Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Verdict: Gnawa Photo Expedition

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy -All Rights Reserved

Now ensconced in sunny and hot London, I've reflected on the past 2 weeks spent photographing in Morocco during the Gnawa Festival Photo Expedition, and two key words immediately jump to mind: frustrating and sublime.

Here's the frustrating bit: people photography in the large cities of Morocco is to say the least, extremely difficult. Moroccans are generally reticent to pose under any circumstances, and photographing them on the sly (say in a marketplace) can lead to some unpleasant confrontations. I recall that we were photographing fishermen off-loading their catch in the post of Essaouira, and hearing one of them, clearly irritated by our presence, asking his colleagues if we thought them to be monkeys in a zoo. Other Morrocans would agree to pose provided they were paid, then adopted the dreaded "frozen look". Some noticed our cameras, and immediately covered their faces whether we pointed our cameras in their direction or not. Street photography needed ingenuity and a self-starting approach, since photographing in a group didn't work.

I exerted much efforts to engage people and show respect, but despite my fluency in Arabic (somewhat different for the local idiom), I wasn't terribly successful in persuading them to be photographed. However, I did manage to establish moments of genuine kinship, such as with the owner of Africa Music in Essaouira who spoke at length about Gnawa music, but it did not translate into being open to photography. It will be included however in my planned multimedia piece on the Gnawa.

The other frustrating issue is that in impoverished Morocco, and because its high unemployment rate amongst its youth, there's a sense that tourists ought to pay for every little service, whether needed or not. I found this to be particularly true in Marrakech and Ouazazate, but less so in Essaouira. For instance, the self-appointed guides at the Ait Benhaddou Kasbah in Ouarzazate are spectacularly venal, and some even threatening. It's a shame since the site is UNESCO-listed, and ought to be supervised instead of being left to a bunch of hooligans.

Before I turn to the sublime aspect of the photo-expedition, here are a few other random thoughts. In the grand scheme of things, Ouarzazate was a dud from a photographic standpoint. Unless one is willing to photograph the Kasbahs (there are two of them), nothing else attracted my attention. I'd give Marrakech a passing mark for photography because of its Jemaa el-Fna square, and that's about it. Again, all this is said based on my sort of travel documentary photography, and is certainly not applicable to other disciplines. The infrastructural component of the expedition went well. Hotels were generally fine, but the Riad Mimouna in Essaouira stands out a certainly being a jewel. Our bus was expertly and safely driven by the jovial Abdel Hakeem, and was extremely comfortable. However, the drive from Marrakech to Ouarzazate was uncomfortable for those who suffered from motion sickness because of the road's switchbacks.

As for the guides: I didn't find them particularly good nor flexible enough to earn the description of "fixers", with the exception of Hassan E'Chater in Essaouira, who displayed occasional flashes of ingenuity. Guides are badly paid in Morocco, so have to rely for income on herding tourists to stores and restaurants.

The sublime aspect of the photo expedition was found in Essaouira, so in the unlikely event that I repeat this trip, it would only take place during the 4-5 days of the Gnawa Festival, and not more. Although it's still difficult to photograph people in this little town, the medina itself is remarkably photogenic, and since its streets are normally crowded, candid photography is frequently easy. Personally, I found the event to be initially somewhat ill-organized but it got better as the days progressed. Our hotel, Riad Mimouna, was a few steps away from the small Zaouia Sidi Bilal where many of the nightly Gnawa performances were held. Most of my documentary photography and audio recording of the Gnawa was done there. The Zaouia family of caretakers included Rokeyah and her two young nieces Khadija and Ibtisam who, despite their being less than 8 years old, attended the performances well into the wee hours of the night. Khadija greeted some of us with hugs; a display of affection indicative of the Moroccans' hospitality.

The Gnawa performances at the zaouia were breathtaking. I managed to thwart the administrators efforts, and photographed almost as much as I wanted. Rather bizarrely, photography was allowed at some performances, and prohibited at others. Since the area is quite small, a fast wide angle lens is recommended. Since the Gnawa music is extremely percussive (the qerqabs are really noisy!), I've experienced some distortion in my recordings which perhaps I can fix using either Garageband or Audacity. Another great aural experience was the Berber women singers at the La Recontre restaurant near the zaouia.

One of the highlights of the trip was photographing the Gnawa procession which, in effect, inaugurates the festival. It started at Bab Doukala, and winded its way to one of the main arteries leading to Bab Marrakech. The various Gnawa bands performed for the public, and competed with one another to achieve the highest decibel level. One of the bands included a female Gnawa, who is quite famous in their circles.

Gnawa music has a new fan. I bought a few CDs of a couple of Maalems, such as Mahmoud Guinea and Hamid El-Kessari. And fans of grilled sardines will find Essaouira to be the place for them.

Finally, the above photograph was made during a Gnawa performance, when a young local woman suddenly stood and dances to its rhythms. Within a few moments, she had gone into a deep trance by violently throwing her head about. I had seen women going into trances here before, but they were much older and were larger.

Other non-photo sublime moments:

Witnessing an elderly fisherman choose a plump fish from his catch, cutting it to manageable bits and feeding two ravenous scrawny cats. Noticing they seemed thirsty, he found a discarded plastic bottle, cut its bottom to use as a plate and poured water for them.

Sensing the tremendous energy in the audience of young people when Babani Kone of Mali made her entrance on stage, and when Cheb Khaled, the king of Rai, sang his hits on the Essaouira beach.

Returning to my hotel at 3 am from the Essaouira beach after the Rai concert and realizing that, despite the late hour, there was as many people walking about as there would be during the day.