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Gnaoua musician dancing with band at festival in Essaouira

Gnaoua & World Music Festival, Essaouira

The legendary ‘Moroccan Woodstock’ has put Essaouira on the global map of musical cities. And this year, the Gnaoua & World Music Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary. We take a look at the ancient music that’s such a vital part of Moroccan culture.


Imagine a music that combines rhythm, ritual and centuries of culture and history. A music with roots in slavery, African history, Islam and Berber culture. A music that simultaneously straddles past and future. Put all that together and you have gnaoua. 

Twenty-five years ago though, this ancient form of music was under threat of being marginalised and forgotten. And so a determined group of people decided to not just preserve, but amplify, it. 


Festival stage with gnaoua musicians


Headed by entrepreneur – and Moroccan senator – Neila Tazim, they staged the first Gnaoua & World Music Festival in Essaouira. And in the years since then, the festival has grown to become a key event on the Moroccan cultural calendar, attracting up to 500,000 visitors each year to the small Atlantic beach town for four days of music and celebration. Links have also been forged with musicians and world music experts across the globe and in 2019 gnaoua was inscribed on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

Because while the festival today remains rooted in gnaoua, it’s also always been about far wider ambitions. 

‘From the start, this festival has transcended simple entertainment to echo something more powerful,’ says Neila. ‘To make space for an ancestral art form to renew and reinvent itself; to provide proof that development through culture is possible; to contribute to Essaouira’s rise as a destination among the world’s great capitals of music; and to become one of the greatest emblems of Moroccan and African culture on the global stage.’

The roots of gnaoua can be traced back to the 16th century when West African slaves were forced into military, domestic and agricultural service in Morocco. As time passed, African folk roots were fused with classical Islamic Sufism and Morocco’s indigineous Berber culture to create a form of music rooted in spirituality and mysticism.


Gnaoua and World Music Festival with stage of musicians


Traditionally gnaoua masters, called maâlem, lead a group of musicians playing instruments such as castanets, drums and a three-string lute in all-night therapeutic ceremonies. Accompanied by dancers, they enter a trance-like state through rhythm and repetition to connect with mluk, or spirits. 

Rock and jazz artists have long been inspired by the rhythms of gnanoa. And everyone from Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to Carlos Santana have collaborated with some of the most famous maâlems including Brahim El Belkani and Mahmoud Guinea.

Fusion like this has always been central to the Essaouira festival too. And this year artists from all over the world – including Spain, Palestine, the USA, Guadeloupe and France – will perform everything from flamenco and blues to jazz and rap alongside the most renowned maâlems

Nurturing a new generation of gnaoua talent, including more and more female musicians, is also key. And this year the festival is partnering with the Berklee College of Music to incubate young talent during a six-day ‘Berklee On The Road’ residency with professors from the prestigious US college.

Its also partnering with the Center for African Studies at Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Benguerir to create a university chair dedicated to gnaoua culture.

Put it all together, and the future of gnaoua looks bright. And this year’s festival will be a huge celebration of its unique contribution to Moroccan culture.




The three-day event will run from June 27th-29th and kick off with an opening concert featuring the maâlems Hassan Boussou and Moulay Tayeb Dehbi playing alongside Brazlian artist Ilê Aiyê, La Compagnie Dumanlé from the Ivory Coast and Nino de Los Reyes and Sergio Martinez, two of the brightest stars of today’s Flamenco scene. As well as concerts on the main stage, there’s also a host of fringe events in smaller venues as round table talks and workshops.

If you needed another reason to visit Essaouira, experiencing this extraordinary festival could just be it.

You can find out more about the festival including the full line up here. If you are heading to the festival, you might like to read our recommendations on how to spend a day in Essaouira, including where to eat, places to see and things to do. 


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