Randy Weston and Christian Scott get Morocco’s Gnawa Festival grooving

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Randy Weston (above) was there, folding his lanky 90-year-old frame onto a stool at a baby grand and smiling as his longtime sidemen, double bassist Alex Blake and saxophonist/flautist T.K Burke took commanding, often ecstatic solos. It was a characteristically Africanised set that flowed and caressed, with twin horn and flute lines and Weston’s chiming, Monk-influenced chords flying over this progressive corner of the Maghreb. Even so, there was a sense of opportunities missed; Weston, after all, was one of the first western jazzers to showcase the pentatonic music of Morocco’s Gnawa. A reprising of ‘Ganawa’ [sic], a track from his legendary 1972 album Blue Moses, featuring a collaboration with one of the festival’s plethora of esteemed Gnawa maalems (masters), might have brought the medina walls down.

Precocious New York trumpeter Christian Scott (below) – or as he now prefers, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – was there as well, dripping gold bling as befits a jazz prince, wielding a custom instrument and bending genres with spacious instrumentals that veered from hip hop to spiritual jazz to funky swamp jams. So too was the Jeff Ballard Trio, delivering a set that saw Beninois guitarist Lionel Loueke, Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón and the eponymous American jazz drummer start sparsely yet melodically, their respective colours gathering intensity and momentum; the arrival of Maalem Mohamed Kouyou, one of Morocco’s most beloved Gnawa maestros, for a so-called ‘fusion’ was variously greeted with roars, hair flailing and triple-time handclaps from a rapturous, tens-of-thousands-strong home crowd.

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Strutting about the stage in a hot pink blazer, his thumb slapping the funkiest bass outside of the guembri, the iconic bass-lute of the Gnawa maalems, Philadelphia’s Jamaaladen Tacuma distracted from the rumour that he doesn’t shake hands with women via an introductory set that featured a spoken word improvisation by American actor and festival regular Robert Ray Wisdom (The Wire, Nashville, Prison Break) and a jam session that paired him with Maalem Hassan Boussou – a Casablanca-born innovator whose own group, Gnawa Fusion, has long had one dancing foot in tradition and the other in modernity.

As indeed, has New York-based Maalem Hassan Hakmoun (below), a Gnawa godfather rated by the likes of Don Cherry, Miles Davis and Peter Gabriel. With a set laden with everything from the skittering rhythms of krakeb castanets to searing rock guitar, thundering Senegalese sabar drumming and those earth-shuddering guimbri basslines – and with dancers including Hakmoun’s tap-dancing wife Chikako Iwahori and a frenetic Senegalese sabar dancer – Hakmoun gave an adoring Essaouira a gig to remember.

Then, of course, was the one who wasn’t there. Or at least, not physically. The spirit of the great Maalem Mahmoud Guinea, who died of cancer last August, is woven into the fabric of the festival and indeed, of Morocco itself. Think of Gnawa music, and Guinea – the Zeus of maalems, the Gnawa equivalent of Muddy Waters, say, or Ali Farke Touré, and a giant who’d released classic recordings and worked with everyone from Pharoah Sanders to Santana – was the maalem who sprang to mind.

More than any maalem, it was Guinea who encapsulated the Souira-style of Essaouria, who reiterated time and time again that Gnawa music, with its West and North African origins and Afro-Islamic chants and songs, is at the root of jazz, rock and soul. Last year’s stand-out concert featured the frail Guinea handing his guimbri (and his mantle) over to his son, Houssam, before a tearful crowd who were already mourning his passing.

This year, surrounded by guest percussionists from an ensemble led by master Senegalese drummer Doudou N’diaye Rose ensemble, and following a short film homage to his late great father, the younger Guinea strode the stage with all the confidence and savoir faire of a man on a mission. The ear-splitting reaction was unequivocal: Le roi est mort, vive le roi! Or if you like, mata almalik, asha almalik! The king is dead. Long live the king!

– Jane Cornwell
– Photos by Karim Tibari