The Moroccan Coastal City That's Catnip for Creatives

Once frequented by Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens, Essaouira is pulling in a new generation of musical nomads, daydreamers and sun-seekers, who discover an ever-evolving creative community blending age-old artistry with cutting-edge technology

In 1969, Jimi Hendrix stayed in Essaouira for 11 days ahead of his legendary performance at Woodstock. That's what some people say, anyway. They also claim that Castles Made of Sand was written about the town's medina. Others do the "I'm not so sure" face. They then clarify that the song was written in '67.

There are no photos of Hendrix in Morocco, but anecdotes abound. Either way, he became the poster boy for a town known for its diverse and creative DNA. Indeed, his legend made Essaouira a must-visit detour on the hippie trail in the early 70s; a place for artsy vagabonds and tie-dye troubadours to smoke weed, imbibe exotic culture and avoid the prevailing conservatism of the post-war west.

Cat Stevens definitely came here. Frank Zappa, too. They were beguiled by the town's homegrown music genre, Gnawa. Its rhythmic, trance-like melodies and call-and-response vocals were originally performed by enslaved West Africans (brought north by boat) as a means of reflective catharsis: the ever-present clatter of castanets in the music is said to represent their chains.

This hypnotic music still thrives today, with the city's Gnawa masters leading ritual healing ceremonies that summon ancestral guardians to drive out evil spirits, allay psychic disorders and even remedy scorpion stings. On my first evening, I watched a collective play on the crenellated ramparts of Essaouira's medina through the top-floor window of Restaurant Il Mare. Their call-and-answer loops made for a meditative soundtrack to my meal of just-caught sardines.

The performance was part of Moga Festival. Now in its fourth year, this multi-venue weekender serves to celebrate and promulgate Moroccan music, art, photography, food and craft. There's plenty of international electro, too, which pulls in crowds from around the world, from Casablanca to Canada. The festival has become emblematic of Essaouira's return to creative form.

Performers at a Gnawa concert, Essaouira

Moga Festival performers, left, and one of the crowd. | Photo Credit: Hakim Wiseman Joundy, Joseph Ouechen

"Honestly? Our original site in Marrakech fell through, so we looked further afield," said Matthieu Corosine, the event's co-founder. "Essaouira makes total sense, though: it's full of musicians and artists - people who are choosing to spend time here over other creative hotspots like Lisbon. It's safe, clean and inclusive."

Pushed away - like the hippies of yore - by prohibitive prices and a general sense of disenchantment at home, young creatives are attracted to the city by easy visas, excellent surfing and fibre optic bandwidth. Remote worker catnip.

I met musician and surfer Anna Castro in Ocean Vagabond, a beach bar filled with an equal amount of MacBooks and surfboards. Her schtick is teaching women to DJ - free of charge. She had to leave her erstwhile base in Barcelona for visa reasons and decided on Essaouira. Her first class attracted 20 women. Now she plans on staying.

"I love Essaouira - it's a real party town. Not like other places I've been to in Morocco," says Castro, ebulliently. "A lot of the girls who attend my classes are now friends, so I feel like it's more than just DJing - we're building a community."

Another newbie is Lala Tamar, an Israeli singer-songwriter. The new entente between Morocco and Israel meant there was "finally a way in". She's here to learn and preserve certain Jewish aspects of the Gnawa tradition under a local master.

I found her at the House of Memory - a small museum in the medina - writing a song with a Gnawa group and the trailblazing DJ Moullinex from Portugal. "The fact that there's Jewish heritage within Gnawa is beautiful evidence of people and cultures coexisting," Tamar said, during a cigarette break.

"That's what Essaouira has always been about - and it's really starting to happen again." Being in the room as the musicians jammed, listening to the Gnawa man wail, was one of those experiences - a memory maker. The sincerity of it; the mutual respect. It felt rare and special.

The rest of the morning I spent meandering around a medina with a notably less frenetic energy than the equivalent in other parts of Morocco. I walked past a cockerel casually flaunting its plumage in an alleyway; a man with blue-mirror sunglasses who was oil painting, a few doors down. His dreadlocked companion was wearing a Jimmy Cliff T-shirt and smiled at me as if everything was actually going to be alright.

Moga Festival
DJ at Moga Festival in Essaouria Morocco

The festival is a continuation of the city's long musical roots. | Photo credit: Samad Elg, Hakim Wiseman Joundy

It's lazy to write about how "friendly the locals are", but indulge me: there is a love-thy-stranger vibe here that rivals the Greeks' famous philoxenia. It helps, of course, if you speak Arabic or French, but it's not a deal breaker if you don't. I could have spent hours speaking to Hicham Touarass, a local artist in his stone-arch studio. Lured in by the Clapton riffs belting out of his hi-fi, I stuck around to chat and admire his elegant pointillist tableaux.

He suggested I head to Mandala Society for lunch. Before I even walked in, I could see why: hanging wicker baskets and battered bistro chairs are semaphore to millennial travellers looking for vegan vittles and hipster coffee. It serves both. I was fortunate enough to get 10 minutes with Icelandic owner Birta, who made it clear that, "Essaouira's definitely changing and growing, but you still really feel there's a 'gypsy' atmosphere here. I love that it's such a mixed community."

On Tamar's advice, I finished the day on a horse. At Ranch de Diabat, next door to the Jimi Hendrix Café, a horse whisperer called Mustafa offers "ethological" trots on the beach and dunes yonder. That means you're shown how to emotionally connect with the animal so that both parties are getting something out of the experience.

Essaouira's hazy sunsets - formed by the alizé wind whisking sand through humid air - make it look as if nature is printed on old celluloid. The show from my front-row steed didn't disappoint - all the wistful drama of Essaouira distilled into one shot. "Excuse me, while I kiss the sky!" I sang to myself. Maybe Jimi wrote Purple Haze here instead?

Read more about modern rituals in the latest issue.

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