Essaouira celebrates 20th anniversary of Gnaoua festival

The festival featured a rich musical programme

The southern Moroccan city of Essaouira celebrated the 20th Gnaoua and World Music Festival with a blend of continental styles to the delight of audiences that totalled hundreds of thousands of music lovers.
Neila Tazi, the festival’s founder and producer, said the event significantly contributes to the rehabilitation of an important heritage of Morocco, which is the Gnaoui culture, strongly anchored in a rich African heritage.
Gnaoua music originated in West Africa and has become one of the most spiritual music genres in Morocco thanks to a combination of poetry invoking saints, rhythmic melodies and acrobatic dancing that are believed to drive out evil.
Gnaoua music has blended with other music styles, such as blues and jazz, building bridges between different cultures through an enriched music scene.
“In 20 years of existence, the journey has been considerable and we wish to recall how, beyond the cultural dimension, the Gnaoua and World Music Festival in Essaouira revealed the face of a new Morocco, authentic and modern, singular and universal and resolutely African,” Tazi said.
The festival featured a rich musical programme, which started a few months prior with performances throughout the world. Gnaoua musicians were invited to perform at the Bataclan in Paris, the Barbican in London and Lincoln Centre in New York due to their increasing popularity.
Some renowned names in the music scene took part in the festival, including Lucky Peterson, Bill Laurance, Ray Lema and Carlinhos Brown along with Moroccan musicians.
Band of Gnawa, which mixes Gnaoua and rock styles, returned to Essaouira to perform at the Moulay Hassan stage on June 29 ten years after being created at the festival.
Loy Ehrlich, artistic director of the band, said he chose the group’s name as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix’s album Band of Gypsys, recorded in 1969.
“I never imagined that all this would happen, that the Gnaoua would be on the big scenes and that fusions would be made… It’s good to see Gnaoua music lasting in a world where traditions have tendencies to be lost,” said Ehrlich.
The festival shed light on Morocco’s African roots.
“This Africa that we are so proud of today in its political and economic dimension is materialised in its cultural dimension,” said Tazi.
Moroccan painter Najia Mehadji’s exhibition Gnawa Soul is on display through July 22 at the French Institute in Essaouira on the sidelines of the festival.
“I have been living between Paris and Essaouira for the last 30 years, which allowed me to know more about Gnaoua and their customs in their shrines,” Mehadji said. “This gave me the desire to create artworks about Gnaoua’s culture.”
Mehadji’s monochromatic paintings depict Gnaoua costumes flowing like ocean waves and acrobatic dances.
Mehadji said that three years ago she felt the need to create works capturing the “flow of vitality” delivered by the Gnaoua, particularly during their trance nights.
“I know this work quite well because we hosted Mehadji at the opening of the French Institute in Essaouira,” said Anne Dubourg, director of the French Institute. “The colours used in the paintings are the colours that are evoked in Gnaoua trance nights.”
More than 450,000 people were expected to attend this year’s Gnaoua and World Music Festival, which is growing in popularity worldwide.
In 2015, Morocco submitted a formal request to UNESCO for the inscription of the Gnaoua culture in the world of oral and intangible heritage.
Essaouira is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rich history and monuments, which will likely boost Gnaoua’s chances to be inscribed in the Lists of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.