Essaouira Enters the Gnaoua Trance

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In the south of Morocco, soaked in the sun, Essaouira reverberates once more with the Gnaoua and World Music Festival. This highly reputed event unfolds Thursday evening in a rich 25th edition, steeped in age-old tradition. Over three days, free concerts fill the air day and night with sounds of history and culture from the traditional opening parade to mesmerizing performances on the stage.

The powerful and mystical parade winds its way through streets scented with incense. Traditional drums, the insistent rattle of the karkabas, and haunting melodies of rhaitas put under a spell the enormous audience massed at the foot of the ancient ramparts. Nearly 30 troupes from all over the country come to pay homage to this age-old heritage by representing the Gnaoua community, which seemed forgotten before the festival’s inception in 1998.

The children are crammed onto rooftops; elders at their windows. Oqba Ibn Nafia, the main avenue, overflows. Everybody runs to welcome the artists, who unfurl their flags in gleaming costumes; the sun is on its way down. There is song, dance, and much embracing—Essaouira and this festival, a reunion and celebration held yearly.

In the midst of this mass of humanity, in festive revelry over Gnaoua culture, is André Azoulay, advisor to King Mohamed VI and one of the festival’s founders. “We send a light from here to a world in retreat. No one believed in this festival at first, but 25 years later, it grows every year—more vibrant, more touching. What a joy and delight!” he exclaims.

The Minister of Culture and Communications, Mohamed Mehdi Bensaid, was present at the opening of the festival. He underlined the place occupied by culture in the economy of Morocco. The Minister stressed the commitment of the government to better serve its citizens—its young people, in particular. “Our priority is to highlight the Moroccan people, and for the government, it’s youth employment. I believe culture has much to contribute. The festival is 25 years old today, and it will soon be 50,” he stated.

This historic city receives the pulsating rhythms of Gnaoua, thus joining past and present, tradition and innovation in joyous ecstasy across timeless invocation.

Soukaina Sghir

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