Academic journal article Western Folklore

Frontstage Backstage: Participatory Music and the Festive Sacred in Essaouira, Morocco

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Frontstage Backstage: Participatory Music and the Festive Sacred in Essaouira, Morocco

Article excerpt

Essaouira is a wind-swept resort town toward the southern end of Morocco's Atlantic coast, three hours west of Marrakech. The town is remarkable for its annual festival celebrating the music of the Gnawa, a heterodox group of religious lodges whose members claim descent from formerly enslaved sub-Saharan Africans. Indeed, the town played a major role in the trans-Saharan slave trade and also has a significant Jewish history. Moreover, Gnawa music continued to grow and develop as a genre and form over the twentieth century from its ancient roots in spirit possession and trance rituals to increasing levels of commercial production for domestic and international consumption. Changes that came about to the music and its audiences during this time, among other factors, contributed to the Gnawa festival's success in the late 1990s. Since then, it has continued to attract much larger audiences than have other cultural festivals in a highly competitive field in Morocco. What contributed to its success? Following is an examination of reasons for the success of the Gnawa festival and an argument that a large part of this success is due to the way the festival enables the "festive sacred," the transnational capitalization of the sacred (Kapchan 2008). The festival does this so well because the musicians at Essaouira productively combine participatory with presentational performance practices (Turino 2008). The idea here is that all live music is oriented either towards participation-everyone present participates in producing the music-or towards presentation, wherein expert performers produce music for a nonparticipating audience. Folk musics are typically cast as participatory-and elite musics as presentational-but the goal in a festival like this one is to have enough participation to engage tourists and enough presentation to give them a show. With its great potential for participatory discrepancies (Keil 1994, 1995), Gnawa music is nearly perfectly positioned for such creative recombination.

The Essaouira festival is a secular festival supported by private capital, the state, and the crown. Its official title is Festival d'Essaouira Gnaoua Musiques du Monde, which can be translated into "Essaouira Festival of Gnawa and World Music." It serves two major purposes: it attracts tourists, and it bolsters Gnawa musicians' engagement in the music industry. A third probable goal of economic development in Essaouira cannot be discounted (Sum 2011:105). I became interested in Gnawa music and culture because I was bom and raised in Ghana, where my parents continue to live and work, along with my brother and sister and their families. Our white American missionary family has lived mostly in Northern Ghana, far from the wealthy and politically dominant regions of Southern Ghana that most foreigners are familiar with (e.g. Meyer 1999, Feld 2012). Because I came from the North, I felt more interested in interior West Africa. For hundreds of years, before the Europeans arrived, interior West Africa was a major world civilizational site of wealth, scholarship, and development. European dependence on maritime trade during the colonial period turned West Africa inside-out and refocused world attention on the coastal regions, while European racism erased the histories of interior West Africa for hundreds of years (Wolf 1982). (And the slave trade erased actual communities.) Evidence of these histories remains, however, in the experiences of people such as the Gnawa of Morocco.

I returned to the US for education in the 1990s, beginning graduate school in 1997, when America was in the beginning stages of the Global War on Terror. I studied Arabic and the Middle East and received funding to do so. But 1 also wanted to find cultural bridges between interior West Africa and North Africa, and I had discovered Gnawa music around 1998. When I began my doctoral program in 2000, I did so with the intention of traveling to Morocco; almost the first thing I did in Morocco when I arrived in 2001 was to travel to Essaouira for the festival. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.