"When I first heard Gnaoua music I heard Jimmy Blanton in the sound of the hajhouj, I heard the blues... I heard the black church..." The words of jazz master Randy Weston ring true with each encounter of the free Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira, Morocco. Essaouira is a picturesque fishing town of 70,000 inhabitants on the Atlantic coast which each June on a Thursday-Sunday weekend swells and pulsates with over 450,000 festival revelers. Essaouira has long been a fabled counter-culture destination; port of call for assorted Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page, William S. Burroughs, Maria Callas, it's where Jimi Hendrix reputedly wrote "Castles Made of Sand," and where Orson Welles filmed his cinematic "Othello." The Gnaoua are deeply rooted in Essaouira, one of their centers.
Who are the Gnaoua (or Gnawa) people? "The Gnawa people and their music represent one of the strongest spiritual connections I've ever experienced. A lot of the songs they sing are about Bambara, which was one of the great city-states of the Mali Empire between the 14th and 17th centuries," Weston informs. "The Gnawa actually have a close kinship with African Americans... Their ancestors came from the same region of Africa as the great majority of African American ancestors. While our ancestors were brought to the Americas and the Caribbean aboard Atlantic slave ships, Gnawa ancestors were crossing the Sahara to North Africa in bondage. Some of the same faces you see on the Gnawa in Morocco you see in the U.S. and you would never know the difference until they opened their mouths." Weston, chief among jazz artists who have found deep sustenance in their collaborations with the Gnawa, first encountered them in 1967 when he migrated to Morocco to live. Although he also connected with several of Morocco's spirit music brotherhoods, including the Joujouka (who notably recorded with Ornette Coleman), the Hmadcha, Issaoua, and the Jillalah, it was with Gnawa music that Weston truly found a home. "If you can imagine hearing the black church, jazz, and the blues all at the same time, in their original form, with all these rhythms coming together... that's what it was like." Other Western artists who've also found kinship with Gnaoua music include Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Adam Rudolf, Omar Sosa, Joe Zawinul, and Graham Haynes. The latter is a perennial Gnaoua Festival participant, a connection he resumed this season.
Several years ago when I interviewed him in preparation for a Pacifica Radio special on the festival, Haynes spoke to the influence of the Gnaoua and their Islamic faith practices on his playing. Haynes, who is a restless seeker, plays a cornet quite sonically reflective of the influence of the muezzins who issue the clarion Muslim call to prayer. That influence on his playing was clearly evident during several occasions when Haynes humbly sat in with Gnawa ensembles at this year's event. Brass players can certainly dominate the proceedings, but Haynes' is a thoroughly selfless collaborator and a thirsty adherent. Gnawa music is powered by the low-pitched lute intonations of the 3-stringed hajhouj (haj-ooj) or guimbre played by Gnawa maalems (masters), multiple performers wielding large metal castanets, or karakob, the strapped-on drum known as the tbel, and call & response vocals. This is trance music at its essence and although the Gnawa music performed for the festival is more public-consumption than that which is performed at their spiritual ceremonies or Lila, they routinely achieve an intensity bordering on ecstasy for the festival masses.
Opening with a vibrant, costumed Gnaoua promenade uncannily resembling a New Orleans second line Thursday at dusk, the parade led to Scene Moulay Hassan hard by the beach over one shoulder and the bustling fishing boat dock just beyond a row of lively cafes on another perimeter. The festivities began with Gnawa ensembles joyously collaborating with several invited guests, including Swiss trumpeter Matthieu Michel, American keyboardist Scott Kinsey, and Guinean percussionist Yeye Kante. Later that evening Italian saxman Stefano Di Battista invoked the spirit of Coltrane with "Resolution," and jammed with Maalem Hassan Boussou, one of the younger adherents who hails from Casablanca and was a powerful presence on several occasions.