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Moroccan World Music Festival Revamps Audio with Meyer Sound MILO
The scenic port city of Essaouira – known for centuries by the Portuguese name of Mogador — is considered one of the most enchanting spots on Morocco's Atlantic coast. Soft breezes cool holiday travelers as they explore the area's sandy beaches, tranquil courtyards, and winding streets, which are generally populated by fishermen, merchants, craftsmen, musicians, and artists. Essaouira has also been a destination that has drawn visits from musical celebrities as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and Maria Callas, and served as a shooting location for Orson Welles' film Othello.
Over the last decade, however, this historic city has become known for hosting one of West Africa's most popular world music events: the Festival Gnaoua et Musiques du Monde d'Essaouira, a spiritually uplifting gathering of indigenous and international music. For its 10th anniversary edition, the 2007 event featured more than 250 Moroccan artists, 25 West African Gnawa groups, and 150 international musicians who came to Essaouira to perform, collaborate, and exchange ideas with musicians at the heart of the Gnawa culture. The remarkable assemblage of headlining acts performed to a record crowd courtesy of a self-powered Meyer Sound MILO high-power curvilinear array loudspeaker system.
For the uninitiated, the Gnawa (or Gnaoua in French-speaking Morocco) are descendants of slaves brought from sub-Saharan Africa who established brotherhoods throughout Morocco. The rhythmic and deeply hypnotic Gnawa music is intended to induce a trance state at ceremonies. Master musicians (m'allem) lead distinctive call-and-response singing, accompanied by drummers, qaraqeb (a large metal double castanet) and sinter (a three-stringed bass lute) players, and other spiritual and musical seekers. Western artists such as Miles Davis, Pharaoh Sanders, Randy Weston, and Hendrix have been influenced by Gnawa music.
This year, more than 450,000 Gnawa music seekers descended on Essaouria, a town of 70,000, to hear four days of live music. Generous support from the government and the local tourist industry allowed the festival to be presented free of charge. Music pulsed throughout the city on nine separate stages, although most of the top-draw acts performed on the main stage at Place Moulay Hassan, an open, 70-meter-wide square situated between the medina (the old, walled city) and the harbor. To provide even, accurate coverage to one of their largest audiences ever, festival organizers called on Casablanca-based audio, lighting, and backline company Touareg Prod' to supply sound and lighting for the Moulay Hassan stage.
The selection of Touareg Prod' as sound provider for the Gnawa festival was a clear sign of the success the company has seen since its decision to invest in a Meyer Sound inventory of more than 125 loudspeakers. "That was a big step up for our company," says Farid. "Prior to 2007, we supplied mostly smaller concerts and corporate events. When we decided to enter the festival market, we looked at some of the major acts' technical riders and Meyer Sound was on nearly all of them. Since purchasing the MILO system, we've been contracted for one or two big stages at five festivals in one year. Most of them have already signed us to multi-year contracts for future festivals."
As to the curious spelling of the company's name, Squalli Farid offers the simplest possible explanation for abbreviating the word "production" when he co-founded Touareg Prod' in 2000 with his partner, Yonnel Lallouz: "We liked the way it sounded."
As Touareg Prod's lead audio engineer, Farid handled design and configuration for the all-Meyer Sound system at the Moulay Hassan stage. The stage faced the ocean and backed against one wall of the area's 18th century battlements. Two 10-meter towers flanked the stage, each holding an array of eight MILO cabinets. An MSL-4 horn-loaded long-throw loudspeaker on each side of the stage supplied sidefill, while a pair of UPA-1P compact wide coverage loudspeakers filled the center area in front. Eight 700-HP ultrahigh-power subwoofers anchored the low end.
Farid erected two subsystems to provide coverage for overflow audience areas. A delay system comprising four M2D compact curvilinear array loudspeakers and two M2D-Sub compact subwoofers was aimed to fire down a seaside promenade that leads into the main square. Another adjacent space featured a large video screen with audio support from two MSL-4 cabinets and two 650-P high-power subwoofers. An LD-3 compensating line driver provided processing and drive for the main MILO system.
Farid used Meyer Sound's MAPP Online Pro acoustical prediction software to help design the system configurations for the best coverage, including steering the sub-bass frequencies. "MAPP Online Pro was particularly helpful in determining how to set up our subwoofers in two lines and apply appropriate delays to create a cardioid effect," says Farid. "That keeps the bass uniform, instead of getting bass buildup in the middle and cancellation off-axis."
Once configured and properly tuned, the Meyer Sound system blanketed the entire audience area — which can accommodate more than 30,000 people — with uniform response and ample headroom. "I enjoyed the MILOs very much," says FOH engineer Pierre Cheinisse, who has mixed the last five festivals. "I had all the power I needed, so I never had to push the system to its limits. That extra headroom made my work much easier."
On-stage monitoring was provided by a mix of USM-1P extended range narrow coverage and USM-100P extended range wide coverage stage monitors, totaling 14 wedges in all. "We had some in-ear units available, but that approach doesn't work with the Gnawa, because what they do is very much a communal ritual," says Farid. The monitor console was a Midas Siena 480 TP.
A typical show at the festival requires about 30 microphones. Microphone availability and selection is crucial on the Moulay Hassan stage, since most of the concerts there use a vibrant mélange of traditional acoustic and contemporary western instruments: Drum kits, keyboards, and electric guitars mesh with the low-pitched, 3-stringed hajhouj, a traditional Moroccan bass called the guimbre, the qaraqeb, and the tbel, a side drum.
The m'allem and chorus were miked primarily with Shure Beta 58 and SM58 microphones. Wireless systems, when used, were Shure U4 Series. Many of the drum and percussion instruments were miked with Shure SM57s, while Shure SM98s were often used on the drum kits. Shure SM81 and Schoeps CMC 6 microphones on small stands picked up percussive sounds from dance movements. Three AKG C460 condenser microphones with CK61 ULS capsules captured ambient sound, which was sent to a Digidesign Pro Tools HD-equipped remote truck brought in from France to record the event.
The sinter, lead instrument for the traditional Gnawa bands, did not require a microphone. "It is a very difficult instrument to amplify because of the highly resonant camel skin top and the very low drone notes," says Farid. "Most sinters are equipped with a locally made pickup that uses piezoelectric elements taken out of quartz electronic watches. It really works quite well."
Touareg Prod' supplied Cheinisse with an ATI Paragon II console equipped with 48 built-in compressors and gates, and 16 aux sends to mix the shows. "It's primarily set up as a monitor board, but it works very well for front-of-house," Farid says of the analog console. "The preamps are excellent, and engineers enjoy the convenience of having a compressor and gate in each channel." Outboard racks complemented the console's processing with Klark Teknik DN360 EQ, Drawmer DS201 gates, dbx 160A and 166XT compressors, and reverb/effects units from TC Electronic, Lexicon, and Yamaha.
After five years of mixing at Essaouira's premier music festival, Cheinisse believes he has mastered the unique demands of the multicultural event. "You really have to know the Gnawa music in its acoustic setting before you start mixing," he says. "It's really very different. In particular, you have to know how to work with the sound of the guimbre and the sinter."
Touareg Prod' also provided the complete lighting system for the Moulay Hassan stage. The company supplied more than 125 lighting components, including a MAC 2000 Profile, ROBE 575XT, PAR 64, Profile 2 KW, Blinder, PC 1 KW, ACL 250w Series, and DTS XR7 spots. Jands and grandMA consoles were also used.
Much of the equipment for the event stayed tightly wrapped under custom covers to protect against wind, sand, and sea salt. "It can get quite windy in Essaouira during the day," says Farid. "That wind can blow in salt spray from the ocean, which is only a few meters away, with waves splashing against the rocks. If the wind blows the other way, it blows in fine, gritty sand. A few days exposure to this can be very damaging, so everything is kept under covers between shows."
Certainly Farid and Lallouz have good reason to protect their sizable assets, as the company's forthcoming itinerary promises to keep their Meyer Sound equipment in constant use. "Ever since the MILOs arrived, we've been very busy," observes Farid. "After the Essaouira festival, we supplied a four-night festival in Casablanca. We had two stages there, and crowd estimates were as high as 200,000 people every night at each stage. That's where the power of MILO was much appreciated!"
Though the crowds at Festival Gnaoua et Musiques du Monde d'Essaouira were a bit smaller, the event places a premium on sound quality, and its producers had set the bar even higher for the event's 10th anniversary. "Everyone we spoke to, from the festival organizers to the engineers, as well as people in the audience, have told us how much better the sound was this year," says Farid. "And for next year's festival, we know for certain we will have plenty of power with the MILO system."
Cheinisse's view of the Meyer Sound system at Essaouira is pragmatic. "To me, there are only two kinds of sound systems: one that works for the music on that night, and one that doesn't work," he says. "For me, the system at Essaouira was working every night, which made it a pleasure to mix."