Sleepless in Essaouira: up close and personal with Morocco’s entrancing Gnawa culture

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It’s twilight in Essaouira. There’s a stippled afterglow smudging the Atlantic horizon, and the last kitesurfers are padding, barefoot, back to their digs. Behind the beach, snail-sellers are serving steaming cups of soup from their little carts. As the swirl and cry of lesser black-backed gulls begins to fade, the city’s other signature sound rings out: a persistent, metallic rhythm, bouncing off the city walls. Clackety-clackety-clackety-clackety. It’s the sound of krakebs, the hand-held, castanet-like cymbals peculiar to one of Morocco’s most distinctive musical traditions: Gnawa.

Spend more than a night or two in any Moroccan city and you’re sure to encounter a Gnawa band, playing at restaurants or busking in the squares. With krakebs setting the tempo, they pluck out bluesy tunes on guembris — three-stringed lutes with an elongated, drum-like body of wood and camel skin — then layer on rallying call-and-response vocal melodies in Darija Arabic, Amazigh and Bambara. Often they weave in handclaps and bassy tbilat drumbeats for extra percussive force.

Most people in this scattered community can trace their ancestry back to the medieval Sudanic Empires — the part of West Africa that now includes Senegal, Mali and Guinea — and were ethnically marginalised as a result. But things have begun to change: in modern, increasingly multicultural Morocco, their sub-Saharan origins are celebrated. Essaouira, the diverse city they’ve adopted as their capital, is the best place to catch an authentic Gnawa performance.

Almost any evening will do, but this one is special. On a vast temporary stage beneath the crenellated city walls, more than 100 top maâlems (master musicians), kouyous (dancers), mqadmats (mistresses of ceremonies), porte-drapeaux (flag bearers) and mbakhrats (incense bearers) have gathered en masse. Lighting engineers and camera operators are circling; this gala performance will be televised. It’s a belated celebration of a monumental honour: in December 2019, UNESCO added Gnawa culture to the Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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