Essaouira [pronounced Essa-weera], formerly known as Mogador, is in the Southern portion of Morocco, along the coast. Famous for the fact that Jimi Hendrix lived nearby for a summer and played among the Gnawa. There is a Web site in English that provides some good information about Essaouira, http://www.al-bab.com/maroc/trav/essaouira.htm.
The person I was seeking in Essaouira is Gnawa and his father had been the maalem (leader) of the Gnawa before his death and had actually played with Jimi himself. This fact was captured in a newspaper article that Najib had proudly posted on the wall of his shop, once I found him. The walled portion of Essaouira is small. You can walk from one end to the other in a matter of 15-20 minutes – that’s if you don’t stop along the way or meander through the winding narrow carless streets only wide enough for a donkey cart. This is hard not to do.
Everyone knows everyone here, or at least knows about them. I was seeking out Najib Sudani when I arrived within the walls and, as no shops really have addresses per se, I was not finding what I was looking for. Finally, I stopped at a corner shop where an artisan was working. He spoke some English, enough for me to ask him where I could find Najib Sudani. He went outside, found a young girl – I had no idea if this was a niece, daughter, or no relation at all – who then personally escorted me to Najib’s shop.
Najib is an instrument maker specializing in the guembri (also called guimbri, sentir or hajhouj). He is also a Gnawa maalem, like his father before him. The role of maalem of Essaouira had been assumed by another less "experimental" maalem in town. Najib seems to be known as a rebel, trying out new sounds, blending styles…he is curious, creative, and adventurous. You can hear this when you sit down with him in his shop and he starts to play.
The best place to buy CDs in Essaouira is along the streets. They may not be legal, but there’s some great music. Commercial releases are typically on French labels. There are many French people who have come to Essaouira to buy cheap property and live the exotic life of Paul Bowles
The Gnawa festival (Festival Gnaoua) is held in June of each year. I went in 2001, before the September 11 attacks. There were 75,000 attendees, fresh fish, crab, etc., cooked fresh on demand. Mostly Moroccans, mostly men.
There are some good guides in English for people interested in traveling to morocco. The Rough Guide to Morocco is one of the most popular. There is also the Lonely Planet Morocco and the Knopf Guide: Morocco . Lonely Planet published a handy
Moroccan Arabic Phrasebook .
How to get to Essaouira
By bus with CTM. isit CTM website for full information on stations, schedule and prices.
By train with www.oncf.ma and SUPRATOUR. With one ONCF train ticket you go to Marrakesh by train and continue to Essaouira by SUPRATOUR bus.
By Plane: The Gnawa festival has a Festival RAM Charter from Casablanca to Essaouira. Contact Atlas Voyages.
What you see:
Elephantitis, poverty, neighborhood cats, stray dogs, lots of soccer balls being kicked around, gorgeous light off the water, windsurfers – the wind is strong and prime for such activities. The city hot in the day and cold at night
Cheap and delicious, if you find the right place – the Pearl is a wonderful restaurant right in the heart of the walled portion of Essaouira.
Contributed by Sarah Wolfe