Sunday, 13 July 2008

Music in Essaouira

If you think that the only music in Essaouira is at the festival, you would be very wrong. As you walk along its streets, you'll find yourself moving between islands of music: shops and stalls selling CDs - mainly gnaoua, but also sub-Saharan music from Mali and Senegal, shops selling souvenirs who play music to attract customers, and of course the cafes at Place Moulay Hassan, where sometimes the music is so loud that you can't hear the live music being played on the stage just around the corner!

Then, of course, there are the shops selling instruments: some more workshop that shop, where a lone craftsman makes instruments of wood and leather using hand-tools and skills that must have been passed down over the centuries.

Essaid Rhatrhat is one such who not only makes guimbris and djembes, but also plays them and sings as well, as you can see in this 10 minute clip that I recorded in June. I'd spotted his shop on the Derb Ibn Toumert, a little street that links the top end Place Moulay Hassan leading to Place Al Khaima. Younger musicians gather at his shop, to talk and get advice, a new string, or to try out a djembe. They address Essaid as 'maalem' (master), though he's wouldn't call himself that. Still its a term of respect that I think is well deserved.

Just a few minute's walk away, where Derb Yousef Ben Tachfine joins the Mellah Qdim (aka Avenue Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah), you'll find Bob Music, a veritable treasure chest of musical instruments, old and new, from Morocco, other parts of Africa, and from Europe and the Americas. The shop is run by Abderrahim and his assistant Hamid, who you can see in this clip, playing an impromptu set on djembes.

Regular visitors to DaftNotStupid may recognise the music playing on Abderrahim's complex set of interconnected CD players and amplifiers at the beginning of the clip. A free CD to the first person to identify the number (add comment here please, but send you name and address by email to

Getting back to the theme of this meme (I know, I usually call them posts, but I liked the rhyme), you need to ask yourself the question "Why is there so much music in Essaouira?" Is it because of the festival, or is the festival here because of the music? I think the latter. Essaouira is one of the homes of Gnaoua music - it's in the soul and the blood of its inhabitants. If the festival stopped, the music wouldn't. People like Essaid would continue to ply their craft, making their own instruments and playing them for their own satisfaction and that of their friends and families.

While I'm on this subject,I've just counted up the gnaoua groups who played at the festival this year. Of the 28 maalems listed in the program, 13 come from Essaouira, 6 from Marrakech, and the remainder from the other gnaoua centres - Rabat (4), Casablanca (2), Meknes (1), Tangier (1), and Safi (1). While this certainly is partly due to local availability and a desire on the part of the organizers to promote native Souiri talent, it's probably also largely due to the fact that so many of the the Essaouira gnaouis are so darned good. Well, that my opinion. It just helps to show that music runs in the blood down there.

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