Revived by great food, we return to the riad, only to find ourselves wanting to get out. Our room is fine, but the marathon bus ride and lack of claustrophobia we felt in Marrakesh makes for a want of wandering. So we head out to the street. Unlike Marrakesh, Essaouira's medina is compact, maybe four football fields in total. In fact, you can fit everything in Essaouira's ramparts - the kasbah, medina, and mellah - in the area that makes up Marrakesh's Kasbah (or about 20 American city blocks). Also, Essaouira is unique in that it wasn't fully developed until the 17th Century and when it was, Sultan Muhammed III ordered an imprisoned French engineer - Theodore Cornut - to lay out the city European style, in order to attract foreign trade. As a result, Essaouira is a near grid and very easy to navigate.
The small size and ease of finding your way aren't the only things that make Essaouira a relaxing place. As noted earlier, the street life is pretty mellow. You don't see beggars. People don't demand that you employ them as guides. You are not harassed as you are in Marrakesh. We hesitated to use the word "harassment" when describing Marrakesh - liberal guilt and such - and didn't until several Essaouirans did so. "Oh you've come from Marrakesh. How did you like it?" "It was very intense, very loud, very aggressive." "Yes, you will not be harassed here. Essaouira is not like Marrakesh." Civic pride and Tourism 101 informed the locals' take, but it was also based on truth. Walking the streets of Essaouira, we felt invisible, like we didn't matter. Of course, both these sentiments are nonsense. As Westerners, we did stick out - if not individually as a class - and our tourist dollars did matter.
The merchants, inn keepers and restaurateurs of Essaouira know their geography. They know that most people who come to their town pass through Marrakesh and they use the contrast to their advantage. Every tourist visiting from Marrakesh has the same reaction to Essaouira that we did - relief and relaxation - and only a rank amateur would disturb that by yelling at you from the street in order to get you to buy some carved thing that you don't need. While I am sure Essaouirans feel the town's tranquility, they have also mastered the soft sell. You are allowed to wander in and out of shops with nothing more than a smile and a "Bonjour" from the shop keep. Stroll into an art gallery - there are many in town - and you get a nod, if that. When you inquire about an item, you aren't pressured into buying. A price is given to you - usually 25% or more than the opening bid at a Marrakeshi souk - and you don't barter. Why not barter? Bartering is pretty much the rule of exchange in Morocco, but after Marrakesh, in the mellow of Essaouira, what's ten or twenty dirham? You pay the price to preserve the mellow. Call it an anti-harassment tax, one which the merchants are happy to extend to you and one you are content to pay.
We wander in and out of shops until we stumble on a place called Bob Music. We poke our head into the closet sized shop. Musical instruments hang from the ceiling and crowd the walls. The floor is stacked with drums. There is an order to it but one that only a shop keep would know. The place feels good. Susan asks me how long I'll be. I tell her a half hour or so, she says she'll come back then. As I am taking the place in, a short, bearded, young guy comes in and puts on a CD. He asks if I am looking for anything. I tell him I am not. He says he will be outside if I need him and steps out. The music on the CD is really good. Really, really good. I look at the case and it is a Master Musicians of Jajouka album from the 1990s. I poke my head out the door to see if the shop keep is there. He isn't. I go back in Bob Music and continue to look around. About ten minutes pass and the short man comes back. I ask if the CD is for sale. He tells me 30 dirham, which is about $3.50 US. I ask if he has any records. He points to the CDs. I ask if he has any disques, vinyl, and make a big circle with my hands. He pulls a couple really beat up 45s from behind a drum. The records are too mangled to buy, but I do get the Master Musicians CD. The man gives me his card - his name is Abderrahim - and I tell him I will be back. I go outside and wait for Susan.
We get back to the riad and I start thinking about Bob Music. I know the name but can't figure out why. I crack open a guide book and the store is mentioned. It's described as a quirky music store named after Bob Marley (pics of Marley and Hendrix are on the walls), but that is it. I tell Susan that I need to go back there. Something about the place...
There are a lot of music shops in Essaouira, which is no surprise when you find out that the town is pretty much the center of Gnaoua (Gnawa), the Sufi-based music that permeates Morocco. Every year, pounding trance like sounds take over the town for the annual, three-day, Gnaoua (Gnawa) festival, attracting musicians and fans (over 400,000) from all over the world. The strange thing is that, unlike Marrakesh, Essaouira not only had a total lack of street music, I didn't hear music blaring out of shops. The one public front for music was the music store and even then the experience seemed passive.
We spend our first full day in Essaouira wandering around. We get coffee and the best gelato I've ever had while sitting at El Hassan watching people walk by. We look at the fishing boats and walk along the water. Susan visits a hammam. I go to Bob Music. Again, no one is in the store. I stand there for a while and a stocky fellow pops his head in. I ask if the guy who was there the night before will be in. I am told that he is surfing and will be back in the evening. I have to meet Susan at the hammam so I split.
Evening comes and after some excellent fish at the seafood grills, we start our stroll through the Medina. My goal is Bob Music. I arrive and for the third time I am the only one in the shop. I've already spent enough time alone in the place so I am getting antsy. As I am contemplating leaving, Abderrahim pops his head in. I ask if the surf was good and we start to talk. He asks if there is thing I want to know about the music in the shop. I pull out my notebook and rattle off some names: Nass el Ghiwane, Jil Jilala. Abderrahim's eyes light up. He finds a Nass el Ghiwane CD and puts it on. He starts telling me their story. I had read that one of the members was allegedly killed by the state security forces. He lowers his voice and says yes, and then explains that their music is still very important because it "spoke the truth that could not be told." He puts in a Jil Jilala CD and it is fantastic. With the CD comes Abderrahim's history of that group. And then another and another. My stack of CDs is growing. I ask him about Gnaoua music. He gives me a primer. He puts on a CD and picks up a drum. He tells me to listen to the beat. He skips to another song and plays a new beat. And then he switches back so I can compare. I ask about Jajouka. He tries to explain to me the various Sufi brotherhoods and their musical styles. A change of CDs and Abderrahim breaks out the castanets. He plays them to the CD, stopping to make sure I am following along. He asks me if I like Cat Stevens. It has been three hours since I stepped into Bob Music. At hour two, I dashed to the street in order to tell Susan, "Honey, I think I need another hour." It is now closing time. And while jam sessions at Bob Music are common enough, I am blown away to get a three hour lesson in Moroccan music. The ten CDs I am buying doesn't seem to be a fair exchange, but Abderrahim is not only happy, he throws another CD onto the pile. Tonight is one of the best musical nights of my life.
Fatima Tihihite s/t 7" (Koutoubiaphone, 198?)
We get off the bus from Marrakesh and are greeted by Ali, our wheelbarrow man. We plop our suitcases into his cart and off we go. Ali pushes the cart, guiding us to our riad, while chatting with Susan in French. I have no idea what they are saying so I just take in the sounds of our walk. The contrast with Marrakesh is striking. The constant din of mopeds, car horns, raitas, and store salesmen is replaced by the sound of waves crashing against the shore, the squawking of seagulls, and hushed conversations. Deep blue boats line the shore, photographed a zillion times and why not? Their color matches the sky and contrasts with the white of the buildings, sprouting from behind the red ramparts in the distance. It is beautiful. We are now at least a hundred yards from where the bus dropped us off and I notice: No cars. No cars, no trucks, no mopeds, no scooters and, thus, no insistent whine of combustion engines or acrid smell of exhaust. I also notice that my back and neck are like jelly, all the tension built up over the last week is gone.
We walk through the Place Moulay el Hassan, Essaoura's main square. Again the contrast with Marrakesh couldn't be greater. Where the Place Jemaa el Fna is a frantic carnival of stimulation, el Hassan is as mellow as a neighborhood park on a weekday afternoon. Chairs from cafes line the square, but in the square is nothing. No performers, no hawkers, no snake charmers, no beggars; just open space. As we enter the Kasbah, I notice the quiet. Again no cars, no mopeds - they are not allowed within the town walls. That is why the riad sent us a wheelbarrow man and not a cab. The sound of transportation is the sound of feet slapping the pavement and wheels crushing sand, not the grinding of gears and firing of fuel. We pass stores and while the doors are open, no one is demanding that you see what they have for sale. Again, Essaouira's volume is set at relax.
During the 1960s, American and European artists, musicians and hippies discovered Essaouira for themselves. For these counterculturists, the yin to Essaouira's yang was Tangiers not Marrakesh. While Tangiers offered a bacchanalia of drugs, sex, crime, and intrigue, Essaouira was mellow, a fishing town, whose residents ignored whatever indulgences the weirdos and beardos engaged in. Essaouria's most famous hippie resident was Jimi Hendrix, who wrote "Spanish Castle Magic" about the place or was it "Castles Made of Sand"? I've read both, but neither is correct. Essaouira's other famous, part-time resident/musician was Bob Marley, whose image is everywhere, including all over a store named after him (which I will get to next time around). Nowadays, Essaouira is a bit more yuppie than hippie, though the town is thoroughly Moroccan and you still get people on the street offering to sell you hashish.
We get to the riad and check in. It is early evening, we are hungry. We ask the woman at the desk if she can recommend a place to eat. She says that the restaurant next door is excellent and she will take us there. We walk outside and she knocks on a big wooden door. A large man opens it and after the woman and he exchange some words in Arabic, he opens the door, and with a big smile invites us in. The restaurant is dark, fabric hangs from the ceiling and there are cushions everywhere. We are led to the back, the only light comes from candles. We sit down and are hugged by our chairs. There is no menu. The owner of the restaurant asks us if there is anything we don't want. Susan tells him I don't eat meat. He heads to the kitchen. After a while he comes back with a bottle of water, a basket of pita bread, olive oil, and a dish of olives. We are famished so we dive in. Twenty minutes later he brings us the main dish. I am not sure what it is other than hot, filling, and exactly what is needed. After the culinary disaster we had in Marrakesh, this place is paradise. We finish and sit back, cradling our warm bellies. Though three-fourths of the day was spent inside a bus rolling through barren land, the last couple hours has made this an excellent day...and there is still more to come.
Nouas Al Harba b/w Kods 7" (Philips, 1974)