Monday 9 September 2019

A personal account of the 1st ever TAROUDANT GNAWA FESTIVAL... 29th-30th June 2019

Ce reportage est dedie a MAALEM ABDESLAM KARDAN - puisse-t-il rester en paix

Imagine the scene: John, Betsey (our dog) and myself are doing some serious chilling out at Camping Le Calme, about fourteen kilometres outside Essaouira, after all the excitement, thrills and disappointments of The Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival, and feeling pretty exhausted. We have travelled through Spain and toured around Morocco for nearly seven weeks in The Beast (our Motor Home) and are ready to set off towards home.

And then comes  a message  from our friend, Faysal Bou, from Taroudant, which we had already visited. There is going to be a Gnawa festival in Taroudant very soon,  he has sent a poster advertising it and Medhi Nassouli will be performing as one of the acts. Apart from some very special performances, we didn't have a very satisfactory festival experience in Essaouira because of over-crowding at the main venue, Moulay Hassan Square. In fact, I couldn't even get into the VIP area  on the Saturday because it was so full.

So, we certainly haven't heard enough Gnawa and Medhi Nassouli is one of our favourite performers.

This is the official poster for The Taroudant Gnawa Festival

But Taroudant is in the wrong direction and we have a ferry to catch from Bilboa to Portsmouth.

John googles the festival but can't see anything ... we learn later that the Facebook page  for the festival is in Arabic and neither of us can read Arabic. So I message Medhi there going to be a festival in Taroudant soon? Yes, he replies, and I'm playing Gnawa there on Saturday night.

So, we look at our planned timetable and work out that we do have enough days to take in the festival and we can get there just in time.

The decision is pretty quick. We're going. This means driving through The Atlas Mountains on the new motorway - the A8. We've already done this but it's a stunning drive and doing it again will be quite cool, we think. It also means driving back that way after the festival but that's quite a cool proposition too. 

 So, we pack up The Beast and set off for Taroudant.

THE TAROUDANT GNAWA FESTIVAL - Day One - Saturday 29th June 2019

The Ramparts of Taroudant

We arrive back to the parking outside the Ramparts, next to Taroudant Palais Salam Hotel, just where we parked several weeks earlier. There's the Guardian, who recognises us and greets us warmly. Just time to get changed and find a taxi to take us to the venue, Place Assarag, right in the heart of the city. It's a square surrounded by trees, cafes and shops. There's a stage facing the square, seating already filled and people standing behind and around. Much smaller than the main outside venues in Essaouira but that's good because it looks like we'll get a good view to take our videos and photographs.

If necessary, we can always climb up a tree like these lads 

It's nearly nine o'clock but the music hasn't started yet and since we haven't eaten all day, we flop onto chairs outside a cafe and order something to eat. But just before the food arrives, the music starts. I'm itching to get up and go have a look-see but the food has now arrived and I know that this is the only time I'll have to eat. I actually can't remember what I ordered and I eat it as quickly as I can and then we're off, heading towards the music.

So, where to stand and do our stuff?

We've already missed several short performances so we stop and start videoing the act that is on from a distance.The video is a bit blurred but that doesn't matter because I can see enough and already, there are lots of high leaps by the Gnawi -something that doesn't happen much at Essaouira these days. I love the energy and those leaps and loud drumming so it's very exciting.

After they have finished, we wander as close as we can at the side but John is carrying his camera and stand and we are ushered, without any badges, right to the front in the make-ship press pit. Given our repeated and futile attempts to get press pit badges at Essaouira for the last three years (after previously been given passes), we are slightly bemused but very grateful. John stands to the left of the stage and I'm at the right. It's not until the middle of Medhi Nassouli's act that I realise that I get a better view from the left because a large loud speaker is in the way. It's always a learning process.

Then Maalem Omar Al Mahoudi and his Gnawi come onto the stage and start their performance and suddenly I'm not tired any more and I'm smiling because this is just so good.

I love this photograph because of the look of pure joy on this Gnawi's face. 

And then, something rather special happens: one of the Gnawi brings a delightful young woman onto the stage and she starts to do the Gnawi dance and she puts heart and soul into it. At one stage, her hat falls off but that doesn't stop her. It takes a lots of guts to be on that stage (I should know) so well done to her.

I'm already liking this festival. Not only is the music World Class but it's also inclusive and family-friendly and the audience are clearly loving it.


So now it's the last performance and it's the boy-from-Taroudant-made good - the brilliant Medhi Nassouli. He's broken off his world tour charming audiences with his inspired playing, his wonderful smile and his voice like melting chocolate, to play in his home town. So it's very fitting that he's playing at the first ever Taroudant Gnawa Festival.

And then, to my great surprise and delight, he's greeting me from the stage and the audience give me a round of applause. I do a bow to the audience, all the time thinking that the audience must wonder who on earth is this strange English woman?

The music, of course, is divine and he's got a really good band of Gnawi supporting him. A big SHOUT OUT to all the Gnawi who are such an essential part of the performances but who rarely get mentioned. I would like to see the names of the Gnawi printed in programmes if that's possible.

Just a mention here of this Gnawi. I don't know his name but I've seen him performing many times at The Essaouira Gnawa and World Music festival so it's like being with old friends. 





At some stage, a lady with two children come onto the stage to have their photograph taken. I'm guessing that they're relatives and are clearly delighted to be there. This is a festival for the people of Taroudant, which I think is great.

After the set has ended, there is a lot of activity on the stage, which had happened after the previous sets and I'm beginning to realise that this is very special. Each Maalem is being handed a Commemorative Certificate because they have played at the first ever Taroudant Gnawa Festival.What a great idea that is.

Maalem Addelmajid handing a Commemorative Certificate to Medhi Nassouli



Quite clearly, John and I are not getting our timings right because the first act of the evening starts as we are half way through our supper at another restaurant behind the stage. ( I do remember what we had, though, because it was delicious: omelette, chips and a Moroccan salad heavy with coriander, which I adore). We can see and hear the first performance, which is a very good Sufi group, dressed in white and with very heavy druming, which sounds really good.

Next up is Maalem Abdelmajid with his son and Gnawi and here are some of the photographs I've chosen :-

Second on the left is the Gnawi who played with Medhi Nassouli


The next performance is Maalem Regragui Yumala and his Gnawi. I am invited to stand on the stage at the side to do my recordings and photos. So, up the steps I go and stand near the front out of the way of the performers. It's now that I wish I was wearing black leggings, black top and flat shoes. I am very aware that I look as if I've just wandered off the beach. Hey ho ...something else I've learnt.

Even though it's a small stage, the Gnawi dancers still do their acrobatic dancing with many high leaps and as they advance to the front, the stage below my feet begins to shake violently and I quickly step backwards to safer territory. But this is brilliant - I'm getting such a good view of the group and I take so many photos that I couldn't add them all here. But here is my choice for this blog post:-


The evening before, I was standing next to a strikingly beautiful woman, who looked like a goddess to me. She was taking photos of Medhi Nassouli as he performed and I wondered who she was. So, when I see her standing at the bottom of the steps leading to the stage, with a guembri in her hand, waiting to go on next, I think: Ah, that makes sense - she's a Gnawan.

Raja Titimba

She has with her two female Gnawi and two male ones and she performs a very different type of Gnawa. She places emphasis on the words and music in a different sort of way, reminding me so much of Amy Winehouse. It's a bit off beat and I like it, plus she has the most beautiful smile. So I'm enjoying this performance very much. At some stage, one of the officials asks me if I'll interview her and I get the impression that it will be back stage afterwards, hopefully with a translator. I jot down half a dozen questions on my note pad and then push it to the back of my mind.

There's that Gnawi again on the right so this is his third performance

The performance is over and suddenly I'm being propelled up the steps, onto the stage and next to Titimba. Ah, they want me to hand her a Commemorative Certificate and talk a little about the festival. A microphone is thrust into my hand and I'm led to an optimum position on the stage to make my speech. But what speech? I'm on my own here and so I just open my mouth and hope that something reasonably sensible will come out.

I start with As-salamu alaykum  and the audience seem to like that. Then I apologise for speaking in English and I say what a fantastic festival it is. Then the certificate is put into my hands and I whisper to Titimba: Do you speak English? She replies: No! So, what's a girl to do? Totally instinctively I raise my fist into the air and shout GIRL POWER. It's the only way I can show how much I appreciate her performance. I hope I didn't offend anyone by that but it just seemed right at the time.

Photograph courtesy of Mohamed Elkortas

Photograph courtsey of Mohamed Elkortas

Very wisely, someone grabs the microphone off me because I could have gone on for some time and I give Titimba the certificate and we hug. And then we stand holding the certificate for the photographers to take their photographs.. I know what to do because I've seen this happen after every act. And then I'm staggering back down the steps, wondering : Did I just do that? But boy - was that fun.

Photograph courtesy of Mohamed Elkortas

And now to the last act - Maalem Monsiff Bouboual  and his Gnawi and again, it's another style of Gnawa.

That smoke, by the way, is deliberate


The music is over but there are more Commemorative Certificates to be handed out. This time it's for the crew. So, a big shout out to the crew, without whose help no festival can take place. These back stage guys do a fantastic job and deserve merits in their own rights. I don't have names but I'm sure you'll recognise them from these final photographs.

I'm pretty sure that I have several photographs of the guy in the striped robe taken at The Essaouira Gnawa and World music Festival in 2010. He was taking part in the opening procession.


So, the festival is over and we've experienced a fantastic display of Gnawa Music, more than we could ever have dreamed of.  All the acts were World Class, the music so exciting, the dancing superb, the costumes absolutely gorgeous, the atmosphere electrifying and the audience appreciative

You don't need me to tell you what a wonderful tradition of Gnawa music Morocco has but I'm saying it any way. This is music grown out of  the suffering of slavery but now enjoyed by the free.

In my opinion, Gnawa  music is amongst the best in the world and the Gnawi dancers also amongst the best in the world. And there are so many excellent Gnawa groups not just in Morroco but also in other countries, for example Simo Lagnawi's Gnawa London, and many  youngsters wanting to learn and perform. And it looks as if the Taroudant Gnawa Festival will be an important showcase for Gnawa in the years to come.

Will we be coming back next year?  Yes please.

And finally, I want to thank again all those who took part in this festival and to the people of Taroudant for being such gracious hosts. May Allah bless you all.


Maggie and Betsey by the Ramparts of Taroudant

Maggie Knutson is a freelance journalist and has been reporting on Gnawa and also World Music for nearly twenty years. She is also an author with published newspaper articles, short stories and several novels to her name.

 Further music blog posts can be found on her blog site -

Photographs : Instagram and Flickr
Videos: You Tube

Maggie Knutson is also part of the Daftnotstupid team

And just a mention here - if you know the names of any of the Gnawi in these photographs, could you please contact me via Facebook giving details. If I get enough information, I'd like to create some sort of catalogue of Gnawi dancers. Thank you.