Moroccan town beats to tune of Judeo-Arab music

8th January 2010, Comments 0 comments

The driving force behind the festival is Andre Azoulay, one of the most high-profile Jews in the Arab world, who was born in the city and is advisor to Morocco's king.

Essaouira -- Born and raised in Casablanca some 80 years ago but now living in Israel, Rabbi Haim Louk's high-pitched voice instantly captivated festival-goers in this port city, long a crossroads of civilisations.

"I was obliged to love you and raise a family with you, but if you turn your back on me, it comes from you," he sung to backing by a Moroccan band.

"And god forgives you," chanted back the crowd at the Andalousies festival, which through to the weekend and for the sixth year in a row features concerts Jewish-Arab and flamenco music.

For the Jewish rabbi, for many years the cantor at the Beverly Hills synagogue in Los Angeles, "it is always a great joy to return here to Morocco.

"We take Morocco with us everywhere, especially in Israel," added performer Raymonde el Bedawia, whose name in Arabic means "from Casablanca" and who also lives in Israel.

"Many people there listen to Andalusian music because many Israelis are of Moroccan origin. But here in Morocco, both Haim and I play to full houses in Casablanca or Marrakesh and Meknes, and the public is entirely Arab.

"They come to listen to Jews sing, because we are Moroccan, like they are."

The driving force behind the festival is Andre Azoulay, one of the most high-profile Jews in the Arab world, who was born in the city and is advisor to Morocco's king.

"The whole world, especially the Arab world, should take the example from Morocco and this festival to see that co-existence can work," said Louk.

Festival-goers included people of all ages and social class, women wearing headscarves and others in western gear, tourists, foreigners, Jews and Arabs.

Andalusian music originated in Spain, with Jews and Muslims who fled when Spanish Catholic monarchs ended the reign of Islam in the Iberian peninsula.

The most famous date associated with the era is the 1492 Inquisition that forced Spanish Jews to convert to Catholicism or burn at the stake. Thousands fled south to Morocco, joining native Berber Moroccan Jews who had lived there since Biblical times.

In Essaouira, wealthy Jewish families came to dominate trade while craftsman worked and lived side by side with Muslims, turning the port into the only town in the Arab world featuring equal numbers of Jews and Muslims. But by the 1970s, most of the Jews had left Morocco.

Essaouira today is no longer a trade centre, and though fishing still flourishes, the main industry is tourism, including seven music festivals.

"This festival is not some kind of fantasy, or a nostalgic look at a golden age of Essaouira," Azoulay told AFP. "The music you hear is a reality in the hearts and minds of millions Moroccans, both Jews and Muslims."

"But today when you talk about Jews and Muslims, the subject is ... rarely something that brings us together. That is why this festival is so dear to me."

Also appearing were Ravi Shankar Mishra and Ana la China, with the Indilucia dancers and singers from Benares in northern India, as well as Hayat Boukhriss and her orchestra.

From the French city of Marseille was one of the biggest names in the genre, pianist Maurice El Medioni, originally from Oran, Algeria, singing Judeo-Arab-French traditional music. Gharnati style music was represented by Fouad Didi and his Tarab orchestra from Tlemcen, Algeria.

In the audience was Noam Nir Boujo, owner of a restaurant in Essaouira.

While the number of original Jews living in the city could be counted on one hand, he said, thousands of Moroccan Jews visit every year.

"Culture and especially the music festivals have replaced the import-export of former times."


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