Sleepless in Essaouira: up close and personal with Morocco’s entrancing Gnawa culture

It’s twilight in Essaouira. There’s a stippled afterglow smudging the Atlantic horizon, and the final kitesurfers are padding, barefoot, again to their digs. Behind the seaside, snail-sellers are serving steaming cups of soup from their little carts. Because the swirl and cry of lesser black-backed gulls begins to fade, town’s different signature sound rings out: a persistent, metallic rhythm, bouncing off town partitions. Clackety-clackety-clackety-clackety. It’s the sound of krakebs, the hand-held, castanet-like cymbals peculiar to certainly one of Morocco’s most distinctive musical traditions: Gnawa.

Spend greater than an evening or two in any Moroccan metropolis and also you’re certain to come across a Gnawa band, enjoying at eating places or busking within the squares. With krakebs setting the tempo, they pluck out bluesy tunes on guembris — three-stringed lutes with an elongated, drum-like physique of wooden and camel pores and skin — then layer on rallying call-and-response vocal melodies in Darija Arabic, Amazigh and Bambara. Typically they weave in handclaps and bassy tbilat drumbeats for additional percussive pressure.

Most individuals on this scattered neighborhood can hint their ancestry again to the medieval Sudanic Empires — the a part of West Africa that now contains Senegal, Mali and Guinea — and had been ethnically marginalised consequently. However issues have begun to alter: in fashionable, more and more multicultural Morocco, their sub-Saharan origins are celebrated. Essaouira, the various metropolis they’ve adopted as their capital, is the perfect place to catch an genuine Gnawa efficiency.

Virtually any night will do, however this one is particular. On an enormous momentary stage beneath the crenellated metropolis partitions, greater than 100 high maâlems (grasp musicians), kouyous (dancers), mqadmats (mistresses of ceremonies), porte-drapeaux (flag bearers) and mbakhrats (incense bearers) have gathered en masse. Lighting engineers and digital camera operators are circling; this gala efficiency might be televised. It’s a belated celebration of a monumental honour: in December 2019, UNESCO added Gnawa tradition to the Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Exuberant entertainers, Gnawa bands are compelling to observe. Flamboyantly wearing embroidered tunics, babouche slippers and caps embellished with cowrie shells and topped by lengthy tassels, they take turns to bop. As their songs get quicker and quicker, they launch into dizzying spins and cossack-like knee-bends, shifting their heads in time till their tassels whirr like helicopter blades.

Behind the obvious jauntiness, there’s a severe, non secular aspect. Historically, Gnawas specialize in expelling evil spirits by performing lilas, dusk-to-dawn classes of trance-inducing music and dance. “We be taught as kids, from our mother and father and grandparents,” say the maâlems I meet backstage. “It’s an important ingredient of our Sudanic heritage.”  With its on-demand exorcisms and Senegalese textile merchants, there are occasions when Essaouira feels far nearer to West Africa than its geography would counsel.

The morning after the gala, the postcard-perfect metropolis feels much more relaxed than traditional. The jewellers and marquetry-box sellers smile cheerfully as I make my method by means of the orderly Medina to the battlements, the place Moroccan vacationers are posing for selfies. Solely the fishing harbour appears as busy as regular, with blue-painted boats packed in tight after a protracted stint on the water, and gulls squabbling over the catch. Planning lunch in a bring-your-own restaurant — a primary place the place cooks will season, grill and garnish no matter elements you present up with — we pick just a few succulent fish.

Later, in a laid-back rooftop bar, I chat to some younger Gnawa musicians on the finish of their set. “Because of regional competitions, the competition and now UNESCO, curiosity in Gnawa music is absolutely choosing up,” says 21-year-old guembrist Abdljbar Aytmamass. “It’s robust to make a reputation for your self, although. All the foremost gigs go to the foremost stars.”

“Nonetheless, we preserve enjoying,” provides teenage krakrebist Abdrahim Essalhi. “Music is in our blood. It’s not a alternative. It’s a calling.”

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