Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Some of the nicer tasks during this pandemic period – how could it be otherwise – are moments of musico-social interaction in a shared physical space. In August 2021 I was invited to attend the 37th edition of the Gaume Jazz Festival in Rossignol in the southeast of Belgium. Over three days, 23 groups from 13 different nations played on the grounds of the cultural centre in this picturesque Wallonian village. Slightly more than one hundred years ago, the village's surroundings were the site of one of the first battles of WW1 when German and French forces engaged in a deadly encounter in August 1914. Soldiers' graves are scattered across Rossignol's countryside. Since 1985, the village has hosted the Gaume Jazz Festival celebrating cultural diversity and exchange, as well as promoting the regional tourism sector. This year, two large festival tents served as the main stages, whereby they also protected the audience and musicians from intermittent heavy rainfall. In the nearby Saint-Nicolas church you could catch intimate, unamplified solo performances. And an outdoor performance space labelled ‘amphitheatre’ offered a change from the bigger festival tent stages and the concert hall inside the cultural centre. Belgian beer, couscous with meat, sausages in buns: business as usual except this year’s ability to camp on site. After an alternative edition last year, the Gaume Jazz Festival kicked off properly again.
Housed in a cosy Bed & Breakfast within walking distance, I made my way to the festival in about five minutes. The festival days started at noon with performances of local groups, including a performance by artist-in-residence Margaux Vranken and more than 60 children. Among the versatile line-up of performing artists were Aka Moon, the Éric Legnini Trio and the Sunna Gunnlaugs and Julia Hülsmann Duo. Irish folk tunes, flamenco, Greek music and Western pop sounded at this year’s edition. The ‘jazz festival’ united, as so many times, various local musical traditions from around Europe and the globe, inviting musical exploration and exchange in the outdoors.
Left: the Esteban Murillo Quartet
Right: Ntoumos Quintet with their programme 'Back to the Roots'
I was particularly interested to meet one of my interlocutors from Morocco, the musician and festival organiser Majid Bekkas. Since 1996, he directs the Jazz au Chellah (back then the Jazz aux Oudayas) festival in Rabat, Morocco, which was founded by the Delegation of the European Union and is often seen as a symbol of brotherhood between Europeans and Moroccans. On an off over the past twenty years, Bekkas has co-directed Jazz au Chellah with Jean-Pierre Bissot, the director of the Gaume Jazz Festival. Bissot was very glad of the opportunity to be able to showcase Bekkas’ latest project, the Magic Spirit Quartet, which released its first album in 2020 (Magic Spirit Quartet, ACT Music). For me, it was interesting to see various layers of Euro-Moroccan collaboration. First, Bekkas and Bissot's long-standing relationship, which led to Bekkas' performance in Rossignol (and not for the first time). Second, the Magic Spirit Quartet combining Bekkas’ guembri/oud playing and his singing with the experimental sounds of Swedish trumpeter Goran Kajfeš, Swedish keyboarder Jesper Nordenström and Danish drummer Stefan Pasborg. The European musicians met Bekkas at Jazz au Chellah and speak joyfully about the days of mutual encounter in Morocco.
Described by ACT Music as ‘trance, ritual, mysticism, psychedelia, magic’, the four musicians played an intense closing set at this year’s edition of the Gaume Jazz Festival. A few hours earlier, I had met Bekkas, Kajfeš and Pasborg in the city centre of Arlan to have lunch.
We discussed the current travel situation of international working musicians, regulations and social behaviours in Morocco and Europe in the times of Covid-19, new musical pathways and the gratitude to be able to perform together live in front of an audience again. Their performance at the Gaume Jazz Festival was the first one in more than 1.5 years as a group together. And it hadn’t been easy. In fact, Bekkas experienced difficulties for the first time in his life as he tried to receive his European artist visa and thus was almost unable to perform in Europe this summer. His turn to social media and the following media coverage luckily enabled him to get his visa so that he could travel not only to Rossignol but also to the prestigious Jazz à Vienne Festival in France where he performed a tribute to pianist Randy Weston with Mali musician Cheick Tidiane.
It was obvious that the musicians were enjoying their evening gig, which started shortly after 10 o'clock. The modal introduction section flowed into pieces with recurring bass melodies that recalled the intensities Gnawa cultural-religious practices such as the lila and thus the connection to the spirit world and the focus on trance. Tempo changes and areal sounds rubbed up against Pasborg's often rocking drum groove. At other times, the timbre of Bekkas' oud and Kajfeš' trumpet, which he played with a mute, created moments of calm. As they continued, I wondered when we would hear these meetings again in Morocco, where they have been celebrated at festivals pre-Covid every year in new ways since the mid-1990s.