Monday, June 25, 2018

Essaouira Gnaoua Festival - Day Two

Day two of the Essaouira Gnaoua Festival began with a concert that featured one of the main goals of this year's event. While many of the tradition's elders continued to perform throughout the weekend, the organizers invited the "next generation" for a series of concerts with a local focus. Chris Witulski reports for The View From Fez

The main stage at Place Moulay Hassan saw three prominent and successful mʿallems from Marrakech: Moulay El Tayeb Adhibi, Tariq Ait Hmitti, and Hicham Merchane

Hicham Merchane playing the tbal

The generational aspect hit home when I saw Hicham Merchane's father, the renown Mʿallem Abdelkebir Merchane, watching his son up on the main stage before his own performance later that night.

Mʿallem Abdelkebir Merchane watching his son Hicham at Place Moulay Hassan

The three mʿallems came out together and, after the opening acrobatic dancing from the dreary (the ensemble members), each took turns leading the group. It was jarring to see three mʿallems with three ginbris (the central string instrument in this music), and even more so to watch them sing as one of the drari while not playing. But the configuration of the concert presented a scene of collaboration and companionship between these artists. Each of them—like those who performed as part of the Casablanca and Essaouira versions of this project—leads individual groups, both gnawa and otherwise. To see them together, representing their city, is striking.

Mʿallem Moulay El Tayeb Adhbi of Marrakech leads his Marrakech friends and colleagues

The evening moved on with Mʿallem Said Oughessal and his gnawa troupe. They sang music from the ritual ceremony, much of which was familiar to the crowd. Moments like one during a song for Ghumami, one of the spirits associated with the color black, brought the audience in with an energetic call and response. The mʿallem's stage presence was extraordinary as, like Hamid El Kasri the night before, he moved around the stage easily, engaging both his ensemble and the audience.

I have a confession, however. As a dad who is missing his kids while traveling to Morocco, a different element of Mʿallem Said's performance was more memorable for me. The group had two young boys with them. One was a touch older: he spent a great deal of time helping the mʿallem hype up the crowd and his singing was distinct from those of his elders. The upper octave added a fantastic color to the troupe's sound. The second was younger, maybe one or two years old. He followed the group, trying to spin and jump whenever he could and, at least as far as I could tell from the audience reactions around me, I was not his only fan.

The night continued with an inspired performance from a trio of Dave Holland (bass), Zakir Hussein (Indian tabla), and Chris Potter (saxophone). I still remember seeing Dave Holland and Chris Potter in a phenomenal performance years ago and Zakir Hussein is one of the world's great percussionists. The power trio did not disappoint, especially after they invited drum set player Marcus Gilmore onto the stage. 

Mʿallem Said Oughessal and Chris Potter

As is often the case at this festival, it was the collaboration that really stood out. The sonic textures and intentionality with which the groups were able to bring their sounds together has been a staple of this year's edition of the event. Like Thursday's concert, both the gnawa ensemble and the guest artist were able to bend their standard ways of playing to create something new. This has not been a situation where a jazz artist comes and solos over gnawa music. It's a testament both to the visiting artists, but also to the effectiveness with which the gnawa groups are able to innovate on these stages.

The one disappointment was the timing of the concerts. By this point, the evening was about an hour to an hour and a half late and, with the final artists planning on starting at one in the morning anyhow, this kind of delay makes a difference. Gnawa music, at least as far as the musicians are concerned, is a male-dominated practice. Women's roles are important in the ritual, but they do not translate to the stage. So when the festival organizers arranged a collaboration between one of the few women who plays this music and Fatoumata Diawara, from West Africa, I was excited. This was an important moment, especially as it was happening at Place Moulay Hassan and not one of the other stages.

 But I could only make it through the first of the series (I must be getting old). Asma Hamzaoui and her Anat Tombouctou were compelling for a host of reasons. The very fact that she is leading an ensemble of men and women, as a woman playing the hajhuj and singing these songs, is both rare and notable. The performance had a reverence to it, it was quieter than the others. Where many play to the audience with both acrobatics and dance, Hamzaoui's group largely stayed put, singing behind their mʿallema. Her voice was a perfect change from the sounds of the rest of the festival.

Furthermore, this performance actually sounded more like what happens in a lila ceremony: the women in the group not only sang what is expected of the men in all of the other ensembles, they also added the sounds made by women in so many Moroccan ritual musics. They ululated and yelled prayers and praises to the prophet, creating a sense of familiarity on stage, despite the uniqueness of the group. When I spoke with some people about the concert, both Moroccans and foreigners, they were left to wonder about the role of women in this tradition.

Photographs and Text: Christopher Witulski  
Chris is an instructor of ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University and the author of The Gnawa Lions: Authenticity and Opportunity in a Moroccan Ritual Music, due out in October 2018 with Indiana University Press.


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