Africa and the Middle East 6 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (3)

Gnawa and World Music Festival

Where? Essaowiira, Morocco

When? June

How long? 4 days

The music of the Gnawas (or Gnaouas), a spiritual brotherhood that has its origins in sub-Saharan Africa and melds animist, Berber and Arab influences, is mysterious, hypnotic, trance-inducing stuff that can send the musicians spinning (literally) into another plane. Essaouira makes for a beautiful setting – its picturesque lanes and squares, sparkling light and relaxed, tranquil atmosphere have attracted many painters, woodcarvers and other artisans over the years – and, during the festival (®www., the pounding rhythms of drums, reed pipes and castanet-like garagabs ringing out from Place Prince Moulay el Flassan, deep inside the city’s medina, or old town, only adds to the atmosphere.

Grahamstown Festival

Where? Grahamstown, South Africa

When? July

How long? 8—10 days

Every year during the first week or so of July, the cultured and historic settlement of Grahamstown overflows with visitors descending for the annual arts festival. The hub of the Grahamstown Festival (® is the 1820 Settlers Monument, which hosts big dance, drama and operatic productions in its theatres, free art exhibitions and early evening concerts. Having begun in 1974, when the building first opened, the festival has grown to become the largest arts event in Africa. Food stalls and markets sprout up on every street corner, and you can hardly order a beer for the number of Chinese acrobats or Irish dancers propping up the bars around town. Several hundred shows are staged in Grahamstown’s many parks, church halls and restored Victorian buildings, and span every type of performance, from traditional Xhosa dance to New Orleans cabaret.

Hermaxtus Whale-Watching Festival

Where? Hermanns, South Africa

When? September

How long? 5 days

The once-sleepy little seaside town of Hermanus, an hour and a half’s drive from Cape Town, is South Africa’s self- appointed whale-watching capital, and during its festival the whole town really pushes the boat out in celebration of the mighty mammals. The event’s mascot and MC is Zolie Baleni the Whale Crier, who blows a traditional horn of dried kelp whenever a southern right whale hoves into view indicating which way you should look with his Morse Code-like blasts. The festival (® is held in South Africa’s peak season for whale-watching; it’s common for whales to swim so close to shore that you can see them clearly from the cliff paths just outside Hermanus – and even from the town itself. Often, tantalizingly, all you’ll see is a dark flank; more rarely but much more thrillingly, a muscular tail will flip right out of the water. As well as whale­watching parties, the festival programme includes concerts, cabaret nights, an innovative craft fair and plenty of stalls selling all manner of whale-shaped souvenirs.

Imilchil Wedding Moussem

Where? Imilchil, Morocco

When? September

How long? 3 days

Once upon a time, or so the story goes, two lovers from rival Berber tribes killed themselves in grief because their parents wouldn’t let them marry. To stop this from ever happening again, the tribes agreed to let their children marry freely, and every year, at the September moussem held around the tomb of their patron saint, members of the Ait Hadiddou tribe gather to find their partners. Men looking for a wife wear white turbans, women looking for a husband wear all their jewels, and in the three days of the festival they celebrate their engagement and subsequent wedding. The moussem also marks the time when the tribes no longer have to move their livestock to summer pastures, and come home to settle in for the winter, so there’s a massive livestock market with paddocks for the different animals, as well as souks selling provisions, and a whole sea of tents (Berbers head here from all over the Atlas mountains to celebrate). Singing, dancing and music lasts throughout the festival, but it’s pretty much spontaneous, so follow your ears to find it. Accommodation is spartan – you’ll need to bring a sleeping bag and rent a tent and mattress, and you’ll also need water, toilet paper and a flashlight. Imilchil also takes a bit of getting to, but it all adds to the fun.

International Roots Festival

Where? Banjul, The Gambia

When? June

How long? 1 week

Inspired by author Alex Haley’s book, Roots, and his journey back to the land of his ancestors, the International Roots Festival (® is only a few years old, but is gaining credibility – and popularity – for its focus on black culture. There is drumming, music, fashion shows and a film festival, all designed to draw the black diaspora to the Gambia to celebrate their common culture.

Lake of Stars Festival

Where? Lake Malawi, Malawi

When? September

How long? 3 days

Easy-going but famously conservative, Malawians don’t have a particularly strong home-grown musical tradition. Very few Malawian bands have made any impact on the international scene, and it’s the exception, rather than the rule, for bars and clubs to specialize in local sounds – you’re far more likely to hear music from the west or from the country’s neighbours and near-neighbours: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique. It’s partly thanks to this musical outlook that the relatively new festival  has begun to take off. Taking place on the banks of Lake Malawi, it hosts cool European and African bands and DJs; in recent years, guest stars have included Groove Armada’s Andy Cato, and Felix from Basement Jaxx. For a laid- back vibe, the setting couldn’t be better: the main stage, at Chintheche, is close to a dazzling strip of sand where fish eagles call shrilly across the crystal-clear water; accommodation is in one of several castaway-style lodges and campsites. After the long drive to get there – four hours from Lilongwe, or eight from Blantyre – you’ll be ready to kick off your shoes and chill out. Who says you need to head to the ocean for the best beach parties?

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