It’s late afternoon on the Atlantic Coast and a lazy wind is rolling in, weaving between surfboards and mint tea. I’m with a group of new friends in a café in Essaouira, Morocco. We’re all here for a unique world music festival, and I’m trying to figure out if this heady beach party is by Moroccans for Moroccans, or if it’s a watered-down experience Westernized enough for foreigners with deep pockets.
“It’s definitely for foreigners,” Walid, a twenty year-old student, tells me. It’s his second time attending the Gnawa Music Festival, this time with a group of dreaded friends in tow, all from the capital city of Rabat.
“Really?” I ask, slightly incredulous.
“Definitely,” they repeat.
Held annually since 1997 in this sun-bleached coastal town, Gnawa hosts international acts in jazz, hip-hop, blues, and soul, but it is intended primarily as a meditation on preserving traditional Gnawan music based on African and Islamic traditions. The festival has grown from a small-scale series of concerts for Moroccans (particularly Essaouirians) and some incredibly in-the-know music fans. In recent years, it has attracted an increasingly diverse and international crowd: young backpackers looking for hash and a free show, older European couples excited for an immersive cultural experience, politicos in suits, and what seems like Morocco’s entire Rastafarian population.
Historically, the festival has been an expression of Moroccan and West African music and dance. The focus is on African performers, and there’s a strong sense of African unity that would clearly exclude most white Europeans. “Si vous êtes d’accord, dit Afrique, c’est un,”—“If you agree, say Africa is one”—belts the Nigerian-German singer Ayo one night. But in Essaouira, a town where both Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix have put up their feet and pulled out their guitars, instances of cultural exchange and subsequent appropriation run deep in ways that aren’t altogether clear.