Read Caption
A traditional Gnawa group performs in Essaouira. (Photograph by ADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)

This Summer’s Best Music Festivals

After what feels like a very long winter, it’s finally that time again: summer festival season! Time to break out the sunglasses, sandals, and portable fans in preparation for those carefree days of soaking in the sunshine and grooving to live music in the open air.

The list of music festivals seems to double each year, so we thought we’d save you some time by presenting our picks for must-attend sonic extravaganzas that also happen to reflect a deep sense of place.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S. (April 25-May 4, 2014)

This mainstay was established in New Orleans in 1970 to celebrate the city’s multi-cultural heritage and its status as the birthplace of jazz. Headliners that inaugural year included famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and legendary pianist Duke Ellington, who kicked off the festival by leading a second-line parade through what is now Armstrong Park. It was at that moment that the spirit of Jazz Fest was born.

Over the years, this daytime festival, which takes place in the last two weekends in April in a racetrack not far from the city’s famous French Quarter, has grown to showcase much more than jazz. Attendees have long enjoyed indigenous acts alongside the latest hit-makers as well as booths and exhibits featuring Louisiana cuisine, arts, and crafts. And, after the sun fades from view, the party spills out into the city, with a slew of live performances threaded around town.

Gnaoua World Music Festival, Essaouira, Morocco (June 12-15) 

Located in Essaouira (pronounced “Essweera” in Arabic), a picturesque fortified city on the southern end of Morocco’s Atlantic coast, the Gnaoua Festival is as much a celebration of people and place as it is of music. And few would argue that the music on display isn’t distinctive–and infectious.

The Gnawa (also Gnaoua), people who originated from North and West Africa, have long performed their rhythmic trancelike music as an art form–and as a source of mystical healing. But when playing for the public, as they do at the Gnaoua festival, they are representing their culture and celebrating their heritage, along with the various other African and international musicians who come to play with them.

Roskilde Festival, Roskilde, Denmark (June 29-July 6) 

Despite being one of the largest music festivals in Europe, this well-organized event is a nonprofit enterprise that promotes music, culture, and humanism. Originally more of a “for Scandinavians, by Scandinavians” event, the festival seems to attract an increasingly international crowd–in terms of both acts and attendees–each year since its founding in 1971.

But that just means that the festival campground (access to which is included in the price of admission), located just south of Roskilde on the island of Zealand, has become a global melting pot. With lake swimming, an on-site skate park, and an annual “naked run,” the event has developed a reputation for being a weeklong summer camp for adults. But when there are legendary performers on stage, and lovely Danish landscapes to admire, what’s not to like?

Newport Folk Festival, Newport, Rhode Island, U.S. (July 25-27)

The Newport Folk Festival, perhaps best known for introducing the world to the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, is one of the oldest music festivals in America. Founded by George Wein in 1959 in the wake of his success with the Newport Jazz Festival, this Rhode Island event has grown into an institution over the years (despite a brief hiatus in the ’70s and ’80s).

Newport, a classic New England seaside resort with rich colonial roots, is a tourist attraction in its own right. And Fort Adams State Park, where the festival is held, is the perfect place from which to admire the panoramic view of the harbor and tony sailboats bobbing by. Like New Orleans’s Jazz Fest, this festival’s name belies the breadth of music one can expect to find. But through the years, Newport Folk has remained true to its roots while staying ahead of the curve. The festival’s website says it best: “Since 1959, we have been serving true musical omnivores, fans who crave innovation but appreciate tradition.”

Interceltic FestivalInterceltic Festival, Lorient, France (August 1-10)

When most people hear the word “Celtic,” they think of Ireland. But this ethnolinguistic group is more far-flung, with enduring roots in Brittany, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and the territories of Asturias and Galicia on the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula. And the world’s largest celebration of Celtic culture and music–in all its diverse forms–takes place in the heart of the seaport town of Lorient in northwestern France each summer.

While emphasizing music and dance, the ten-day festival also provides a platform for colorful expressions of Celtic art, food and drink, theater, literature, and sport. Revelry highlights include the Grande Parade of the Celtic Nations, a cotriade, a traditional Breton seafood supper, piping competitions, and “Nuits Magiques,” evening spectaculars featuring piping, dancing, and fireworks. This might be one of the ultimate multicultural events of the summer.

Guča Trumpet Festival, Guča, Serbia (August 6-10)

The trumpet is a part of daily life in Serbia–present at births, celebrations, and burials. And the annual Guča Trumpet Festival has been going strong for more than 50 years to celebrate the instrument and its enduring cultural significance in the Balkans and beyond.

If you think a trumpet festival sounds like a one-note affair, you’d be wrong in this instance. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flood this otherwise tiny town each August to experience the cacophony (that’s meant in a good way). Part concert, part celebration, part competition, this high-octane event is bound to get you on your feet and dancing the kolo in no time flat.

Lisa A. Walker is a book production manager at National Geographic. Follow her story on Twitter @walkersvibes.