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.

As well as these late-night sessions, the festival offers large-scale concerts. From early evening each day, crowds of locals gather around the stages in Place Moulay Hassan and other main squares to hear bands from all over North and West Africa. But it is the starlit lilas that make the festival unique. And it’s hard to imagine a more romantic setting for them than the rugged, windswept fortifications that protect the city from the sea.

By day, Essaouira has a different kind of romance. Seagulls soar over the sun-bleached rooftops and swoop down onto the shore, where fishermen sort their catch. The ramparts bake in the sun. This is the time for the festival’s more energetic visitors to browse the souks for glass beads, leather slippers and drums. Others, meanwhile, just snooze in the cool courtyard of a riad, waiting for another evening’s magic to unfold.

The four-day Festival d’Essaouira Gnaoua et Musiques du Monde is held annually in June. All concerts are held in public spaces and are free.

 

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