Wednesday 25th June 2008
I get off the airport bus at the Place de Foucauld close to the infamous, and endlessly fascinating Djemaa El Fna. The temperature is hovering somewhere close to 50 C as I weave a path through the petrol fumes, crowd and mopeds of the square. I'm on my hastily arranged and ill prepared way to Essaouira for the 11th Festival de Gnaoua. It's my third visit to Morocco and in my naivety I imagine myself as an old hand, nothing here can surprise me.
I stay the night in the Hotel Scherazade, my one night of relative luxury in moderately priced accommodation, but this is good because the rest of the trip is a complete mystery - no idea where I'll stay, nowhere booked and no contingency plan. To consolidate the slight sense of unease, I'm travelling on a very limited budget. I have only £200 to last the week, and have no access to any other funds as I await the final installment of a grant which its not due to be paid until the week after I return to the UK. This is something of a worry, but I try hard not to think about it.
I find the hotel, deposit my bag in the room before making my way to the roof terrace for my first mint tea of the trip. I sit and smoke on the terrace with my tea and a book I hope will make me appear intellectual, before getting into a conversation with a friendly Marrakshi who eventually offers to help me locate some quality essentials that might help ease my troubled mind. And by a stroke of luck, he's good to his word.
Later in the afternoon a group of wealthy young English chaps check in and join me on the terrace. We get to talking and it soon becomes clear that they too are heading to Essaouira. They couldn't get tickets to Glastonbury and so here they are. They ask how I'm getting there. Well, my trip's quite impromptu and I just figured I'd catch a bus. However, it's already clear that Essaouira is going to be a popular destination and the buses may well be rather busy. Luckily, these fresh faced young men are one step ahead. They've hired a driver and an air conditioned people carrier and offer me the spare seat if I chip in for the fare, it's an offer I'm happy to accept. We chat some more, drink some tea, then they head off to the new town to sample the bars and clubs while I head into the square for food and entertainment.
I sleep well that night.
Thursday 26th June 2008
I'm up nice and early for breakfast on the roof terrace. My bag is packed and I'm ready to go. The sun is out and things heat up quickly. No sign of my new friends. I smoke on the terrace and drink coffee with my book trying hard to look enigmatic. Not at all bothered by the fact that its soon time for the car to arrive. Eventually I give up the ghost and head down to the rooms to see what's happening.
The Englishmen are all nursing hangovers and trying to pack bags. They've missed breakfast and everything's running slowly recovering from a night in one of the Gueliz casinos drunk and enjoying life on another continent. All the boys are rounded up complete with luggage and we pay our bills and head down to the square where the car awaits. Of course it's older and had more use than they expected and its smaller than they'd imagined. I offer to take the bus as the car isn't as big as advertised, but of course its fine (we are English after all), we can all squeeze in. Its now the middle of the day and the heat is creeping towards its peak in the red city.
By the time we're out of Marrakech and on the straight road to Essaouira, its become apparent that the air conditioning in the car also doesn't work. However, the radio does work and I have no hangover. I'm also close to the air streaming in through the open window. The sky is a deep, clear blue and there are no clouds as we cruise through the moon-like landscape towards the walled town on the edge of the Atlantic.
The driver speaks no English and my French is only slightly better than my Arabic, but time speeds and we are soon stopping close to the large Sofitel hotel on the Boulevard Mohammed V overlooking the sea. This is where the journey ends as the English boys have arranged to pick up the keys for the apartment they've hired. I help unpack the bags from the car then we say our goodbyes.
I head on towards the Medina where I hope to be able to find a place to stay, though its already obvious that the population of the town has swelled considerably. On the beach there's a ramshackle encampment of tents and shelters and I panic slightly wondering whether I'll be able to find a bed. Walking through the medina, I try not to get drawn into the festivities - I want to find a room, settle in and freshen up before joining the crowds of relaxed faces.
Of course, wandering around the packed medina on the first day of the festival, I soon get the impression that many of the hotels and hostels are full. Enquiries in a few randomly selected hotels confirm my fears. I make my way back through the narrow maze of streets towards the light and space of the Moulay Hassan square, where I check my guidebook before deciding to make a way up the narrow Rue de Scala which hugs the wall of the medina and runs North from the square. I'm hoping there may be a bed left at the Hotel Smara, which is in my price range...however, being the most popular budget place in town I'm out of luck. Despondent, I head back towards the square to drink a coffe, smoke a cigarette and gather myself.
Walking down the Rue de Scala, a street which is permenantly in the shadow of the wall of the city, I get talking to a gentleman who wants me to look at the jewellry and leather in his shop. I'm really not in the mood for the hard sell and try to brush him off, when he suddenly announces that he knows where I can get a room. We start chatting and he tells me he can take me to a place, very nearby, where a Mr Haj is letting out rooms in his house, only for the duration of the festival. He's eager that I understand that this is not a hotel but a private house with spare rooms and that Mr Haj appreciates the extra income they generate during festival time. What have I got to lose?
We walk a few metres down the street and come to a large blue door. There is a hole in the door where you would normally expect a keyhole, a piece of string dangles from the hole. The man pulls the string and the door unlatches. We step into the cool darkness of a beautifully tiled stairway. Up we go to the first floor where Mr Haj, an older Arabic gentleman in a white djelaba and skullcap, is washing his hands with a lemon in his comfortable looking salon. We are introduced and the man from the shop explains that I'm looking for a room. I'm taken up a couple more flights of stairs to the floor with the rooms all the time amazed that the modest blue door is the entrance to such a large home.
I'm shown to a small room containing a lumpy bed. The walls are painted bright yellow and there is plaster and paint, which has fallen from the ceiling, on the bedcover. There is a shower and toilet in an adjoining room. Being so close to the sea, the room feels slightly damp and musty. I tell Mr Haj I need a room for three nights, he quotes an extortionate price and I roll my eyes in mock exasperation and we enter into the ancient game. After some time we have finalised the deal, I am not happy however, its still more than I wanted to pay for a bed, but I'm conscious that I need a place to sleep and the town is packed with tourists. Mr Haj gives me the key to the room.
I dump my bag and wander up to the roof terrace. There are a number of other guests sitting up on the terrace, including two Belgian's and an American. We all sit in the afternoon sun and swap stories about journeys and such like. The Belgian's are here for the festival, for the music, and are excited to see this act and that. They have an itinery planned and have a copy of the festival programme close at hand. I have a look through the programme, and note with some excitement that Mahmoud Guenya is playing at the Moulay Hassan on Saturday night. There are some incredible musicians playing, but I find it hard to stick to programmes and prefer to be able to wander at festivals. You never know what might happen, who you may meet or what you may see if you just allow yourself to drift a little.
By contrast, the American seems surprised that the town is so busy, almost as if he didn't know about the festival. He doesn't appear to be particularly interested in the music and seems to have landed here by accident. We get talking, he's from Atlanta and is called Otambe. He's been travelling the coast of West Africa for nearly 6 months. He's a quiet and reserved African-American, in his late twenties or early thirties he is well dressed with close cropped hair. I press him about his travels, eager to hear stories, but he's fairly cagey, though not unfriendly. He talks fondly about river fishing in Nigeria - and about the bars of West Africa.
Later, I head out onto the streets. I eat a sandwich and drink a coffee and wander the busy streets soaking up the music, which seems to emanate up out of the ground. The noise in the streets is incredible, the low, endless murmer of the crowded streets, a cacophonous and heady mix of music coming from all different directions, from cd stalls, from shops and cafes, from the musicians who are hanging out on every corner, distant drums drifting from who knows where. The hypnotic rhythm of the qraqab underpins everything. It is dizzying, disorientating and electrifying to wander with the crowds.
When the sun starts to go down I walk back to my room to gather some things. Otambe is up on the roof terrace savouring the last of the day's heat. We chat some more and I ask if he'd like to come and check out some of the performances - I'm heading for the smaller stages in the heart of the medina where I hope to hear a rawer and more hypnotic brand of Gnawa music than the Gnawa-jazz-world fusion that's playing on the larger stages. He tells me he'll come out for a while and so off we go out into the crowds. We walk around for a long while, chatting and catching the sights, sounds and smells. Otambe is strange company - he's very quiet, reluctant to talk about much apart from his immediate surroundings, but he doesn't seem to lack confidence. By the time darkness has fallen, we are in the grain market where Allal Soudani and Najib Gbani and a small chorus of singers and qraqab players are performing. The small square is packed with a very diverse crowd of people, all ages and nationalities. The atmosphere is fantastic and the crowd become very excitable when the music shifts pace and the qraqab players start to perform acrobatic feats in time with the music. The rhythms are irresistable and I dance for a while.
Later I notice Otambe is becoming restless. He tells me the music isn't for him and asks if I want to go to a bar. As I said, Otambe is strange company, and something about the situation makes me feel obliged to agree, like I'm worried that he'll be alone if I don't, that I'll be letting him down. I tell him that my money is tight and that I can come for a drink but can't afford much more than that. He says he knows somewhere near the city wall, so off we go. We're soon sitting in leather chairs in quite plush surroundings away from the noise and crowds. The bar is very civilised and we drink a beer each and smoke cigarettes. Otambe is from Atlanta and he's been travelling. He likes to drink and has a few stories about people he met in Camaroon and Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, stories about being drunk on another continent. He doesn't like the fact that its difficult to get alcohol in this Muslim country. Other than this he doesn't talk much about himself or his own life. When we finish the drinks I tell him I'm going to head out to catch more music, but Otambe says he knows another bar where there will be dj's and dancing. My arm becomes rubbery and I again tell him I have very little money and cannot stay for long.
Otambe takes me to a basement bar that is very plush with a well dressed clientelle of mostly Moroccan couples. We find a table in the cool, candlelit darkness and he orders two more beers. I dread receiving the bill, knowing the place is going to be very expensive. Otambe is still reluctant to talk about himself, swerving what seem to be fairly harmless questions like "What do you do in Atlanta?" or "Have you got kids?". After a while we are joined by two young Moroccan men. It takes me a few moments to realise that Otambe knows them both. It's at this point that he reveals that he's been in Essaouira for nearly two weeks, just relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere. He's planning on travelling up the coast of Morocco for a little while before catching a flight back to Ghana or Senegal. The two men who've joined us are Abdullah and Brikhim, they are both exceptionally friendly and well dressed in baggy jeans and baseball caps. Abdullah speaks excellent English, whilst Brikhim is younger and more eager. Brikhim can't understand why I've come to the festival, not being a fan of Gnawa music he tells me he prefers rock and rap.
We talk more, the evening is easier now that I'm not trying to drag conversation out of Otembe. There are soon more beers on the table without my even noticing. I quietly tell Otembe that I really must make this my last as my money is very tight. I tell him I will finish and settle my part of the bill, but he laughs it off and tells me not to worry. I resolve to finish and pay, but resolve has never been my strong point.
As I near the end of my beer, a bottle of red wine appears on the table along with four glasses. Brikhim has magicked together a special cigarette and is telling me that he wants to fly. I'm starting to enjoy the mixture of rai, r&b and electro-gnawa the dj is playing and venture on to the floor for a little dance. Otambe and Abdullah are deep in conversation. A little later I tell Otambe that I want to pay for the beers I've had as I'm going to head home. He says that there's another bottle of wine coming and not to worry about the money as they need help finishing the bottle.
Later I notice that there are not many people left in the bar. I'm drunk but Brikhim still wants to fly. It's nearly 5 in the morning. The waiter has brought the bill and I silently start to panic - I know that there's little chance of Abdullah and Brikhim being able to contribute, and I imagine that this accidental session will probably eat up the majority of the money that should last me a whole week and which still has to pay for five days of food, travel and accommodation. Abdullah is speaking quickly in Arabic with the waiter. They are laughing and appear to know each other well. The waiter leaves and when he has gone Abdullah leans in close to Otambe - "It's fine, we go now" he says. "You've cleared it?" asks Otembe. "Yes, we can go".
I'm unsure as to what has happened as we walk out of the empty bar, past the huge doormen in white shirts and black ties and up the steps into the morning air. No money has changed hands and I can't believe how drunk I am. We're all in high spirits as we walk into the maze of narrow streets. The town is quiet and empty, only our drunken laughter and heavy footsteps and the cry of the gulls break the morning silence. We are near the Moulay Hassan when a hand falls on my shoulder. I turn and am confronted by the two doormmen from the bar, immaculately fearsome in their pressed shirts and black ties. They talk with Abdullah but my horrified mind is lurching. I'm suddenly adrift in cold space. "They want the money man" says Abdullah. I haven't got it. Otambe is there. He takes a fat leather wallet out of his pocket and opens it asking calmly if they can take a card. The madness of this question is not entirely lost on me and if I was not so frightened I think I'd be laughing hysterically. I see Otambe flicking through an enormous collection of credit cards. "Will they take this one? Or this?"
I look around and see that Brikhim is standing away from the rest of us, I move back towards him and when I'm close he nods his head towards the square and so I turn from the doormen and Otambe and run towards the darkness of the Rue de Scala. I hear footsteps behind me and hope they belong to Otambe.
I wake up in the lumpy bed in the yellow room in Mr Haj's house. The harsh morning sunlight is streaming in through the window and it takes a while for my eyes to adjust. A trumpet is being played somewhere close by. I crawl into the shower and try to regain some sense of my humanity before going up onto the terrace. The Belgian's are there but there's no sign of Otambe. I don't see him until the Saturday evening when I bump into him on the roof terrace. We had ran home together but I have no idea what happened on that drunken night, my mind is full of questions. Otambe tells me he came back to his room, got the money to pay the bill then went back and found Abdullah and the doormen. I ask if he wants me to pay half but he tells me its fine - I'm not about to argue. That is the last I see of him.
This cassette is mysterious and beautiful, solo guimbri and singing, small choir call and response. The earth moves slightly when the qraqabs come in half way through side one. The songs are timeless.
-Uled Bambara (incl. Allah ya Nabina, Woye ya Waye, Lalla Imma; Bangara Bangara; Berrma Sosangdi)
-Negsha (incl. Negsha; Lalla Fatima)
-Rebbi L'Aafu (= Ftih ar-Rahba)
-Assalaamu Alaykum (Musawi)
Many thanks to Tim Abdellah for all his fantastic translations.
Get it HERE.