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Recording at sunset in Essaouira

Essaouira is a city on the coast of Morocco that feels very different from the bustle and chaos that epitomises the country’s best-known destinations like Marrakesh. It’s a laid-back, unfussy city that prides itself on art and culture, and that’s characterised by its proximity the ocean, the driving trade winds that have given it a crucial importance for many hundreds of years as a port, and music as a central part of daily life. Here’s our guide to the essential sounds of the city.

Essaouira city guide

1. The music of Essaouira

Music is absolutely central to life in Essaouira – it is one of the principal homes of gnaoua music, a distinctive type of north African spiritual music, and is home to the biggest gnaoua festival in the world every year in June (the “Moroccan Woodstock”). It also lays claim to Jimi Hendrix, who loved to visit the city, though the tale that “Castles Made of Sand” is inspired by Essaouira seems somewhat apocryphal.

Everywhere you go, there’s music to be heard – on the streets and in the tiny clubs around town. Here’s a polished performance from the main square at Place Moulay, and a clip of a busker singing traditional songs outside a bar in the town.

2. The wind

Without doubt one of the defining sounds of Essaouira is the wind, which whips in from the Atlantic all year round and makes the city a hotspot for all kinds of watersports. Wherever you go, you’ll be accompanied by the sounds of anything from a light breeze to a roaring wind – it’s tricky to capture wind recordings, since wind is usually the worst enemy of the field recordist, but here’s a clip of a breezy morning on the main beach.

3. Crashing waves

A coastal city, along with the driving winds mentioned above, means that you can hear some pretty spectacular wave sounds in the harbour and along the beaches. Here, we stood at sunset by the medieval fort in the harbour (used as a location in Game of Thrones, apparently), and recorded the waves crashing in.

4. Bustling souks

The medina at Essaouira is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and while the city is substantially more laid back than the likes of Marrakesh, and much smaller, you can still hear the sounds of a fairly traditional series of souks going about their daily business, selling everything from gold to Moroccan mint. Here we take a short trip through the poultry souk, listening to the stallholders and customers until we come to a chicken stall – in the clip you can actually hear a chicken being slaughtered using a machine… a sound not for the faint-hearted.

5. Calls to prayer

As you might expect from a north African city, the call to prayer is a prominent feature of the soundscape, being heard several times a day wherever you go. It’s also a small enough city (at least, the central medina is small enough) that you can practically hear all of the muezzins in the area simultaneously when it’s quiet from the rooftops. This beautiful recording was taken for the dawn call to prayer at 4.45am, with multiple calls from different directions, blended with the sound of the Atlantic waves, and the occasional passing early bird.