This is a continuation of Uncle Barnie's travels, the previous post can be viewed here
Well the Gnaoua and World Music Festival in Essaouira consumed me for a good four days, and I got to meet some incredible musicians as well as hear them play.Â The press pass I lucked myself into gave me access to all the musicians on the bill, plus got me right up the front so I could pretend to be a journalist photographer guy.Â Brilliant.Â As soon as I find the correct kind of wires and plugs I'll be able to post some pics with this here blog.
It was an awesome display of rhythm. There were three sets of conga, one cowbell, one shekere, a tin and scratching stick, a djembe, plus 8 sets of gnaoua castanets and a ma'alem playing Gimbri. Plus three dancers. Beautiful to hear how the language of hitting stuff can travel so far and yet nothing gets lost in translation. Over the course of the next three days I got to as I say interview and get to know a few of the invited and local musicians, and check out a shit load of music. The spirit of the festival was sort of encapsulated by that first performance - the combining of traditional Gnaoua music with stuff from all over the globe.
These guys played on the beach stage at night, and had a complete cross section of dudes going nuts in the crowd. Plump Moroccan businessmen and yoof jumping around and singing along to what is obviously much respected music. Their lyrics touch on fairly brazen stuff as far as Moroccan popular music goes... subjects like the King, corruption, and the plight of women. Their sound was rooted in the 60's... big, passionate, rich and rocking, with beautiful Arab tones coming through. Definitely as everyone was saying "the Rolling Stones of Africa";
Again down on the beach a 'Pepsi Fusion' stage was set up, chiefly as a venue for the electronic acts. This DJ Hak'x was doing a fairly good job of mixing up some 'progressive soulful house' for about an hour, then a ma'alem andÂ some of his boys arrived on stage. The ma'alem plugged in his gimbri, and his troop began doing the slow C-Walk type boogie that accompanies their castanets... and soon Dj Hak'x was bringing in some whack house synth over the top. I was worried... but then a smooth bit of mixing ensued and the whack house synth in danger of throwing the whole thing into Deep Forest territory ended, and a growling little stomper was born... I stayed and danced around and dug it.
I had an awesome chat with Speech, Nicha and Baba Oje the day of their performance which no doubt heavily influenced my thorough enjoyment of their set.Â Being able to meet and talk with musicians you have dug for 18 odd years is always fuckin cool. When they turn out to be the humble, switched on positive people you suspected they might be it is even cooler. Their set really was good, and the Moroccans went mental for them. Africans in general seem to go mental for anything vaguely hip-hop related, but Arrested Development's conscious message was clear, even if some of lyrics went over peeps heads. They played a moving rendition of "Redemption Song" and a beautiful Speech only a cappella version of "Tenesse" as an encore. Real good shit, but no collaboration with other musicians as such, although a Djembe player did appear for one song.
There were also 'acoustic venues' setup for more intimate performances of the more traditional Gnaoua variety.Â These were held in traditional Moroccan riads - two or three storied dwellings that contain a central courtyard whichÂ acts as a kind of amphitheatre. It was at one of these performances, that started after midnight each night, when I found out about Michael Jackson. I was at a particularly bizarre performance of a group called "Sidi Ali Lasmar Stambali". They are apparently proponents of the more ceremonial form of Gnaoua music, the kind played at the all night lillas used to cure a sick person from mental illness, among other things. Different spirits are invoked during the ceremony, according to the colours they are associated with, and I believe that is what "Sidi Ali Lasmar Stambali" were intending to do except were given an unceremonious time restraint of two hours.
This seemed to bewilder the extremely elderly ma'alem on the gimbri, who seemed uncomfortable with things like microphones pointing at him. His assistant was also the troupe's dancer, and was an exceptionally repulsive individual.Â He looked like a kind of evil young nephew of the king or something. The rest of the troupe were very dark skinned and obviously sub-Saharan, and this guy looked like a Greek accountant. Tall, languid, and with absolutely no sense of rhythm. Every time he came out and did a little dance with a flag he would put on this camp little smile as if he were auditioning for Madame Butterfly. Except it just made him look evil. He gave off a very cringe producing effect for the entire audience. I couldn't figure out for the life of me how he had conned his way into a group of obviously very talented musicians. I took a break and went outside for a spliff to contemplate this and other questons, and one of the organiser ladies came up in a fluster asking if i had heard about Mike. I was of course struck dumb.. and all my favourite Michael Jackson songs and images ran through my head, a reaction i guess the rest of the world shared. I went back into the riad and continued watching this bizarre performance, now thinking to myself: "I am in Africa, and just found out Michael Jackson died, and i am watching a guy trying to dance to some old old music..." and i wanted to pull some incredible epiphany out of all this... but i couldn't. I think it just added to the overall weirdness of the situation, something i guess Mike was getting pretty used to...
I went to the closing party of the festival a few nights later and got to work on the open bar. An open bar in a Muslim country is like seeing an out door live sex show in Tiananmen Square, and i hadn't really had many sips sinceÂ leaving Spain. I chatted with some of the friends i had made, looked out from the roof top luxuriousness of where i was standing over the North Atlantic ocean and felt an extremely lucky man. And now i am at the airport of Casablanca, waiting to catch a plane to Mali. So, one country down in my trip to Africa, and if my time in Morocco is anything to go by my remaining couple of months is going to blow my tiny little mind...