Every summer, Morocco hosts a wide variety of national and regional musical festivals. While the country is arguably not any more diverse than other North African or Middle East states, the Moroccan authorities have a strong tradition of supporting local culture.
There are some general pop festivals in Rabat and Casablanca that host mainstream international artists such as Beyoncé and Elton John.
Other festivals are more specialised. The Sacred Music Festival of Fes highlights the diverse genres of Moroccan and Sufi music. Meanwhile, The Gnaoua Festival of Essaouira is dedicated to gnaoua music, which developed in communities of former African slaves who, when converting to Islam, kept a part of their spiritual traditions. And there is the major Timitar festival in Agadir, now in its 12th year and which I’ve just returned from. It’s dedicated to the music of the surrounding Souss region and its language but has expanded to cover other areas.
The Timitar festival each year features the leading singing musicians of the Souss, this year for instance Hindi Zahra, Aït Laati and Fatima Tihihit, all of them totally unknown outside Morocco. In fact many Moroccans cannot understand their Berber words.
Apart from local performers, there were national stars like the “chaabi” (popular) singers Daoudia and Stati. The festival also gives room to Morocco’s contemporary alternative music, for instance the excellent N3rdistan, definitely a Moroccan equivalent of Lebanon’s Machrou Leila or Zeid Hamdan, and rapper Don Bigg, whose texts about corruption and political prisoners sung on a government-supported stage are an another indication of Morocco’s give-and-take policies.
And then there are international acts such as Diana Haddad, Rabih Abou Khalil, Vieux Farka Touré, Bashar Khalife and the singing minister of culture of Cape Verde, Mario Lucio.
The Souss music is a sheer delight. It uses the five-note scale that is characteristic of African and East Asian music.
The music easily becomes trancelike, and at other moments unintentionally or intentionally gets funky. This is helped sometimes by an electric version of the traditional banjo, but also an electric guitar and bass is added, here and there.
The national star, Daoudia, was another highlight. She sings and plays the violin, holding it in the Moroccan vertical way, while standing, one leg resting on a bench. With her long, blond hair flowing on the breeze of the evening wind she adopted a heroine appearance, suiting her powerful voice and the ecstatic character of her music.
One may wonder why Moroccan chaabi music is completely unknown outside the country, as it is so exciting. But one reason is that for the Arab world outside Morocco, the Moroccan Arabic dialect is almost as incomprehensible as its Berber languages.
Maybe it also is because of the typical Moroccan rhythms and metres, often three beats where in other music there are two or four. And maybe it is because Moroccans like their music somewhat raw, and Daoudia, although being very urban, is definitely still “folksy” with her rough sounding violin. The music is, moreover, difficult to record well in slick sounding audio and video formats. That is what makes it so strong when it is performed live.
The Moroccan policy of funding and initiating cultural diversity, then, seems to be paying off. Despite Berber feelings of disenfranchisement within the larger Moroccan society not being fully resolved, the country has still defused the level of ethnic tensions its neighbour’s have had.
Cultural self-awareness may also be a barrier against religious fanaticism, and festivals also attract tourism, a welcome incentive for local economies.
And they are a format to preserve valuable traditions before they might disappear under the pressure of modernity. That traditions then are transposed from their original environment to a big stage, where they will mutate somewhat, is something that has to be acknowledged. But at least in this way they survive, instead of vanishing the moment they are not being performed anymore at home.
Neil van der Linden curates music events in the Middle-East and North Africa, founded and edits the online Gulf Art Guide and writes about Middle East music for Songlines.