Sunday 23 July 2017

Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival 2017

It's been five years since my wife, Maggie Knutson, and I were last in Essaouira for its world-renowned Gnaoua and World Music Festival, but this year we were back again, to enjoy and record the music that we both love so much. We had high expectations for this year's event - Band of Gnawa and Maalem Abdeslam Alikane with Ray Lema, both on the bill again after 10 years - and we weren't disappointed.

I'll leave it to Maggie to provide all of the little details that she's so good at capturing in words - you can read the first of her multi-part blog entry here. I'll use his blog to share the videos and photos that I took.

We've been attending the festival since 2000, but I only started recording the music in 2007, after I found that I needed a way to preserve the unique music that had filled my head for the four days of the festival, but the memory of which decayed in the days and weeks after I'd returned home. I started with a Zoom digital audio recorded and an ATR shotgun microphone, and captured much of what, in my opinion, was the best festival ever. You can listen to those recordings here. Note that while they are YouTube videos, they are audio only.

The next year I came better prepared with a Panasonic GS1  camcorder that worked really well and produced pretty good 720p videos, though being tape-based it meant my luggage was full of blank tapes and spare batteries and chargers. All of my videos from 2008 to 2012 were taken using my GS1, though I added a Rode M3 mic in 2012.

This year, however, I decided to upgrade my camera and bought a fully digital Panasonic HC-V770, which with a 128GB class 10 SD card can record up to 6 hours - enough for a good days shooting. I was able to back each day's videos directly from the camera to a 480 GB SanDisk Extreme 500 solid-state hard drive, so I has plenty of space. If you wonder why I need so much space, the V770 records MP4 videos at 50Mb per second - about 22GB each hour. The V770 battery life is about 90 minutes, so instead of buying loads of spare batteries at £120 each, I bought a £30 Gomadic portable USB power pack which lasts about 6 hours, and can also charge my iPhone. Oh yes, this camera can also take pretty good still photographs while simultaneously shooting movies, as you can see when the Flickr slideshow below kicks off in a few seconds:

Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival 2017

In 2010, the festival organisers wrote to me suggesting I apply for press accreditation, which that year, and the next two years, we received, along with the precious Camera logo which gets you into the press pit right at the front of the stage!

In past years, I had always recorded gonzo-style - right in with the main audience, or from our private balcony at Hotel L'Heure Bleu (rooms 24/34) overlooking Place Bab Marrakech, until 2011 one of the main festival venues, or from Restaurant Bab Lachour, overlooking the Place Moulay Hassan stage. Both of these approaches have their drawbacks. Gonzo puts you at the mercy of the audience, which results in shaky video and voices over the music. Audio recording at distance from the balconies adds a phasing effect from the ever-present wind.

But in the photographers' pit you are so close and you get the real sound of the instruments as well as that from the on-stage monitors - not just the big PA. Fantastic, and such an experience being so close to the musicians and dancers.

This year, however, it wasn't to be. I'd applied for Maggie and myself in good time but heard nothing until a week before the festival, when we received rejection letters; the reason given was that we didn't have official press passes. When we spoke to one of the team in Essaouira, we were told that since so many applications had been made for this, the 20th, festival, they'd needed some simple criterion to winnow out the chaff. So that's what we were: chaff. Over 1 million views on my YouTube channel counted for nothing. But I'm not bitter. There's always next year.

All was not lost, though. On the Thursday that the festival was due to start, I spotted Loy Ehrlich from Band of Gnawa in the street, introduced myself, and gave him a CD of the BoG set I'd recorded in 2007, along with a few others. He immediately dug into his bag and gave me a VIP pass - not for the press pit - but almost as good. Not only that, but when he saw me later that night, he gave Maggie one too. So, a big thank you to Loy Ehrlich. A great musician with a heart of gold.

Enough of the talk. How about some music. Speaking of Loy Ehrlich, let's start with the playlist of the Band of Gnawa set. This starts with three numbers from Maalem Said Boulhimas, before BoG join in. You can click the playlist icon at the top left of the video to select a different video.

The highlight of the festival, for me, Maggie, and some other people I spoke to was the Titi Robin set at Place Moulay Hassan on Saturday night. Titi Robin (guitar and electric mandolin) was joined by Mehdi Nassouli (guembri and vocals), Shuheb Hasan (Sufi vocals), Murad Ali Khan (sarangi), and Ze Luis Nascimento (hand drums) delivering a wonderfully melodic fusion of  the music of four continents. You can get some sense of the experience in the video playlist below. Note that a couple of the tracks have a pronounced bass distortion (my bad) but I believe that the music still shines through. If you like this music, you may want to buy the CD Taziri, featuring Robin, Nassouli, and Nasciemento, available on Amazon here.

At the end of the Titi Robin set Maggie and I headed over to La Plage venue, by way of Sam's Fish 
Restaurant to see  Maalem Abdeslam Alikane and Ray Lema. When we arrived, Speed Caravan were still playing and I managed to video their last three numbers, including one with the wonderful, and new to me, Hindi Zahra. Here's that playlist:

As for the Alikane/Lema set, I was told to stop filming with my V770 after the first number, but I managed to capture most of the other numbers on my iPhone SE (with a Rode VideoMicro mic) or on my Zoom H2 audio recorder which was tucked in an inside jacket pocket. Consequnetly, the video quality isn't great so I have't got a separate playlist for this set yet, but you can find a couple of the videos in my Essaouira 2017 playlist, along with Maâlem Abdelkebir Merchane, Carlinhos Brown, some street music, and a couple of walks. 28 videos in total, with more to come, including more from Alikane/Lema. If you subscribe to the playlist or the channel on YouTube, you'll get notified when I add more.