Pt. 3 of 3: Roof with a view, Essaouira 2009
N.B. This lengthy, 3-part account of Festivals of both the distant & recent past plus comments on the vagaries of travelling in Morocco should probably be read in conjunction with Maggie Knutson’s account(s) of the 2009 Essaouira Gnawa Festival which are available on her blog here: http://maggieknutson.blogspot.com
“When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me”
(Gerry Goffin & Carole King –‘Up on the roof’ -1962)
So, in 2009, it was time for a return to Essaouira along with three other couples of ‘mature’ years to soak up the sight and sounds of the 2009 Festival Gnaoua et Musiques du Monde as it’s formally known…
This time, we were actually able to cut out a lot of the legwork by flying to Marrakech with EasyJet. My first time with EasyJet and I was fairly impressed.
Once at the airport, we were quickly able to make contact with our ‘grands taxis’ drivers and established with them that a supermarket stop en route was a necessity. The weather in Marrakech was really strange – lowering dark clouds and massive humidity; it seemed like we were on the verge of a colossal thunderstorm, though it never actually arrived.
The supermarket stop was at a huge barn of a hypermarché on the outskirts of Marrakech. This supermarket was notable for the fact that there were substantial numbers of birds flying around inside the building and they seemed to be permanent fixtures. Buying alcohol in a nominally Muslim country like Morocco can be a problem, and we had already heard stories of how off-licences in Essaouira were closed during the Festival. This didn’t seem to affect Pete & Derek who emerged with a monstrous trolley-load of booze, having bought up half a hillside of red wine and numerous bottles of gin. I chipped in with some beer and a bottle of white rum, but I felt very much like a beginner at the side of these seasoned boozers.
We loaded everything up and continued to Essaouira, arriving without undue incident at our house ‘Dar Doughri’ at about 2230. Dar Doughri is owned by an Englishwoman based down in Hampshire and is a typical Moroccan town house on three floors with a roof terrace. There are four bedrooms (3 en suite), a kitchen and living room area and the aforementioned roof terrace where I spent most of my time when I was in the house and awake.
We managed a few drinks before hitting the hay. Tomorrow was Thursday, the first day of the Festival. In the morning, we finally got some idea of our surroundings.
This was our view from the roof looking towards Bab Marrakech and the Medina. The way the stage was set up, it was clear that we were ‘behind it’ and would see little, no matter how much we heard. Still, we were here to mingle with the crowds and enjoy the unique atmosphere that Essaouira would surely offer to an event like this.
After breakfast we set off to pick up some info about the Festival programme and to re-acquaint ourselves with Essaouira. In many respects little seemed to have changed – we walked down to the seafront near the Hotel des Îles, stopped in at the pool-side bar for a café au lait, then wandered into the Medina. We quickly discovered the Festival office and bought a programme before continuing on our way…
It did seem that the town was busy, but without feeling crowded. We were just delighted to be back. Eventually we found our way (with some help from a persuasive waiter) to a restaurant just inside the Skala which looked out over the sea from its third-floor balcony. To our considerable surprise we found our housemates Pete & Ruth were already there, so we joined them for a late and boozy lunch. The waves surged in on the rocks beyond the Skala, the sun glinted on the Atlantic and even with sunglasses I began to squint a little…..it was siesta time…
Much later and considerably refreshed by a good two hours sleep, we joined the others up on the roof to share our experiences of the day and discuss the evening’s programme. John & Kath wanted to revisit the restaurant they had used frequently the previous year. Apparently, the food was good and so was the local herbal smoking mixture. We took a slow stroll down there and sat overlooking the bay, eating small, delicious, freshly-caught sole and drinking ice-cold beer. The music of the Festival’s first evening had already started and was drifting through the dusk – it was probably the last truly idyllic moment of the trip.
After eating and picking up our supplies, we walked down towards Place Moulay Hassan, one of the three squares around the old City Wall where concerts were scheduled to take place. On stage as we arrived were a French jazz-rock ensemble called Sixun. To call the crowd ‘restive’ would be an understatement; Sixun’s music did not seem to be particularly conducive to dancing, yet the audience seemed to be in constant motion. We soon realised that this was due to the constant movement of people through the crowd. It didn’t seem to matter where you stood, someone, or more often a group of people would be pushing past you en route to who knows where.
Many of these groups were young adolescent boys, probably aged between 12 and 17, who formed ‘conga-lines’ in order to stay together. Morocco being a Muslim country, it was apparently considered acceptable for these young boys to be out among the crowd, whilst –of course – you really didn’t see any local girls of similar age; they would quite simply not be allowed to attend.
We had probably been there for about half an hour, finding it hard to enjoy the music due to the constant tumult within the crowd, when I abruptly realised that my pocket had been picked. At one and the same moment, I realised that it would be pointless to pursue the offender, as he would have disappeared into the crowd within seconds. Nonetheless, this was massively deflating and we left almost at once feeling angry and soiled by the experience.
We made our way back to the ‘dar’ and yet again, retreated to the sanctuary of the roof terrace.
We spent much of Day 2 of the Festival in the Old Town, and it quickly became clear that there had been a huge influx of visitors; the Medina was really busy. We had a few fairly negative encounters with local people; a shopkeeper whose round head sat in pale isolation in a room otherwise completely filled up to the ceiling with dark green watermelons waved me away as I tried to take his picture. Another guy did the same as I tried to take a picture at a small fried sardine stall in the Medina. The proprietor of a Spice Stall gave me the finger as I took a photo of the elaborate pyramids of Ras-el-Hanut and Turmeric outside his shop. Several shopkeepers warned us (too late!) that gangs of pickpockets had arrived from Casablanca and Marrakech…the atmosphere of the town had changed completely and the sense of welcome I had felt seven years earlier had almost completely disappeared
Later I attended an early evening gig with Malian chanteuse Babani Kone in the square by Bab Marrakech. This was a delight, frankly. It was still daylight, so there were numerous families there and the mood of the gathering was relaxed and peaceful. I then returned to the ‘Dar’ where our maid, Karima, who was already laying on an excellent breakfast for us, had now laid on an evening meal for a very reasonable sum. This involved a vegetable cous-cous, a lamb tagine and some salads – all delicious. Generally, I quickly get bored with Moroccan food except for grilled fresh fish and shellfish, but this was early enough in the trip to be a real treat.
Karima with her colourful rice salad
Day 3 of the Festival was the last big day. A big concert was scheduled on the Bab Marrakech stage with one of the Festival organisers, percussionist Karim Ziad leading a German jazz-rock orchestra with a number of guest soloists including Algerian ‘rai’ superstar, Khaled. On a domestic level, it also happened to be Pete’s birthday, so we booked a restaurant in the heart of the Medina for a birthday bash.
We set off to walk to the restaurant via Bab Marrakech and the long street which leads from it into the heart of the Medina. This pedestrian thoroughfare is lined with shops and stalls selling fried fish, cd’s clothes and a thousand other commodities. It’s busy even on a normal day but on this particular evening it was heaving with people. In front of me were 2 young Moroccan boys of about 16 or so, who seemed deep in conversation and were moving at a snail’s pace. I was leading our party as I knew where our restaurant was and in order to keep people together I wasn’t particularly rushing. Even so, as we approached the main intersection, the boys in front slowed yet further and a bottleneck started to form. I looked round to check that everyone was in tow and from my left, a guy in his 40’s came barrelling right across me to reach a side passage. Again – but sooner this time – I realised that my pocket was being picked by this character and as he moved away, I grabbed his left arm and twisted it, palm upwards, revealing about £50-worth of Moroccan dirham notes. Time seemed to stand still as I looked him straight in the eye and told him in colourfully obscene terms what I thought of him, then I snatched the cash back from him and let him go. I could have made a scene, called the cops, hit him….but for whatever reason, I didn’t. The strangest aspect of all this was that once I grabbed his arm, he neither pulled away from me nor resisted when I twisted his arm around.
By the time, we had eaten Pete’s Birthday Feast and headed back to Bab Marrakech, the crowds were even denser and I was carrying my remaining cash in my shoe. We worked our way through the crowds and finally emerged into the square, which was also packed. This was a concern for John & Kath, given that John is fundamentally blind unless he’s in strong sunlight. The constant pushing and shoving of the crowd was clearly making him (and several other members of the party) uneasy. The programme for the night was running pretty late and no-one was too sure when the headliners would be on stage. Unsurprisingly, most of the group elected to return to Dar Doughri, where they would at least be able to hear the music from the roof terrace. Kath and I decided to hang on; personally, I felt that I had managed to see only a fraction of what I wanted to in the 3 days of the Festival and I wanted to see/hear more.
The headliners came on and for about 40 minutes, things were tolerable, give or take the usual relentless conga-line of boys in the crowd. Then, quite suddenly, there was a small scuffle in the crowd away to our left. Things seemed to settle down pretty quickly, but inevitably, you had one eye on the stage and one on the source of the trouble.
Then, just a few minutes later, a much bigger scuffle erupted and a circle some 30 yards across formed in the middle of the crowd. People were simply running full pelt at Kath and myself, so drumming up dim and distant memories of adolescent rugby matches, I just dropped my shoulder and tried to let them bounce off me. It worked up to a point, but Kathy was quite clearly petrified and she quickly indicated that she wanted to go back to the house – I readily agreed.
Yet again, we retreated to the roof terrace and its welcoming ambience. It was impossible to listen to the music from the square as it underwent massive distortion en route to our rooftop. Somehow, it didn’t seem to matter….
The next day was the final day of the Festival and though I was feeling pretty jaded about the whole Festival by now, I still made it back to Moulay Hassan for some of the final show. This time we actually sat inside one of the cafes that ring the square and at least enjoyed a modicum of peace and quiet. We had to leave early to eat another of Karima’s pre-booked meals, but I was less bothered about that than I would have been a couple of days previously.
The final show in Place Moulay Hassan
We still had a couple of days of holiday left before heading back to the UK and we used them well, I think. A large party went off to visit some Argon Oil Co-operative in the hinterland, whilst I walked the beach out as far as the Portuguese fort and then walked back along the promenade. One night we ate at the fish-stalls down near the harbour – excellent, as ever, though not as cheap as on our first visit. On another night we visited a vegetarian restaurant attached to a backstreet hamam that Kath & the partner had visited – that was more interesting than successful, but we survived.
I found Essaouira considerably less hospitable than on our first visit in 2002, and whilst I would definitely return, there is no doubt whatsoever that I will not be visiting the town when the festival is running. It is surely only a question of time before the lack of adequate policing leads to a death or severe injury on the part of a visitor, which would bring unwelcome publicity to the Festival. There is still time for them to get their act together, but they need to do it now. I would recommend breaking the large open areas of the squares down into smaller zones sectioned off with crash barriers which would restrict movement to some extent. I would also advocate a zero-tolerance policy for the roaming groups of adolescent boys – they clearly have little or no interest in the music and generally seem to be just looking for trouble. Quelling their activities would be a big step forward for the Festival but whether or not they do it remains to be seen.
Dar Doughri’s roof terrace – A haven of peace throughout our stay…………