Essaouira – After a long break due to the Covid pandemic, the Gnaoua festival returns in its usual format to the port city of Essaouira, in western Morocco. RFI met festival producer Neila Tazi.
The first edition of the Gnaoua and World Music Festival took place 24 years ago in Essaouira.
It was a small festival in the beginning with one stage only, but “it had a very huge success from the very first day”, Tazi told RFI.
Moroccans and tourists from all over the world come to Essaouira to listen to the concerts of the Gnaoua masters, called maâlems, and the invited artists.
“We program ‘fusions’ between Gnaoua masters and musicians from various styles of music: from jazz to qawwali from Pakistan, music from Cuba and lots of musicians from Africa,” says Tazi.
“It really shows the power of music in Africa and African rhythms and its capacity to make fusions with so many various styles of music.
“It also has something very spiritual that really touches the hearts of people wherever they come from … and allows us to bring people together.”
Gnaoua music comes from a tradition perpetuated in Morocco by the descendants of former slaves from sub-Saharan Africa.
While Gnaoua music has gained international recognition, its therapeutic rituals remain and are still practiced in Essaouira, in the intimacy of the zaouïa, the religious brotherhoods.
In 2019, Gnaoua culture was inscribed on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which made the festival even more popular.
During the three days event, Essaouira which has 80,000 year-round residents, suddenly sees 250,000 people showing up during the festival.
“The festival has been driving some economic and social changes in the city because Essaouira became very famous worldwide. It allowed to create jobs and economic development – with restaurants and hotels,” explains Tazi.
“A 2014 study showed that for each euro that we invest in the organisation of the festival, 70 euros are directly injected into the economy of the city.”
For this 24th edition of the Gnaoua festival, more than 300 artists are invited, among them 25 maâlems. It runs from 22 to 24 June.