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Marcus Miller and Mustapha Baqbou at Essaouira Festival 2014

Mehdi El Mouden By

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Marcus Miller and Mustapha Baqbou
Place Moulay El Hassan
Essaouira Festival
Essaouira, Morocco
June 14, 2014

On Saturday a rebirth was being prepared at Essaouira Festival. The most awaited artist of the festival, bassist/composer Marcus Miller was going to play with accomplished gnaoua vocalist and guembri player, Maâlem Mustapha Baqbou. At the conference room, and on his birthday, Miller confessed that he felt not the least uncomfortable about this fusion. To this end, he explained that the slap sound that he once thought very peculiar to the bass and his own ingenious style, he actually discovered to have existed a hundred years before jazz. The rough sound of the guembri equaled the slapped bass of Miller, and this fusion was definitely going to enrich the complexity of the sound which is deeply rooted in Africa. Playing in the nocturnal mist of Essaouira was somewhat a meeting with the origins he had explored for years.

Scheduled to begin around midnight, the show started with Mustapha Baqbou, who released a structured and familiar sound to the crowd. The instruments roared in accompaniment with Baqbou's voice, which added brightness to most gnaoua classical renderings. Based on a verse chorus form, and a call-and-response style between the "mâalem"—literally the master who plays guembri and sings,—and the band, usually seven men, echoing chants and playing castanets. The castanet's sound is a connecting thread upon which the guembri is tracing the path.

Most gnaoua songs, if compared with Afro-American sensibilities, are work songs, as they spring from a slave tradition based on lamentations. Gnaoua people were brought from sub-Saharan countries centuries ago to Morocco to work as slaves, and responded as bluesmen had with music. The originality of their music lay in their ability to turn sad chants into joyous pieces of music. As such, gnaoua music has always attracted and inspired American and European artists. To name a few, Randy Weston, Pat Metheny, Omar Sosa, and Carlos Santana. As a matter of fact, in 2010 Santana had featured Baqbou during his concert at Mawazine Festival in Rabat.

Marcus Miller was the next musician to scrutinize this music and for his birthday, he sought renaissance in the land of what he termed "mother Africa." He appeared onstage at 1:40 a.m. to slap the first notes of his birthday songs, chanted by the audience, then started an avalanche of hard-slapping solos to externalize sound and fury. A few minutes later, Miller showcased Miles Davis's "Jean Pierre" through an extended bass solo introduction, paving the ground for saxophonist Alex Han to play the melody. His predictable battle of solos with Han brought the funk that the audience had waited for.

Indeed, with a predictable style, based on overt slapping and repetitive melodies, converging to duets with his band members, Miller brought the funk and left space for his musicians to jam. Guitarist Adam Agati displayed his ability to rock while trumpeter Sean Jones blew bop enough to swing the crowd. Elsewhere Miller was capable of absorbing the audience in profoundly deep, thematic melodies such as "Nocturnal Mist" and "Revelation" or diving into the pensive notes of "Goree."

Programmed to play for an hour and ten minutes, Miller carried on for an extra hour. The more he looked at the crowd, the more he felt he could carry on and dive into never-ending solos. Highly connected to his musicians through constant eye contact and close attention to their solos, Miller let songs flow where they may, gave space to band members to jam, and often gave signs to carry on and then looked for the right moment to switch to melody. Epitomizing the tradition of Miles Davis, who turned his back to the audience to attend to his musicians, Miller could do both: look at his musicians, and then check on the crowd.

At 2:45 a.m., Baqbou finally joined in. Followed by his musicians and Karim Ziad, the artistic director of the festival, who played drums on the first song, Baqbou stood next to Miller. Baqbou played a Gnaoua rhythm that Miller followed on bass, while Han and Jones jammed through the storm of castanets. Miller's bass couldn't be heard until he took the lead on a solo that Baqbou echoed at the end. More bass-oriented in the second song, Miller's bass gained more texture, whereas Agati forced his way through castanets. The tempo of the castanets got faster to let Miller and Baqbou face each other for a fast duet on bass sounds. For the third song, Miller looked at his watch. It was 3:15 am. He smiled, looked at the crowd and said "do you want more?" The public roared and the jam went on. On that night, what could be funk to Gnaoua music was brought by Miller, and what was vibe to Jazz was injected by Baqbou.

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