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Travel

Castles Made of Sand: Jimi Hendrix in Morocco

@SamWKemp

If there is one place where the spirit of Jimi Hendrix can be said to live on, then it is Essaouira, a city of blue and ivory pitched on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Hendrix visited this wind-battered melting pot for eleven days in the summer of 1969. It was a fleeting visit, but tales of the rocker’s stay abound to this very day, many of which are as embellished as the carefully-threaded carpets sold on the city’s markets.

If the alleged dates are correct (everything is uncertain when it comes to Jimi Hendrix’s time in Morroco) then he arrived in the country shortly after the release of Electric Ladyland and shortly before his era-defining performance at the Woodstock Festival. By this time, Hendrix had established himself as one of the most revered musicians anywhere in the world. At the height of the hippie movement, his name was synonymous with authenticity, integrity, and virtuosity. With his fuzz-lined blues riffs, he became an unlikely American icon, a countercultural sweetheart whose unrestrained displays of musical skill reflected a certain dissatisfaction with the world around him. To quench this hunger for a world not yet fully imaginable, Hendrix – like so many disaffected young people in the hippie era – decided to travel.

In the countercultural era, tourism became intertwined with the concept of pilgrimage. ‘The Hippie Trail’ that took so many young British and Europeans from bleak suburbs to Iran, Afghanistan, India, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries was envisioned as an alternative to commercial tourism. The intention was not to take a well-earned break from the 9-5 on a sun-dappled deckchair but to develop a sense of ones’ place in the world. While his ambitions were ultimately more political, it was partly for this reason that Malcolm X visited North Africa and Saudi Arabia in the early 1960s. There was a sense that nations in the global south held the secrets the western world needed to achieve a political and spiritual revolution. Travel offered an opportunity to uncover them.

It’s possible Hendrix came to Essaouira simply to rest, but he would have soon been reminded of where his blend of blues had originated. Wandering down lanes laden with the scent of aniseed and cardamon, he would likely have heard the music of Gnawa musicians – armed with their three-string gimbris – drifting between pale houses, ghostly in their complexity. He may even have paused to ponder how, despite having everything taken from them, enslaved people shipped from sub-Saharan Africa had managed to carry their heritage with them in the weightlessness of song.

In the July of 1969, Hendrix flew to Casablanca from Paris. The story goes that on arrival, the guitarist, accompanied by two friends, hired a limousine and asked the driver to take him to Essaouira, where he stayed in Hotel des Iles, a modest spot just yards from the city’s old town. It is said that about three days into his visit, Hendrix decided that he wanted to buy the nearby village of Diabet, where the Dar Sultan Palace – once the home of Moulay Abderrahmane, Khalifa – lies buried in the sand. While local Essaouirans claim that this ruin inspired ‘Castles Made Of Sand’, the track was released two years before he arrived in Morrocco.

That’s about Hendrix’s time in Morrocco: it’s utterly veiled in mystery. No sooner had he stepped into Essaouria than stories began sprouting up around the city, many of which are still told by the elderly residents who happened to live there at the time, tales of a tall stranger walking around with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. Abdelaziz Khaba told The Arab Weekly that “Hendrix looked in good shape” when he visited. “He was surrounded by hefty bodyguards.” Khaba managed to get a photo of the guitarist but lost it long ago. Now all he is left with are memories, as clear now as they were all those years ago.

Today, Hendrix is an ever-present spectre in Essaouria and Diabet. Countless technicolour paintings of him adorn the walls of The Cafe Jimi Hendrix, while the lyrics to ‘Castles Made Of Sand’ have been painted in a shock of blue across its cream exterior. While the true nature of Hendrix’s time in Morocco may never be known, one thing is clear: memory is more powerful than presence.

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