The Music of Essaouira

Sipping on a Kir Royale, I glance around the terrace taking in the nocturnal activity of the surrounding locals and tourists. As if somehow suspended in time I watch with curiosity the gradual blossoming of people’s conversations, the way their expressions flicker momentarily before concluding with a smile.
Taking another sip, I catch sight of a trio of musicians half-hidden behind willowy pot plants, their smooth rendition of Ebony and Ivory drifting across the rooftop.
We are in Taros, a popular restaurant located in Essaouira’s Place Moulay Hassan overlooking the plage tagharte. From the outside you are met with tall whitewashed walls topped with reed umbrellas that jut up into sky. Moving on into the bar area, the electric blue of the bamboo-style chairs calls to mind the rows of fishing boats tightly bunched like sardines in the city’s harbour. Amid conversations, clean-shaven waiters glide from table to table, balancing trays laden with extravagant cocktails. Behind the bar I notice a waiter delicately slicing thins of limes while his colleague chisels channels of rind off lemons in an elegant fashion. Right in front of me, the all-male band starts up once more, the musicians beaming with cheery delight.
Wandering out into the Place Moulay Hassan feeling content and refreshed we choose a spot along the flaking walls of the citadel to stop and admire the evening bustle. Congregations of families gather round in groups, swarms of young children dip and dive among the crowds, chasing one another haphazardly.
Drawing ourselves away from the centre, we navigate the dark alleyways in search of one particular old school playing host to a Gnawan music performance. Entering through the narrow doorway, clouds of incense momentarily obscure my vision- the intense aroma of honeyed amber smacking me right in the face. Glancing around, I notice only local families clustered in groups, spectators jam-packed right up to the doorway straining to catch a glimpse.
A huddle of men dressed in simple kaftans sits cross-legged in the centre armed with an array of musical instruments. Then, without so much as an introduction they launch into a hypnotic performance of mystical Gnawan sounds. The stillness is unashamedly disrupted by the clanging of metal castanets whose incessant jangle rings loud and without bate. The fast-paced strumming of the lutes meanwhile, has an almost entrancing quality that appears to lull its listeners to sleep. All but one… A woman promptly jumps up and covers her head with a cloth. She starts swaying violently from side to side, rocking her head back and forth in time with the din of the music. She dances wildly across the rugs, spinning and twirling in mad circles. Then, just as she began, the woman stops as if on command. She collapses in a motionless heap on the floor, free at last from the spirit of music.
More incense floods the room.
My eyes begin to sting…

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