North Africa's World Music Festivals are Twice the Size of Glastonbury

We travel to Morocco to visit the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music - an event that attracts over 400,000 people - to learn about Berber culture.

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24 July 2014, 9:00am

(Mehdi Nassouli, photo by Rachid Bourhim)

I’d been told about this rapper, who is huge here in North Africa right now, called Muslim. You try Googling that name. But the crowd at the ‘urban’ (actually seaside) stage at Agadir’s Timitar Festival swells to over 100,000 as he ambles on stage. I’m with a couple of Moroccan dudes from Casablanca and they tell me his big hit is called “Al Rissala” (The Letter) - a fiery anti-authoritarian condemnation of corruption and ignorance in high places. The authorities, you would think, might be nervous; it was a similar rap by a guy called El President that was one of the triggers for the Tunisian revolution.

On another stage, the Al Amal - Alpha Blondy’s hard-hitting, ten-piece reggae band from Cote D’Ivoire - are singing about “spiritual terrorists” who think it’s OK to kill for religious reasons. The next night, local heroine Najat Atabou sings in support of women’s rights, while Mehdi Nassouli is positively post-modern and almost prog rock. Earlier at the festival, meanwhile, I’d caught Marcel Khalife - a Lebanese artist who sings rousing, Palestinian revolutionary songs; often the audience would realise what the song was and sing a verse or two before Khalife and his band joined in.

Timitar festival is, at heart, a celebration of Berber culture. It’s a culture that has been historically oppressed in these parts, even though they make up nearly half of Morocco and are the indigenous population: the origins of Berber music goes back millennia before the arrival of the Arabs.

“It’s a good way of letting off steam,” says Reda Allali, the lead singer of Moroccan rockers Hoba Hoba Spirit, referring to Timitar as a kind of safety valve. “It’s a step in the right direction anyway – although there are many steps ahead.” They take delight in the fact that in North Africa it’s relatively easy to create waves, scandals and infamy. “In London now, unlike in the Seventies, everything seems to be permitted, so nothing can shock people,” he continues by way of comparison.

(Muslim, photo by Rachid Bourhim)

In Algeria and other locations there have recently been Berber uprisings. The festival may be, as Saharan-Berber singer Malika Zarra - now based in New York – and others see it, a bread and circuses distraction. But the authorities here are cannier and more flexible than the more blatantly repressive regimes elsewhere in the region. This could be one reason why Morocco is more stable than its neighbours. Another is possibly the unifying force, even among the more radical types, of the seemingly universally revered King whose picture was tellingly on the side of the stage at Timitar’s main venue, Place Al Amal.

In the last few years, the authorities have set up a Berber TV station and the language is now taught in schools. Part of this resurgence is an effort to renaming of the word ‘Berber’ - a foreign, imported word derived from 'barbarian' - to ‘Amizigh’, which means ‘free man’.

Musically, over the last decade, Morocco has been establishing itself as one of the great countries for festivals; there are three that finished the other week and two of them are at least twice the size of Glastonbury. Across the season, there’s the Fes Festival, a top, global music event, and the snappily named Jazzablanca in Casablanca. As well as Timitar, one of the biggest ones is the funkier Gnawa Festival in Essaouira on the coast. Nicknamed “the black Woodstock”, it’s where 100,000 people have been known to simultaneously crash on the beach. Elsewhere, there’s Festival Mawazine in Rabat, a massive pop event that has starred the likes of Rihanna and Stevie Wonder. Both Timitar and Gnawa attract over 400,000 people.

The oldest of the big four Moroccan festivals (Fes, Timitar, Gnawa and Festival Mawazine) is the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, which celebrated its 20th edition this year and has a different political agenda. Set up initially in response to the first Gulf War as a ‘beacon of tolerance’, it invites top notch performers from different faiths and, this year, includes the likes of New Orleans jazzers The Hot 8 Brass Band, musicians like Wasifuddin Dagar playing ancient Hindi music and Mor Karbasi, who sings Latino Jewish songs. There’s usually a leftfield, Western star like Bjork, who appeared a couple of years back, or Patti Smith who appeared last year. This year’s big performer was Iraq’s top pop star Kadim Al-Sahir.

When I meet Al-Sahir he undoes his shirt and shows me a lyric tattooed on his chest. It is his song “The School of Love”, written in the Gulf War of 1991. "I placed this song and some others in one room and slept in another, so that if a bomb came, only one of us would go,” he tells me. “I put a note with the song saying, 'Please give this to someone who knows about music'." He says his job is to present something of Iraq, of “poetry, beauty and music”: the other side of the headlines.The song of his that brings the house down tonight is “Beauty and His Love”, dedicated to the city of Baghdad. "The city is like a beautiful girl," he explains. "Even when I am unfaithful, living in other cities, she is the one I dream of. A city of singers, artists and philosophers." Fes festival, he says, is like Baghdad used to be.

Born in Northern Iraq, Al-Sahir dismayed his parents when at the age of 12 he sold his bicycle and bought a guitar, saying he wanted to pursue the precarious career of a musician. He studied hard and was accepted for the prestigious Baghdad Music Academy after being in a rock band: "I had long hair and listened to The Beatles as well as Arabic music and composers like Beethoven." Drafted into the army at 21, he remained in Baghdad, although his best friend and many others he knew perished in the war with Iran.

It wasn't long before he was running into trouble with the authorities, who asked him to change the lyrics of a song called “Snake Bite” - read by many Iraqis as a criticism of the Iran war. Another, which had a video of 4,000 people chanting, "We are living in a house of hell", was also censored. When he got calls to appear on programmes blasting Saddam and the regime, he could not refuse. "There was no choice. I was frightened. But I always wanted to be free and independent." He now has houses in Paris and Cairo.

Kadim Al-Sahir and Senegal’s finest Youssou N’Dour both return as often as they can as they love the Sufi - the mystical, Islamic traditions in Fes. Youssou, in particular, has a connection with the Tidjiani Brotherhood who have millions of followers in West Africa and whose shrine is in the city. I meet Ibrahim Tidjiani, who runs the social media aspect of the brotherhood; they have followers as far afield as Russia, Indonesia and the States. People take virtual tours of the shrine on their computers. Ibrahim runs a Facebook page and is fully tech savvy. But is the Internet really a force for spiritual good? “It is like a knife. It depends who uses it,” says Ibrahim.

Fes Festival carries on renewing itself despite the often-challenging nature of organising such an event. Music programmer Alain Weber mentions a few intriguing ideas – from African rituals to more dance elements - which will keep the festival fresh as it grows. What's particularly encouraging is young singers like Nouhalia El Khalai, a 14-year-old expertly performing semi-classical Malhun compositions, or the children lapping up the music at the daily Sufi Nights performances at Dar Tazi. The sheer delight of a couple of eight-year-old girls sitting next to me at the music of Yassine Habibi's group from Meknes is a lesson in itself.

The only groups who don’t appear are those from the refugee camps in the Sahara, where there is a decades old territorial dispute between Morocco and the Polisario, who are fighting for independence. The festival, however, does feature Christian and Jewish groups as well as Islamic and other musicians. It is considered vitally important as the polar opposite to the fanatics at ISIS, who have carved out a large chunk of Syria and Iraq and rebranded it as the Islamic State. If they have their way, there will be no music (music is a distraction from the path to Allah, they say) and girls will have no education.

However, it is the city of Fes itself that is probably the real star of the festival. It was where a university was founded two centuries before Oxford and Cambridge (by two women), and after a few days I find myself reading a line by Idries Shah about Fes. It reads: “It is a centre of learning, a place where transmission takes place. It’s where the baton is passed on”. It makes perfect sense.

Follow Peter on Twitter: @PeterCulshaw

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