How Jazzablanca Festival signals the return of cultural life in Casablanca

It is the first major music event to take place in the Moroccan city since Covid-19 restrictions were eased

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It's 45 minutes until the gates open at the Jazzablanca Festival and founder Moulay Alami is feeling the heat — in more ways than one.

Since its launch in 2006, the annual event in Casablanca has evolved into an occasion with a perennial, almost cult-like following. In 2022, it finds itself as the poster child for the city's reopening after most Covid-19 safety restrictions in Morocco were lifted.

On Friday afternoon, Alami paces around the festival’s new site, the sprawling Anfa Park near the coast, as he conducts final checks on the security gates, sponsorship booths and the various “villages", where an estimated 17,000 people will watch performances, relax and eat from the international food stands over the next three days.

“We have done this so many times, but this year feels important,” he tells The National. “The fact we are able to stand here and open the gates is, in its own way, a miracle.”

Alami reveals the festival only received government authorisation to run in late April.

Hoping the gradual decrease in Covid-19 infection rates would result in the lifting of restrictions, Alami and his team had been plotting the return of the festival since the start of the year.

However, with the green light arriving just weeks before the proposed date, the remaining period was spent in a frenzied dash to secure the artist line-up and sponsors.

“The support we received from everyone was overwhelming,” he says.

“There was definitely this sense and that we need to work together and get back to normal because for the last two years the events sector in Casablanca, and really most of Morocco, has been non-existent.

“So everyone wanted to help because we are the first major festival to come back to the city.”

That good will was also extended from the artists.

Jazzablanca has secured an impressive and eclectic line-up for revellers with US blues singer Ben Harper, Lebanese-French trumpeter and composer Ibrahim Maalouf and Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke the major headliners.

"It did feel like everything was going our way because many of the artists were understanding," he says.

"They of course knew the reputation we have built over the years and many were happy to return to Casablanca.

They know the crowds here are beautiful and supportive.”

A musical reunion

In addition to international acts on stage, Jazzablanca also serves as a rallying point for the city’s musicians, many of whom suffered great financial difficulties due to the shuttering of venues since the onset of the pandemic.

"To suddenly stop doing what you only know and love for two years is extremely hard and you can’t just bounce back,” says singer-songwriter Jihane Bougrine.

“I have been fortunate in that I was using the time away to record new songs and release music videos, but others have left music all together to find other jobs to support them.”

Osman Messawi was contemplating a similar move.

Born and raised in Casablanca, the pianist was considering retiring from life as a working musician, to become an antiques collector.

“You can find many things in the markets across Morocco, such as historic bank notes and books, which you can sell on to collectors or museums,” he says.

“Now music venues are back; I am a little nervous about stepping back into it fully.

“One thing I learned from this big mess is that I will always have a plan B, or a second source of income. I think many musicians learned that from this experience.”

Appreciating what we have

Jazzablanca’s return also functions as a psychological boost for the city’s residents.

Bougrine says the cultural chill caused by the pandemic affected the character of the city.

"Casablanca is a place rich in history and culture with many local and international festivals about many kinds of arts," she says.

“The people and city really feed off that energy and that's what gives Casablanca its vibe.

“Perhaps, we all needed the reminder these things are built on the back of artists and festival organisers.

“Now that we can enjoy these things again, I hope we don't take it for granted and show greater support.”

Updated: July 02, 2022, 12:57 PM