigrant Song (Led Zeppelin), Who Knows (Hendrix), Power of Love (Led Zeppelin), Four Sticks (Led Zeppelin) and Kashmir (Led Zeppelin), all the time interspersing with Gnaoua songs. As the set progressed, the Gnaoua musicians and the Western musicians joined in whilst the other group took centre stage and so there became a total fusion of music. Quite wonderful.

From left to right - Jean-Phille Rykiel, Loy Ehrlich and Eric Lohrer

From left to right - Akram Sedkaoui, Jean-Philippe Rykiel, Loy Ehrlich and Eric Lohrer

Photos and words can give a sense of a performance and reaction but you really need to hear the music and to see and hear the daftnotstupid recordings click on the video playlist below....and enjoy.

PART ONE - published last week - covering the press pass debacle and the horse Fantasia is available here.
PART THREE - coming next - will be my report on Titi Robin, Medhi Nassouli, Shuheb Hasan, Murad Ali Khan, Ze Luis Nascimento and Habib Meftah

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.