It’s midnight in Essaouira, and a castanet-like rhythm is drifting over the ramparts on the steely Atlantic breeze.
Tucked into a courtyard is a group of robed musicians playing bass drums, reed pipes and qaraqebs, metal chimes which are clacked together in the fingers. Their leader, the maalem, plucks a three-stringed gimbri lute. Singers in tassel-topped caps weave a polyrhythmic chant into the sound. The group is surrounded by a respectful audience: some standing, some preferring to sit cross-legged.
Suddenly, the beat quickens and one of the chanters launches into a dazzling sequence of lunges, jumps and cossack-like knee-bends. Finally, he spins on the spot, his long tassel whirling like a helicopter blade. An audience member joins in and ends up collapsed on the ground, seemingly in some kind of ecstatic trance.
This is a lila, one of the intimate musical gatherings that take place each night during the city’s annual Gnawa music festival. The Gnawas (or, in French, Gnaouas) are a spiritual brotherhood of healers and mystics whose ancestors, animist West Africans, were transported to Morocco as slaves. Their hypnotic music, a blend of sub-Saharan, Berber and Arab influences, is key to their rituals.