Friday, June 22, 2018

Hamid El Kasri and Snarky Puppy set the bar high in Essaouira

Hamid El Kasri and Snarky Puppy set the bar high in Essaouira. Chris Witulski reports for The View From Fez

Almost as soon as the Essaouira festival's opening parade concluded, the crowds moved toward the main stage at Moulay Hassan square where Hamid El Kasri's gnawa troupe was to play with the American jazz group Snarky Puppy.

Compared to previous festival fusions that I have seen, which ranged in quality—I remember some that felt as if jazz playing guests were improvising over a bed of gnawa sound for an hour and others, like Wayne Shorter's visit, which were memorably powerful—this performance was a clear result of the week that the musicians had spent working together.

The two groups were tight, professional, and funky. This may speak to the mallem's ʿprofessional experience and Snarky Puppy's eclectic musical productions, but whatever the reasons, it worked.

Throughout the concert, Kasri's gnawa stayed clearly in the foreground. But Snarky Puppy's role was hardly in the background. They brought colorful sounds and brilliant solos, not to mention groovy beats that fit flawlessly into gnawa music's difficult rhythms.

I was struck by fleeting moments of familiarity: I could swear that I heard a moment from Stan Kenton's big band arrangement of "The Peanut Vendor" in the middle of a song for the Muslim saint and gnawa spirit Sidi Abd al­Qadr while an electric violin solo fit beautifully the dense­ but­ light textures elsewhere.

Kasri's stage presence itself showed the fruits of the ensembles' interactions, as he moved around like a lead guitarist, to encourage and play off of soloists around the large stage.

The night continued with a reminder that the stages present a very specific view on what gnawa music is and can be. As has been the case, the Festival opens doors for those who are interested in the sound of the ritual healing ceremony that sits at the community's core. 

Essaouira was shaken in 2015 by the death of Mallem Mahmoud Gania, one of the city's most well known and respected figures. His brother Mokhtar Gania and six other celebrated mallems from the city and region carried out a ceremony at the Zawiya Sidna Bilal, one of the spaces that will continue to host "intimate concerts" through the weekend. The mallems took turns working their way through each colour, each set of spirits who possess gnawa adepts. 

The evening was a chance for members of the community (at least those who were able to enter the invite­ only event) to see each other, catch up with old friends, and listen to the playing and singing of their respected elders. Mallem Allal Soudani leading the ritual through the music for Sidi Musa and the blue spirits at the Zawiya Sidna Bilal.

Report and photos: Christopher Witulski
Christopher Witulski 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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