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Morocco reshapes its image...

September 2014

The North African nation hosts three festivals that dwarf Glastonbury – and which are designed to send out a message about the country's tolerance.

You may not have noticed, but Morocco has become one of the leading destinations for music festivals in the world. There’s the Fes festival (in June) a leading world music festival, and the snappily named Jazzablanca (in March/April) in Casablanca.

But the biggest ones are the funkier Gnaoua festival (In June) in Essaouira on the coast, the massive pop Festival Mawazine (In June) in Rabat – which has starred the likes of Rihanna and Stevie Wonder – and Timitar (In July) in Agadir.

Each attracts crowds of up to 500,000 people (that’s three times the size of Glastonbury). All of them, too, are not just music festivals – they have specific social and political agendas as well.

Timitar is an event that is at its root a celebration of Berber culture which has been historically oppressed in these parts, even though Berbers make up nearly half of Moroccans and are the indigenous population; the origins of their music go back millennia before the arrival of the Arabs.

Some, like the Saharan-Berber singer MalikaZarra, now based in New York, see Timitar as a "bread-and-circuses" distraction from the issues that have caused Berber uprisings across North Africa but it’s also true the Moroccan authorities are cannier and more flexible than more blatantly repressive regimes elsewhere, which may be one reason the country is more stable than its neighbors. Another reason is the unifying force of the seemingly universally revered king, Mohammed VI, whose picture was on the side of Timitar’s main stage.

The oldest of the big four Moroccan festivals is the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, which has a different political agenda and marked its 20th anniversary this year. Fes was the destination for many of the Muslims and Jews who were kicked out of Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the festival represents a kind of nostalgia for the great days of the old Andalucia, where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived more or less in harmony. The festival was set up in the wake of the first Gulf war as a “beacon of tolerance” and has a policy of inviting top-notch performers from different faiths and of no faith. There’s usually a leftfield western star like Björk, 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.

There are plenty of countries, from Abu Dhabi to Singapore, who put money into the arts for political or economic reasons – in the case of Singapore, it’s to attract foreign companies to set up their offices there, for Abu Dhabi it is partly to distinguish itself from its sister Dubai.

For Morocco, the main reason, apart from bread and circuses distraction and creating employment, it’s to rebrand the country as a whole a more tolerant, open Islamic country. Whatever the motive, they are fascinating festivals; and Fes in particular is, for my dirhams, the best world music festival anywhere.


For more information and requests, please contact Mr. Az-Eddine Skalli at morocco@euromic.com

Fes Festival

Fes Festival


Gnaoua Festival

Gnaoua Festival

Mawazine Festival

Timitar Festival