ESSAOUIRA, Morocco, AFP — “The Gnaoua festival is the Islamic Woodstock where one sings of the glory of God and dances without fanaticism, bearded men and veiled women,” said Ismail Khaldi.
The music festival in the picturesque Moroccan fishing town of Esssaouira, some 450 kilometers (280 miles) south of the capital Rabat, hosts the annual festival which began 10 years ago.
This year, the opening was attended by more than 10,000 people — many who came from afar — providing extra money for locals like Khaldi, who works at a hotel.
More than 500,000 visitors — many from overseas — are expected to see the show in the coming days.
The festival has the energy and the vibe of Woodstock, the pathbreaking 1969 music and art fair at a farm near New York which embodied the hippie counterculture and sexual liberation.
But in spirit, it is a different ball game altogether.
“The Gnaoua music glorifies God and the Prophet Mohammed. We are Muslims, we sing and dance to the bewitching rhythms of this music,” said Khadija, a young woman who came from a place north of Rabat to see the 10th Gnaoua festival.
“The radical Islamists have no right to impose their restrictive views on us,” she said.
For Hamid, a student sporting a shaven head, the festival is a welcome breath of fresh air.
“Here one can savour freedom without affronting anybody,” he said.
The festival is inspired by the music of Gnaouis, or descendants of former African slaves. But this year it includes other musical genres from all corners of the globe.
Nuruddin, sporting Rastafarian dreadlocks, termed the festival the “Mecca of music.”
“I love God and the Prophet Mohammed but the Islamists want to excommunicate us because we love life, music and all other good things,” he said, swaying to the beat of the orchestra.
There is fusion music: groups from the west African nation of Burkina Faso mixing sounds with Cuban bands. And there are musicians from the West, Africa and Latin America.
“It is good to remember that Islam in its most popular forms promises nothing else other than peace and fraternity,” the irreverent French-language Telquel weekly said in a special edition.
It underlined that “it is a particular pleasure that this message comes from Morocco, from Essaouira and not from anywhere else.”
Moroccam Islamists such as radicals from the Adl wal Ihssane and the Justice and Development Party (JPD) term such festivals “places of debauchery.”