Sunday 17 June 2018

Maalem Hamid El Kasri plays Essaouira and London 2018

The great master of Gnawa, Hamid El Kasri, will be playing at Nells Jazz and Blues in London on Wednesday 25th July 7.30-11.30 with guest artists rapper and saxophonist Soweto Kinch Official  and drummer Omar El Barkaoui and I can guarantee you that this is going to be one heck of a terrific gig.

Hamid is one of the most respected Gnawa Maalems in Morocco with his distinctive mellow voice and perfect diction and is a great advocate for Gnawa music, not just in Morocco but also throughout the world.

Hamid was born in El Kebir in the north of Morocco close to the Spanish enclave of Sebta (Ceuta), which is just a half an hours boat journey to Gibraltar and mainland Spain.

He was introduced to Gnawa music and the guembri at a very early age by the Sudanese husband of his grandmother. Hamid learnt the art of guembri playing from his grandfather and other great Maalems from the north of Morocco, so much so that it has been said that "he is to the guembri what Jimmy Page is to the guitar."

Photo taken at a different performance at Moulay Hassan Square

But Hamid is also a master of fusion, blending Gnawa music with other genres and this will be demonstrated at The Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival (set outside and mainly free) starting on Thursday 21st June, where he will open the festival with Snarky Puppy, a group of musicians who combine jazz with rock and funk and who have already won three Grammy awards.

Snarky Puppy is led by Michael League (bassist, composer and producer) and pianist Bill Lawrence, who played at the festival last year with Khalid Sansi and this is going to be an intriguing combination of sounds and something I'm very much looking forward to.

The Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival, now in its 21st year, is the showcase of Gnawa, Gnawa Fusion and World Music and it would be inconceivable that Maalem Hamid El Kasri would not be one of the star turns.

One of my favourite memories of the festival, which I have attended since 2001, was a Hamid El Kasri performance in 2008. It was the Saturday night at Bab Marrakesh Square just outside the city walls. Hamid was the third act on just before Ky-Marni Marley (son of Bob Marley). It was a beautiful night with a clear dark blue sky and just a hint of a breeze. I was watching from my hotel balcony which faced the square so I had a panoramic view of everything.

Bab Marrakesh Square was packed - I've never seen such a large audience at the festival and they had come to see Maalem Hamid El Kasri. In fact, the audience spread beyond the square and towards the sea and up the avenues leading to the square. And then Hamid started to sing and his voice rang out clearly to all of Essaouira and out across the sea. And it was electrifying. He had the audience with him right from the beginning because Maalem Hamid El Kasri really knows how to play a crowd. He let them sing the refrains and they sang with him too. They danced, they clapped, they cheered and I did too on the balcony. When he had finished, I ran down several flights of stairs to celebrate with others but I couldn't get out of the hotel because the street was jam packed. You don't forget that kind of experience in a hurry and in my case never.

Video of the crowd during Hamid's 2008 performance taken from my hotel balcony

So, when Hamid plays at the Essaouira Festival I shall be right there and when he plays in London I shall be there also and if you can get yourselves some tickets then you'll have an experience you'll never forget.

*Nells Jazz and Blues is at 3 North End Crescent, London W14 8TG

* For those of you who don't know Gnawa music, here is a very basic explanation: Gnawa music was brought by the Gnawa people who travelled to Morocco mainly as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. A  Gnawa group usually consists of a Maalem or Master who plays an instrument called the guembri which has a unique deep sound and he or her also sings songs passed down through the ages. With him are his Gnawi dancers who also sing and play kraqebs which are something like castanets. They wear very colourful costumes so it's a very visual performance

* Essaouira is a beautiful white and blue old Portuguese fort city on the Atlantic coast between Casablanca in the north and Agadir in the south and popular with Hollywood directors

*  Video courtesy of DaftNotStupid

*   Maggie Knutson is an author, blogger and Gnawa and World Music fan