Something like Jazz, au Chellah

Friday, June 19, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco

The Chellah's gardens are a relaxing destination by day, and a pleasant backdrop for some jazz.
Rabat's annual "Jazz au Chellah" festival tends to be a fairly sedate affair, as one might imagine. Assigned seating, a crowd of stiff European expats, and mellow tunes lend it a refined garden party atmosphere.

The backdrop helps, too; the concert stage is tucked among the overgrown ruins of the Chellah (الشالة). One of only a few sites of historical importance in the Moroccan capital, the Chellah is a jungle-like complex of deteriorating Roman and medieval Islamic structures, all surrounded by high, crenellated walls. On a balmy Monday evening, the storks whose cackling normally dominates the site's treetops gave way to the sounds of jazz.

At least, it was supposed to be jazz. I was soon glad, however, that I had picked the one night of the festival which was open to more experimental sounds.

Ivorian artist Aly Keita took the stage first, and the already hushed crowd grew silent. Keita took his place behind his balafon, an instrument resembling an enormous xylophone, handmade of wood, gourds, and rope. Striking with two padded mallets, slowly at first, he brought the keyboard and the crowd to life, his initial traditional melodies building in speed and intensity.

The Moroccan ribab player Foulane Bouhcine joined him on stage, settling his single-stringed instrument on his hip and drawing swiftly with an arced bow. The pair twisted their sounds together in a quickening crescendo, Keita's melodic keyboard complementing well the raspy gnawa violin. The grinning balofoniste's arms bulged and his forearms became a mere blur. Eventually even Bouhcine lowered his instrument to watch in awe. The young Moroccans in the crowd led the clapping and cheering, and even the stodgy Europeans forgot they were supposed to be at a jazz concert.

The second act, a mixed Scandinavian quintet called JazzKamikaze, got things back on the jazz track... for a few minutes. But before long, their drummer was beating for all he was worth, the bassist head-banging, and the guitarist losing himself in wailing, Hendrix-like solos. The keyboarder abandoned his piano for a synthesizer, and the saxophonist blew himself red in the face playing two saxes at once. Their roots were in jazz—that much was clear (even during their potent interpretation of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit")—but this was no Sunday brunch rat-a-tat-tat.

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I'm looking forward to seeing more concerts around Morocco throughout the year, but there's just too many to attend them all! Already this weekend there is the Festival Rabat Africa with music and cultural events, followed a few days later by the Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira. (Though I can't make it, Jacqueline will be in attendance, so check her blog.)

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