“After the customs inspectors went through my bags, they wanted to look in my hair,” says Hamid Drake at the end of a hard day’snight‘s journey from his Chicago home to the fishing town of Essaouira, Morocco. He’s come to play in a June festival of traditional Gnaoua music that also features trans-Atlantic performers such as himself. “I just told them I‘d taken too much trouble getting my hair under this thing,” he says, poking at the big knit cap that bales his mess of dreadlocks together, “and they left me alone. What did they think, that I was bringing drugs into Morocco?”
Drake is a drummer, and it’s not like Morocco is short on those, either. But, along with trombonist Joseph Bowie, he‘s here in the rough-hewn elegance of the Villa Maroc at the request of his old friend Adam Rudolph, a hand drummer who lives in L.A. and who has booked “Calling Across the Water,” the festival’s attempt to mix American flavors of African music with indigenous ones.
Veteran L.A. trumpeter Charles Moore, who often performs with Rudolph, is also poking around, to check out the festival and to reconnoiter with Fouzia El Belkani, a young Moroccan woman who‘s researching the only English-language work on Gnaoua music; she’s been accepted to study at UCLA, where Moore teaches. Moore jammed with an international crew of musicians the day before, and seized that occasion to offer some instruction.
“They was beboppin‘,” he relates, “and I said, ’Can the bebop. That‘s not what we’re doing.‘”
What everybody’s doing here revolves around the throb and rattle of Gnaoua music. (We‘ll use French spellings, since that’s the language that supplements Arabic in Morocco, and most of the tourists are from France.) Gnaoua is an old sound, with a history that parallels that of Western Hemisphere blues, jazz and reggae, so the idea of reuniting the continents isn‘t that artificial. The ancestors of the modern Gnaoua brotherhood came to North Africa as sub-Saharan slaves in the 1500s, around the same time that African tribespeople were first kidnapped and shipped to New World auction blocks. In the same way that African-European hybrid musics and religions sprouted in Haiti, Jamaica and New Orleans, Gnaoua healing ceremonies attracted Moroccan Muslims and eventually blended into a local system of rhythm and belief.
The village versions of Gnaoua ceremonies, or lilas, are exorcisms of a kind, intended to heal the sick, the crazed and the scorpion-bitten through immersion in mass trances that last from night to morning. The master of ceremonies is the maalem, who plucks and bangs on the guimbri, a three-stringed bass instrument that looks like Bo Diddley’s cigar-box guitar but longer; though it‘s an acoustic ax, a skilled player can yank riffs from its goat-gut cords strong enough to fling you through a brick wall. A bunch of brightly robed men play krkabaks, metal hand clappers, while spinning and dancing around. There are usually some hand drummers, too. And everybody, onstage and in the audience, chants and claps.
At a festival like Essaouira’s yearly blowout, the basic formula is the same, but these concerts and lilas are parties and cultural demonstrations more than spiritualtherapeutic events. Gnaoua has proved quite adaptable.
Sometimes the scene gets a little weird, though. On the festival‘s opening day, there’s an invitation-only party featuring Maalem Ahmed Bakbou at the recently opened Sofitel, a huge, gleaming monument to Morocco‘s tourism-boosting ambitions. Rudolph, Drake and Bowie augment the Gnaoua ensemble of the wizened, gap-toothed maalem, and they get a pretty ferocious groove going. But the mood is undercut by the surroundings: marble-tiled, night-lit swimming pool; hot tub; well-padded, middle-aged European upper-crusters lounging, wafting about or boogieing to the beat in leisure suits and Vegas sportswear. It looks like a party scene from Shampoo.
At another extreme are the big free concerts held in an open field just outside Essaouira’s centuries-old fortifications — they‘re just like any summer rock show you might see in the USA, complete with giant video projections so the tourists and locals standing jam-packed four football fields away can catch the color. In one, Mahmoud Guinea, Morocco’s most famous maalem, charges around the stage, thrusting his guimbri like a metal god. All kinds of fusion gets into the act in various shows, with Algerian desert woman Hasna El Becharia spieling out rhythmically commanding guitar runs, or Algerian rai singer Cheb Mami lifting up the kind of wails that got him noticed by Sting, or keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck switching from African lilts to single-note hammerings. It can be inspiring, but the only way to endure this many hours on your feet is to be righteously stoned. And there‘s no beer.
Closer to the real article is an indoor concert on the festival’s closing night by Maalem Brahim El Belkani, dad of the aforementioned scholar Fouzia. Splashy rugs and couch cushions make the dim, not overlarge room comfortable for the audience. Rudolph and Bowie flesh out the ensemble, and the astuteness of Rudolph‘s choice to book the trombonist becomes clear — not only has Bowie’s avant-garde background prepared him for unusual improvisational settings, but his instrument‘s slide allows him to lock onto or smear between the guimbri’s notes, which don‘t always fit into a Western scale. He parties; Rudolph cooks. Candles add to the meditative focus. A group of Frenchmen light up some hash. As the beat quickens, three local teenage girls kneel together on the floor and whip their bushy black hair around till they’re near collapse. A blue-garbed gent totes a perfume cruet and a censer through the audience, smearing the oil and waving the heady smoke into grateful faces. It‘s a high.
Much of the festival’s best music has a spontaneous feel. The eight-drummer group Tamouziga rips the cool breeze atop an old seaside turret next to a row of 50 cannons arrayed against pirates who sail no more; the beshaded lead conga player chain-smokes and slaps hard; other drummers wear earrings and skull caps; one has a T-shirt reading “Negro Leagues of Baseball.” In a market square, a young percussion trio kicks plenty ass; a doo-rag-headed member wears leather pants and boots with metal chains. Later, a badass Moroccan metal band warms up with Metallica riffs. In a restaurant, a dreadlocked dude generates butt-shaking sounds from a steel drum and an electronic loop machine.
A fusion band in a plaza plays “Black Magic Woman.” There are Brazilian groups doing capoeira hoo-haw and spooky jungle shit. And strange connections rise up from the age-old North African music: You hear stuff that reminds you of “Corrina, Corrina,” the Grateful Dead, “Banana Boat Song,” Hendrix‘s Band of Gypsies. (Jimi spent time in this town, by the way, as did Orson Welles and the free-blowing saxist Archie Shepp.) Place the rising first syllables and tumbling sequences of Gnaoua chants next to many of John Coltrane’s phrases, and time collapses. As you wedge your way down the narrow streets of the medina, examine the local faces — imagine these same features a shade or two lighter, and you might as well be looking at Angelenos. The world is here.
The muezzin keens his calls to prayer at 3:30 a.m. Several times, the hotel electricity craps out for hours. One night, a small house blaze flares in the medina; the smell of burning wood and rubber drifts over the walls and into concertgoers‘ nostrils, but the fire brigade does quick work — good thing, since Essaouira winds are stiff.
One thing’s sure: Music has power. Look down at your leg, which still shakes long after the music has stopped. Classifications of First, Second and Third Worlds have become intolerable. Muslims can never again be typecast as nutso terrorists. America can no longer be Big Brother. As Hamid Drake says, “I came for love.” The sound tendrils are in you. You have been regrooved.