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Published: November 1st 2013
Essaouira – June 2013
We are now comfortably settled into our house swap in the medina (old city) of Essaouira (formerly known as Mogador) in Morocco. Essaouira is a small coastal city (70k) that is full of commerce and culture. There are many small art galleries, as well as many handicrafts including leather goods, beautifully painted pottery, rugs and scarves, thuya wood items and argan oil products made and sold here.
Thuya wood is a perfumed wood, highly-prized, that grows in abundance in the area. It is a very dense hardwood and every part of the tree is utilized to make decorative tables and chairs, statues, small boxes in myriad shapes and sizes, trays and jewellery and even caskets. The country’s best marquetry craftsmen still work in the former munitions stores beneath the city’s ranmparts. The finished items boast a bright surface polished with menthylated spirit and gum arabic (whatever that is). The craftsmen are very proud of their work and only too happy to explain their work methods and items for sale.
The Argan tree, from which is derived Argan oil, is a weird tree – it is tenacious, gnarled and twisted and never grows higher than
6 meters (about 20 feet). Camels and goats find its leaves a delicacy and the goats here have learned to climb the tree to graze. Its nuts are used to produce Argan oil that is used in cosmetics, medicines, fuel for oil lamps and it is also used to cook with and as a salad dressing. And it makes a great peanut-butter like spread that goes wonderfully well with the local jams!
One of the highlights of the year in Essaouria (and Morocco) is the Gnaoua Festival of World Music and it is one of the reasons we decided to do this house swap in June. The fextival brings together artists from all over the world. Although primarily focussed on gnaoua
music, it includes rock, jazz and reggae. It is dubbed as the "Moroccan Woodstock" and lasts four days and attracts massive crowds of music lovers. This year’s festival, the 16th
, is a tribute to three great Gnaoua musicians who have recently passed away and includes Omar Sosa and Yousou N’Dour among the international guests.
The house we are living in is like a museum. Its owners are collectors of Moroccan art and crafts and every room features
beautiful vases and furniture, paintings and lanterns. We have established a routine already that starts with a brisk morning walk along the beach for an hour. Afterwards Joan studies her Italian for an hour while Greg catches up on the email correspondence. We then go walkabout the medina and either buy some fresh food in the market for lunch or have our lunch at one of the cheap local restaurants where we can sit out in the sun and people-watch. In the afternoon Joan heads up to the terrace for a couple hours of browning while Greg tries to read and usually falls asleep. We have been fortunate in the evenings to find restaurants that have both good food and live entertainment for the past couple nights. Then we watch a film – the house owners are great movie fans and have literally thousands of dvd’s. Then the next morning we get up early and start all over again.
The Gnaoua music of Morocco is similar to the Blues of America in that both types of music derived from slavery. The music and lyrics relate the pain and detachment through song and dance and reflect the
trauma of forced exile and separation from home and family. In the case of Morocco, over 900 years ago, slavery, conscription and trade brought people from West Africa (the area of present-day Mali and Senegal) to the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia). These enslaved groups were called Gnawa and the descendents of these enslaved groups are the present-day Gnawa; their music is their most preserved trait. The Gnawa originally used their music and dance to heal the pain of their captivity similar to the Black American slaves who also sang as a way to deal with their plight. Over the past fifty years in North Africa, Gnawa music, like the Blues in America, has spread and attracted practitioners from other ethnic groups, in this case Berber and Arab, and especially around Marrakech and Essaouira where we experienced the recent Gnaoua World Music Festival.
Although this is our fourth visit to Morocco, it is the first time we have experienced professional Gnaouan musicians performing live on a big stage. (Here is a link to the festival website that contains some videos of the performances: http://www.festival-gnaoua.net/en/ ) Previously we had only heard the music in the Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh
and the busking musicians who do the rounds of the outdoor cafes and restaurants. We found the music to be very repetitive and a bit one-dimensional; one musical phrase or idea seems to be repeated endlessly with little or no variation. After doing a little more research we discovered that in a Gnawa song, one phrase or a few lines are repeated over and over, so the song may last a long time. In fact, a song may last several hours non-stop. This causes people to go into a trance and we witnessed this within the audience as groups of people seemed completely mesmerized by the music. There is a complex spirituality and liturgy inherent in the music that expands to ritual and trance as it progresses and is quite fascinating to experience (if only indirectly).
During the last few decades, Gnawa music has been modernizing and thus becoming more profane. It has incorporated aspects of music from varied sources, the classical Andalusian style, reflecting Morocco's historic relationship with Spain and also the Sephardic music and other folksongs from the historic Jewish communities in Essaouira and Fez.
If you are interested in knowing more about Gnaoua music here
is a link for a very interesting article by Chouki El Hamel of the historical background of it: http://www.ptwmusic.com/gnawa.htm
(some of which we have poached or para-phrased above!) “The most important single element of Morocco's folk culture is its music ... the entire history and mythology of the people is clothed in song.” Paul Bowles
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