The Moroccan Coastal City That’s Catnip for Creatives

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

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

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

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

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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