Gnaoua or never

Essaouira is a great place to end a trip through Morocco. The cool air and wind from the sea felt wonderful after the intense heat of the desert. Seagulls wheeled and cried, and waves crashed on the rocky shore and nearby islands. The smells of salt and fish blew through the air.


Walking through the narrow streets in the medina, I fell in love with the shades of blue. Against the high white walls of the old houses, shutters and doors are painted pale blue or turquoise. Sometimes they’re surrounded with a border of yellow. I wanted to paint everything in my house white and golden yellow and pale blue.


And Essaouira is mellow. Even full of Moroccan visitors and European tourists, it felt relaxed and peaceful. If I lived in Europe, I might make it a regular vacation spot.

We were there for the Gnaoua and World Music Festival. (It’s also spelled Gnawa, but I seem to gravitate toward spelling Moroccan names the French way rather than English). Pronounce all the letters: Guh-now-ah. The title of this post, by the way, is stolen from some posters and t-shirts we saw at the festival.

main stage at the gnaoua music festival, essaouira

The New York Times described Gnaoua music in a recent article:

West African slaves, transported far from home, held on to rituals that praise saints and spirits with songs, dances, galvanizing rhythms and trance possession. That’s the story of voodoo and Santería in the Americas, and it’s also the story of Gnawa music in Morocco, made by descendants of slaves brought north from what is now Mali….

The music is spiritual yet never sedate. Most songs are driven by quick-fingered bass riffs played by the leader on the three-stringed sintir and by the bright clatter of large metal castanets called qaraqeb, with call-and-response vocal melodies arching over the beat. The musicians are also singers and dancers: crouching and leaping, twirling and even somersaulting as the polyrhythms grow denser and the songs accelerate.


Here’s what qaraqeb look like.



Here’s an example of a performance at the festival:

Here’s a short promo video for the festival.

And here’s a longer but better one.

People come to the festival from all over – Moroccans, Europeans, North Americans like us, even further away. One Moroccan had said to Mara before we went, “It’s a hippie festival!” And it is. Our bus from Marrakech to Essaouira was filled with European hippies, a couple of boring-looking travelers like us, and just a sprinkling of Moroccans. We were both amused by the French girl in front of me making a hemp bracelet as we rolled north past dusty hills and olive trees.

The first night of the festival was chilly. People drew together, crowding forward to see the stage, everyone close and lively and happy. The appeal isn’t just the music but the dancing, the performers’ acrobatic moves, and the infectious happiness of the crowd. We found ourselves next to a group of Moroccans who shouted and sang along and danced, and who drew us into their circle to dance and sing with them.


Vendors sold balloons, roasted corn, Rasta hats, slices of pineapple and coconut, sesame candy, and festival swag.

Seagulls kept soaring into the light above the stage, shining white before vanishing into the unlit sky.  Two guys nearby waved Moroccan flags overhead. People lifted children onto their shoulders. The screens of cameras and cell phones glowed amongst the crowd. Fabulous.


Filed under arts, music, photo, travel

5 responses to “Gnaoua or never

  1. Awesome!!! And that’s what I always love in photos of coastal Greece, and loved in person in coastal Spain – the white buildings with blue doors and shutters. So fabulous.

  2. Your photos are fantastic

  3. Samantha

    Oh how you make me want to go there! Splendid photos. Sounds like a fantastic fest, but I’d expect no less!

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