Festival Round-Up: Jazz au Chellah. Rabat, Morocco

Nuevo Tango Ensemble at Jazz au Chellah

Jazz Au Chellah
(Rabat, Morocco, 12th-14th September 2013. 2nd, 3rd and 4th nights of five. Festival Round-Up by Sebastian Scotney)

The Jazz au Chellah festival started quietly and discreetly back in the 1990’s presenting European jazz and collaborations with Moroccan musicians . Now in its 18th edition, the festival has become a genuinely popular success, with the 1500 capacity venue completely sold out for each of its five nights and people unfortunately being turned away.

This festival has such a lot going for it. The backdrop for the performances, sunset over the twelfth century walls and battlements of the Chellah Fort in Rabat is completely magical. The Delegation of the European Union in Morocco has now taken over the funding of it from a group of European countries’ Moroccan embassies and cultural institutes. Ticket prices are deliberately kept low – students get in for 10 Dirhams, which is less than one Euro. The atmosphere inside feels safe and convivial, many families bringing small children. The Delegation has good and reliable partners in the local Goethe-Institut and also works closely with the Moroccan Ministry of Culture and the local authorities of Rabat, and an experienced production team co-led by Jean-Pierre Bissot and Majid Bekkas, and Daniel Léon’s mindful ear ensuring consistently good quality sound.

The festival’s formula is to present each night some different facets of the infinitely varied tapestry of European jazz, and then to bring European musicians into collaboration with Moroccan musicians. In his preface to the festival programme, the  newly appointed ambassador of the European Union in Morocco, Rupert Joy, points out that the festival  (my translation) “takes place under the banner of openness [..] and shows the solid and durable link between the two shores of the Mediterranean”. I briefly met Joy, who was particularly impressed that the programmers’ ingenuity and alchemy had resulted in no fewer than fourteen of the EU’s 28 member countries being represented onstage during the festival.

The festival was held over five nights and I attended the middle three, courtesy of the hospitality and kindness of old friends, so I couldn’t get to everything. Of what I missed, I did hear particularly good reports of French bassist Thibaut Cellier’s Rouen-based group Papanosh.


Fugara Quartet: Markku Ounaskari, Stevko Busch, Paul Van Kemenade, Markus Stockhausen
Photo credit: M. CHAMALI / Délégation UE au Maroc

The very first sound I heard, Markus Stockhausen‘s high flugelhorn echoing around the battlements, is likely to stay in the mind’s ear for a very long time indeed. Stockhausen’s beauty of tone, the compelling and cultured shape of his melodic line, the care he takes with the dying fall of phrases were all unforgettable.Trumpets could well have echoed around the walls of the Chellah fort since the Carthaginians and Phoenicians occupied the site; it was easy to imagine that sound travelling down the centuries. Another highlight of this German/Dutch/Finnish group Fugara Quartet’s performance was a tune which sounded uncannily like Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman – names of tunes don’t always make it to the back of the auditorium. A moment when Dutch alto saxophonist Paul Van Kemenade and Stockhausen imitated dialoguing seagulls was also very effective.

Driss Maaloumi Photo credit:M. CHAMALI / Délégation UE au Maroc

The second band were a complete, well-engineered contrast. The flamboyant French and Belgian group Trio Grande work well with UK pianist Matthew Bourne, who brings them the element of surprise. However it was the moment when Moroccan Oud master Driss El Maaloumi and his musicians arrived onstage when the attention level of the audience suddenly jumped. Driss is one of those performers who can make an outdoor expanse feel like an intimate space. He had every member of the audience in rapt concentration. After more than two hours of music in narrow plastic seats, that was quite some achievement. Driss just let time take unhurrried care of itself, allowed musical ideas emerge, floated melodies round the band, elicited the most delicate fingertip responses from his two percussionists. In the right hands, less can be so much more.


The Nuevo Tango group from Bari in Italy has been a working unit since 1999, and dedicates itself to working creatively around andbeyond the legacy of Astor Piazzola. The music is always melodic, with fine bandoneon player Gianni Iorio eschewing the rhythmic prodding many players do in favour of a lyrical line. Pianist Pasquale Stefano was measured his excursions away from tango taking him into the simplistic world of Ludovico Einaudi. The band started to take more risks and really to win the crowd over towards the end of their set.

Žiga Golob, Tamara Obrovac, Krunoslav Levačič
Photo credit: M. CHAMALI / Délégation UE au Maroc

Croatian singer Tamara Obrovac needed no such preparatory time. She is an audience-captivating phenomenon. With her trio she brought a different kind of energy and soon had the crowd pleading for more. Obrovac has a phenomenal stylistic range and has the temerity to want to take her trio into any number of moods. She also has willing accomplices in Croatian pianist Matja Dedič, and drummer Krunoslav Levačič,and Slovenian bassist Žiga Golob. Dedič is a phenomenally technically equipped pianist. Imaginative, mercurial, he proved himself always eager to step outside the comfort zone and to try something unexpected. A kindred spirit for John Taylor, Matja Dedič really is quite something.

Krunoslav Levačič, Moustpha al Aantari

Again the arival of the Moroccans onstage at Obrovac’ reqest resulted in that sense of time taking on a different scale. The highlight of that collaboration was a percussion dialogue/contest between two musicians completely open to each others’ art, the drummer Krunoslav Levačič and Moustpha al Aantari. They goaded and enthused each other like two mischief-making class-mates on a school bus-trip. Their alertness to each other, their combined range of timbres and the rapidity of their articulation were stunning.


Savina Yannatou
Photo credit: M. CHAMALI / Délégation UE au Maroc

Saturday brought a Greek group led by singer Savina Yannatou, and featuring Qanun (zither) virtuoso Kostas Vomvolas. I found Yannatou at her most engaging in the most directly emotional songs particularly a Greek and Sephardic song – although more information on what the songs were about would have helped. Her excustions into extended vocal techniques and overtones seemed to leave the audience bemused (or was it just me?).

Klaus Paier and Asja Valčič
Photo credit: M. CHAMALI / Délégation UE au Maroc

On paper, an accordion and ‘cello duo might have had the listener wondering beforehand if other voices might be needed to maintain the interest through a whole set. I shouldn’t try to predict: the duo of Klaus Paier and Asja Valčič exuded completeness, variety, and had the audience held throughout.Valčič at one point referred disarmingly to the humidity making her bow feel in her hand like a rasher of greasy bacon, but that frivolous aside between numbers in a moment of repose only reinforce the sense of her professional energy as a musician which she gave to the music. I particularly enjoyed the teasing end to the song Ayer (Yesterday) when a moment of extreme legato flow allowed them to achieve the perfect contrast, and to hit the closing section with life-affirming rhythmic force and drive. It will be tempting to hear their album Silk Road (ACT Music), because their live show is definitely a tour de force.

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Rabat in September, with its breeze from the Atlantic, its secluded beaches, its delicious Friday couscous and mad traffic has been a delight. And yes, there’s a place with a 212 dialling code… which is not Manhattan…and which can put on a very good jazz festival indeed.

There is also coverage in the form of an interview with Tamara Obrovac in Sandy McCutcheon’s The View from Fez Blog, and also in Martin Rose’s Rabat blog.

Categories: miscellaneous

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