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Continuing our new tradition of going to the last night of concert events in Rabat, we managed to make to the final evening of the Jazz au Chellah series. Long time readers (mythical creatures that exist only in my mind) will remember that I have mentioned the Chellah several times before.  These ancient Roman and Moroccan ruins surrounded by a medieval wall are a popular spot to visit, and when we saw the posters advertising the event we knew instantly that they would be a perfect venue for an open-air jazz concert. Then we promptly forgot. Fortunately Shannon, my personal event coordinator, was on hand to call and remind me.

I, unusually, had to work till 8—the time the concert started. I’d just rushed my class out and gotten in the car when Shannon called. “I’m saving seats but it’s getting ugly,” she warned me. “They have seats? Cool!” I replied.  I flew—that is, I drove sensibly and carefully—across town, picked up my family who were waiting for me, and hightailed it over to the Chellah. Parking was adventurous. The kids spotted several of their teachers’ cars, which didn’t surprise me, since apparently all of Rabat had driven to this very spot at the same time.

Once inside the Chellah, walking along a path strung with twinkle lights, it became apparent where all the occupants of all those cars were now. Every single seat was taken, plus every available inch in the aisles and on the steps. The carpets laid between the bleachers and the stage were crammed with bodies. It was a fire marshal’s worse nightmare. We actually did manage to spot Shannon and her son, and we waved cheerfully. Then, we found a spot at the edge of the carpets, and settled down to enjoy the jazz.

The first concert was a Finnish group, Ilmiliekki Quartet, and they were fine. This is a snippet so I’m not going to get into details. The twins kept insisting that they had “very good views” and borrowing my camera to take blurry photographs.

At the break, Ilsa and I managed to make our way up to sit by Shannon, thanks to her son going down to the carpets to hang out with Elliot, who had been brought to the concert by force. (He took some pains to make sure I understood that he did not like jazz and wanted to go to a café and watch a soccer match, but we insisted that the experience of an open-air concert in ruins that are millennia old was not to be missed).  As I was squeezing my way down the row, past others who cheerfully made way for me, I managed to bang a woman in front in the side of the head with my purse. I apologized profusely but she was not to be mollified, pulling a face and muttering about “americaines” to her companion. Shannon, shaking with laughter, told me she’d done the same thing earlier, then her son had kicked their chairs accidentally (he’s tall), plus they’d been extremely irritated with her for trying to save seats. “They talked about me in Arabic for at least 10 minutes,” she said.

We saw several friends, teachers or kids from my kids’ school,  and waved at them. It was beginning to get dark by this point.

Finally the second group came out; a combination European jazz trio and a gnaoua group—which is kind of worldbeat, quasi-religious music originally from Morocco, Mali, and West Africa in general. The set up included two complete drum sets and a xylophone made of gourds, as well as spaces for guitar and saxophone and singers. Initially, it was a trio—drummer Ramon Lopez and saxophonist Louis Sclavis , as well as Majid Bekkas, who sang and played the sintar.

A diversion arrived in the form of some attention-starved young men. One, dubbed “Morocco Man” by my family, was wearing a red unitard with a green “S” on the chest and green undies. His hair was a red Mohawk and his cape was a Moroccan flag (red with green star outlined in center). His friend was high on something more than life, I sensed. He had long floaty hair. Together they danced enthusiastically at the edge of the stage. It was funny to watch people’s reactions. On the one hand, many people were simply entertained. On the other, the dynamic duo were definitely the focus of a lot of attention, and you could see that the saxophonist in particular wasn’t too happy about it, although he kept that tight-lipped “hey I’m cool” smile going. The dancers tried to pull everyone into their happy skippy dance, and got yelled at for their pains. But the TV crews filmed them, and I could see why the musicians were less than thrilled.

Why yes, my blog would look much better if I always used Donn’s pics. But I don’t, because I keep finding copies of my blog posts on other sites, which annoys me no end. It’s not fair to subject him to that.

Later, 2 more singers/chanters came out, dressed in traditional multi-coloured outfits, clanking their krakebs rhythmically, and a young man with an enormous smile appeared to play the gourd-xylophone, which had a very sweet sound. A second European drummer appeared, and enjoyed getting the crowd involved. It was a very enthusiastic audience. Majid Bekkas started playing a thumb-piano, which I found fascinating. Donn wanted one of those for years and I was never very sympathetic (although rather that than a dijeridoo), but I found the plunking of the thumb piano to be very melodic and pleasant. Later Bekkas switched to an oud, the sound rich in the mellow dusk. The saxophonist proved to be adept at clarinet and trumpet as well, and the two drummers and the singers added rhythm and harmony to the warm summer night.


Aly Keita was fantastic

Gnaoua music is not our favorite. It’s awfully repetitive, for a start. We were glad we’d come and it was worth seeing, but it was also now after 11 on a school night, and plus we wanted to beat the crowd. So we left early. Ilsa bought herself a very cool black “Jazz au Chellah” tshirt for $3.50, which she now wears with black leggings and bead necklaces, looking freakily like I looked in the late 80s. Seriously. Same hairstyle, same penchant for wearing one long dangly earring and one small stud.

We found our car and took a look back at the Chellah lit up for the night.

It was gorgeous. We wish we’d made it to more of the concerts, but that’s life.

Saturday night, we headed over again for the final performance of Mawazine 2010—Sting. Now I have been a fan of Sting (ok, the Police) since listening to my older brother yell “ROXanne,” at the top of his lungs when we were stopped at a red light once. My friend Shannon texted me back in March with news that he was coming. “Want 2 go?” “YES!!!!!” I sent back. Are you kidding? I figured the crowd would be packed with middle-aged women, all of us with fond memories of watching the video of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” with the Police dancing round in academic robes and Sting being the teacher and taking off his shirt (!!), back when it debuted on that new channel called MTV.

Shannon and her son parked outside our house and we all walked over. Shannon and her son are tall but our family tends to be height-challenged, so we didn’t want to go as far front as they did. Unless you are in the very front, it’s better to be further back if you’re short. Otherwise all you can see are the backs of other people’s heads. We did try going further up, but that didn’t work. We found a spot a short distance behind some exceptionally tall people—I mean seriously, these guys were either Dutch or Amalakite—and we noticed that the space directly behind them wasn’t filling up, which meant we could actually see the giant screen.

I could feel my phone, in my pocket, ringing. “HELLO?” I shouted. “It’s Jenny!” announced my friend. “Where are you?”

I told her, although I didn’t think for a minute she’d find us. Shannon and I both held up our hands and waved defeatistly. But find us she did! She and her daughter were carrying a folding chair and a step stool. I stood on the stool and caught a glimpse of the orchestra coming in, and Sting striding onto the stage. He was performing with the Moroccan Philharmonic Orchestra! Cool, we agreed.

I thought it was a great concert. Shannon and I and many of those around us sang along to “Englishman in New York.” But after about 2 or 3 songs, Donn and the boys returned to us (they’d been trying to get closer). “This is LAME!” Donn said. “What?” I said. I looked at the teens, who were rolling their eyes and going on about orchestras and lameness. The word “Fail” was bandied about. Donn went so far as to say “Lawrence Welk.” What???

Donn and the boys went home. We couldn’t believe it. But, honestly, we were quite happy to have them go. We settled down to enjoy ourselves.

I noticed that the people around me seemed to know the same songs I did; at least we sang along to the same ones. I was more likely to know words of the verses; everyone else joined in just for the chorus, with varying degrees of accuracy as to musical keys or pronunciation of English words. (Sample: every little thing she does his magic) The grounds were packed at this point, and streams of people, connected to each other by holding hands or with hands on shoulder, kept trying to move, pointlessly it seemed, from one spot to another. We were constantly being pushed aside, asked to move, bumped into. I was hoping he’d do “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” in homage to the shoulder-to-shoulder and hip-to-hip crowd, but he didn’t.

And I will admit that his versions of certain classics, like “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take,” were more swoony than rocking. “ROXanne” should be shouted! “Every Breath” should be edgy and slightly creepy, but still suitable for being dedicated on the radio to a jerky and clueless high school boy by a heart-broken high school girl. What? Oh like you never did that.

The crowd enjoyed it all. Sting did a raucous two encores, including a beautiful performance by a Moroccan drummer on “Desert Rose.” And I have never seen as active a conductor as the one that night. He sang along, he danced along.

Going home was adventurous, navigating crowds and traffic all mixed together, but we made it through, more thankful than ever to be on our own two feet and not snarled in a pointless traffic jam made worse by everyone’s impatience.

We got home just after midnight. Abel had fallen asleep fully clothed, but Elliot and Shannon’s son were still up to let us in and tell us again how LAME it had been. They’d passed their time playing games and listening to the faint strains of the concert through the windows. They left, the kids went to bed, and Donn and I stood out on the balcony, watching a long, loud, impressive display of fireworks to close the music festival.

I don’t know who named it, but Rabat’s city-wide music festival sounds to me like someone trying to say “magazine” with a mouth full of tooth paste. Or like the priest in Princess Bride trying to describe Modern Bride. Nonetheless, Morocco’s biggest music festival, Mawazine, is held each May, and musicians are invited from around the world to perform at one of the venues around town. They always include big names from the English-speaking world. This year’s lineup included BB King, Sting, Elton John and Santana.

The biggest concert area is about a 10 minute walk from my house. We watched the enormous stage being set up several weeks ago. Last year it faced the road and we could hear it from our house. This year, it faced toward the nearby Sofitel Hotel, and although we could still hear it, it was quieter.

Tickets to the bigger names are around 600 dirhams, which isn’t bad—that’s about 60 euros, or 80 dollars. But if you are willing to simply be a little further back, you can go for free. Either way you’re standing in a field with other enthusiastic music lovers, singing along to the lyrics in a language they don’t speak.

Being me and highly organized as usual (what? It’s the end of May already?), I missed Elton John, which I’m still bummed about. But on Thursday night at 9:30, Donn and I headed over to hear B.B. King.

I have often had cause to bless the location of our house, which is a 2 minute walk from the kids’ school. But as I eyed the streams of traffic, the motorcyclists ploughing restlessly into crowds of pedestrians, the incessant peep-peep-peep from the man in the glowing yellow vest trying to direct cars, I was thankful all over again that we were able to walk, not drive. We found our way all the way around to the back just as the concert was starting, about 10.

We made our way through the trodden grass, tripping over the occasional hillock. Interspersed with the crowd were people selling candy bars and glow-sticks, and there were carts heaped high with dates, almonds, peanuts, raisins, and dried apricots. Wandering salesman passed through with buckets full of doughnuts, packages of cookies, or bottles of water. We resisted all these treats, and found a place with an unobstructed view of the screens. We could see the stage and the men, tiny with distance, but we watched the giant Jumbotron screens quite contentedly.

BB King was, well, awesome. I know that doesn’t surprise anyone. The man is 84 and his voice is as powerful as ever. His band was composed mostly of senior citizens, large men in colourful shirts who weigh upwards of 300 pounds and who rock. “I find that encouraging,” Donn said later. “There’s hope for the future.” Apparently he is planning to gain weight and take up the tenor sax.

BB King was having FUN up there. He and the drummer played games with each other while we all cheered. “I’m sorry I don’t speak your language,” he told the roaring crowd. “But maybe, if you understand what I’m sayin’, tell the person next to you.” We didn’t though. It wasn’t necessary. BB’s language is universal, and everybody danced along.

It wasn’t a long concert, possibly because the man is 84. I mean seriously. “I’d like to keep playing,” he told us. “But I can’t.” He did do “When the Saints” for a rockin’ encore though. Next to me, a skinny Moroccan girl put her hands in her tight jeans and danced along and sang, in English. “O wen da saints,” she sang, “go marshin’ in.” It was great.

“I only know one word in French, and I say it with a Mississippi accent. But missy,” said BB King, “Missy bow-coo.” Everyone loved it.

There are many videos from Mawazine 2010 on Youtube, but I can’t find any professional ones of BB. Here’s one that’s a medley. It’s a bit long but come on—it’s BB King!

Part two coming tomorrow!

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