2011 Gnawa Festival

Considered to be one of Morocco’s most scenic locations, Essaouira’s Moulay Hassan square was the main venue for the 2011 Gnawa Festival that took place in June. With the 16th century Portuguese fort looming over the restless Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the town’s white sandy beach to the east, Moulay Hassan welcomed musicians and music-lovers from all over Morocco, and beyond its borders, to celebrate the universally uniting power of music.

One of the highlights of the festival was a performance by an all-female Gnawa group Bnat Gnaoua, led by the Malaam El Meknassi from Meknes. Their opening performance on the Friday evening of the festival was followed by a concert featuring Malaam Mustapha Baqbou, along with jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan from Armenia – a talented musician who has been performing since the age of 12, developing his abilities under the tutelage of renowned American composer, pianist and band leader Herbie Hancock.

The focus of the 2011 Gnawa Festival was on pan-Africanism in music, as music greats and rising stars took to the stage to entertain the crowds. Mogadishu-born Knaan performed some of his well-known songs, including his remix of Wavin’ Flag made famous during his association with the 2010 World Cup tour, as well as some new material from his upcoming album. Other artists featured on the program include Maalem Kbiber from Marrakech; Baba Sissoko & Mali Tamani Revolution from Mali; Maalem Omar Hayat from Essaouira; Moroccan group La Halla KingZoo; Maalem Mustapha Bakbou from Marrakech; Maalem Hamid El Kasri from Rabat; Between Worlds from Afghanistan and Iran; Darga from Morocco; Salif Keita from Mali; Maalem Mahmoud Guinea from Essaouira; and Randy Weston from the United States.

The Gnawa (Gnaoua) culture has its roots in a number of ethnic and language groups from empires and kingdoms in ancient Sudan, the Southern Sahara and West Africa. It is believed to have been brought to Morocco around 500 years ago by merchants, mercenaries, military troops and slaves. Many of the traditional liturgies of Gnawa culture chronicle the suffering experienced by slaves forced to march north across the Sahara to a destination not of their choosing. Gnawa culture evolved over the years, absorbing elements from pre-Islamic West African animism and Arab-Berber rituals to become the traditions of Morocco’s Sufi brotherhood.

The venue of the 2011 festival was more compact and intimate than previous years and organizers were commended for the new arrangements which eliminated the previous problems of queues of visitors trying to get to the performance of their choice. In a festival bursting with good vibes and superb music, the vocal duet performed by Gnawa Malaam Bekbou and Haitian-born singer Erol Josue, frontman of Jazz-Racine Haiti, was widely considered to be one of the defining moments of what the Gnawa Music Festival is all about – blending and harmonizing, holding onto traditions while embracing new ideas.