Monday 22 January 2018

Majid Bekkas Maroc Jazz Trio with guest Goran Kafjes - Essaouira - Xmas 2017

This performance was at the same venue as Othman El Kheloufi, the magnificent Dar Souira, but was a very different music style of music, wonderful to watch and wonderful to listen to. For a moment I thought that I was back at The Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival, that deep guembri call to attention, shaking through your body.

Majid Bekkas is a Gnaoua and jazz musician of great acclaim and like Othman he has an interesting background and wealth of experience. As well as being a musician, playing the guembri, banjo, oud and keyboard, he is a singer, composer and former classical guitar teacher. Also, Majid has been Co-Artistic Director of Chellah Jazz Festival in Rabat since 1996 as well as being involved in many international jazz projects and festivals. Plus, he gained a Bachelor Degree in Information Science in 1981, has been part of the civil service for a while and has held several positions in The Ministry of Culture. As I said, he's a very experienced man. Plus, he has many albums to his name. (A recent video I posted of John Knutson at Bob Music in Essaouira had one of Majid's albums playing in the background.)

Majid's style of playing reflects his love of fusing traditional Gnaoua music with Afro-American Blues and that's an exciting mix, and his fellow musicians complemented that sound.


Goran is a Swedish trumpeter, composer and producer who enjoys mixing Afrobeat, Ethio-jazz and Big Band Funk. The winner of the Nordic Music Prize and many Swedish Grammis Awards, he leads the group Subtropic Arkestra and is part of many other bands. He also runs his own record label: Headspin Recordings. That such a busy musician took the time out of his holidays to travel all the way to Essaouira to play with Majid is a testament to not only the pulling power of Majid Bekkas but also to the reputation of Essaouira as an International Centre of outstanding music.


Mohamed El Babarti
Mohamed Boufassi

We, the audience, were captivated by the beauty of the music and a standing ovation led to an encore. Pretty darn good if you ask me.


You can watch the entire Majid Bekkas concert on this video playlist, recorded by Here's the first number:

Sunday 21 January 2018

Othman El Kheloufi at Jazz Sous L'Arganier - Essaouira - Xmas 2017

Picture the scene - we, the audience - sitting on very comfortable chairs (always a plus as far as I'm concerned) in the beautifully restored riad called Dar Souira, when Othman El Kheloufi appears on the stage with his group of musicians and the energy and enthusiasm he generates is palpable. And then they start playing jazz but not as you know it. (The short video above was actually one of the more subdued pieces.) Everyone is jiggling to the music and I'm sure we would have danced if there had been enough room.

Othman is a fascinating musician unlike any I've come across before and his decision to focus on jazz, with the saxaphone as his main instrument, is not the usual path for a Moroccan musician. But he is not just a muscian - he is the teller of stories.

Othman did not originally want to be a musician and his CV is as eclectic as they come: a lover of football, a maker of furniture, a dancer, an artist, a scenographer, an accountant, a manager. Plus, he is a Professor at The Higher Institute of Drama, Art and Cultural Animation and also at The National School of Architecture.

For him, it just happened that music became such an important part of his life. It all kicked off when he took to the stage with the Lebanese jazzman Ibrahim Maalouf at the Jazzablanca Festival in 2014 and the two of them improvised together. And since then, he has played concerts not just in Morocco but also internationally.

Although he plays the clarinet and the ghayta ( a sort of oboe played by snake charmers in Jamaa-el-Fna Square in Marrakech), he chose the saxaphone as his main instrument because he felt that it was the instrument which most complemented his voice. That he is self-taught tells you something of his drive and passion, and during performances, he often switches from one instrument to another.

His songs are inspired by everyday life going back to childhood and reflect emotions, stories and sensations he has experienced and before each number he gives a brief description of his inspiration for that particular song.

His music, he says in an interview with Bouthaina Azami, is 'halfway between jazz, world music and pure Moroccan and popular tradition. He calls it a 'jazzy' approach - 'beldi' jazz where the audience can both dance and go into a trance.

His fellow musicians were:-

Yassir Zaitat
Philip Holzapfel
Martine Labbe
Oussama Mougar
Oussama Chtouki
Imad Innouri 


All in all it was a very exciting performance.

You can watch and listen to the performance on this playlist, recorded by, and here's the opening number:

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Yacine Ben Ali, Pascal Amel and "PLANET ESSAOUIRA"

Listen up,'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, 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 three sons became masters (Maalems) of Gnawa music. Sadly, Mokhtar is the only remaining son, but his brothers - Maalem Mahmoud Gania and Maalem Abdelah 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 El Jaouhari is a composer and singer and is also involved in music festivals in Essaouira.


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.