Monday, May 23, 2011

Mawazine Festival in Morocco 1: Omnivore's Delight!

Text and photos by Banning Eyre

The tenth annual Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco, is off to a dizzying start.  This 10-day musical extravaganza takes place on 8 stages around the Moroccan capital between May 20-28.  After three days and nights taking in music, I can report that this is a one-of-a-kind musical event.  While much of North Africa and the Middle East is engaged with fundamental issues of destiny and governance, Morocco is moving ahead with its tradition of spring and summer public festivals.  Mawazine is without question the most ambitious of them all.  Called by some "the king's festival"--because it is largely funded by a non-profit organization called Maroc-Cultures, which gets significant personal support from King Mohammed VI--this festival delivers an overwhelming diversity of international music.  Where else could you see Kanye West, Salif Keita, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), Nass el Ghiwane (pioneers of Moroccan roots pop), Kadim Saher (one of the most respected classical pop singers of the Middle East), Ernest Ranglin, and Sahraoui desert diva Saida Charaf, all within the space of a few days?

Kanye West in Rabat, Morocco

Saida Charaf, Mawazine Festival

With eight stages going, some of them a good 20-minute drive apart, it is impossible to catch even half the action in any given night.  You have to make hard choices.  Are you in the mood for icons of Western pop?  An Afropop superstar?  A revered singer of Arabic art music?  Or your choice of Moroccan music, from Andalusian majesty to Sufi trance or raucous roots music?  For Moroccans, who can attend the concerts for free, or pay a modest price to stand in an area closer to the stage, one concert a night probably does it.  For insane journalists like the folks I'm moving with, you try to thread the needle, catching a bit of this then charging across town to experience something different.  Take the first night, Friday, May 20.  Following an opening ceremony that featured an all-female drumming ensemble from Japan, I headed to the seaside Espace El Menzeh to hear gnaoua modernizer Majid Bekkas making a scintillating, multi-national fusion with German pianist Joachim Kuhn and Argentine percussionist Minino Garay.

Majid Bekkas
Joachim Kuhn, Majid Bekkas
Gnaoua delight!
From there, I charged out to one of the largest venues to hear one of the greatest singers of Syria, Mayada El-Hanaoui, performing with a full orchestra, in the manner of Umm Kulthum.  This was fabulous, and particularly interesting was seeing how thousands of Moroccans--all ages, both genders--went mad for the elegant, lofty music.  One observer explained that this singer is beloved and well known in Morocco, and that a generation of kids has grown up hearing her songs--and others like them--playing in the kitchen radio while Mom was cooking dinner.  But does that explain a pod of teenaged boys, dancing and chanting, adding their own sound to the music, as if it were a hip hop concert?  Clearly the lines between musical genres are different here.  And I have to think that this country's tradition of public festivals has something to do with people's amazing openness to different kinds of music.

Mayada El-Hanaoui
Mayada El-Hanaoui
This time, I didn't make it across the Bouregreg River to Sale for the late Moroccan music show.  But to see what I did see, I had to pass up a chance to hear Femi Kuti rock Rabat with full-force Afrobeat.  Painful choice, but the likes of Mayada El-Hanaoui rarely reach New York, so it had to be done.  My Saturday night started gently and beautifully with a spare, Andalusi-inspired performance from singer Touria Hadraoui.  The genre is called malhoun, and it is a popularized version of the music preserved from the memory of Al-Andalus (Moorish medieval Spain) in the north of Morocco.  The set was intimate and stately, a perfect start to another Mawazine tour de Rabat

Touria Hadraoui
It is a little ironic that I had to come to Morocco to attend my first Kanye West performance, and even though it meant missing most of Salif Keita's blowout gig at the Bouregreg venue, I braved the crowd of an estimated 50,000 to watch Kanye give Moroccans a long, loud blast of state-of-the-art American hip hop pop.  This was at the largest venue, OLM Souissi, and it was worth it to feel the energy of that huge crowd when Kanye's spectacle of dancers, light, rap, and heavy beats went down.  I did split mid set to make it to Bouregreg to see the end of Salif's spectacularly well-received set.  I was too late to take photographs--we only get the first three songs of any set; after that, you are out of luck.  But the music and, again, the crowd reaction were electric.  Salif was glowing afterwards.  He's played this festival twice, and told me he considers it "magic."

Kanye West at Mawazine
On Sunday night (May 22), there was huge anticipation for a reunion of Nass El Ghiwane, dubbed by Martin Scorsese "the Rolling Stones of Morocco."  That's a bit misleading.  As Nass's founder Omar Essayed noted in a press conference, his group was more of a folk operation, who carried their instruments in the trunk of a single car, and used no electronics at all. This band made its mark by combining gnaoua, Sufi and other roots music genres, and singing the concerns of the street--the poor, the oppressed.  Nass El Ghiwane helped to build a sense of national identity and purpose in the '70s, and established a place for social and political critique and even a kind of protest--though Omar rejected that word--in Morocco's cultural sphere.  What really made them like the Rolling Stones is the fact that every Moroccan knows their songs.  They became part of the fabric of the national culture.  For this Mawazine performance, the group collaborated with Algerian keyboard maestro and arranger Safy Boutella, popular Moroccan singer Saida Fikri, American bass virtuoso Victor Wooten, and others, to present a filled-out version of their classic songs.  The result was serene and beautiful, and it did get the crowd singing along to old favorites.  The portion of the show I caught was not fiery, but certainly moving to watch, and deeply appreciated by the crowd.

Nass el Ghiwane, Omar Essayed seated in hat
Safy Boutella
Nass el Ghiwane crowd
Now for fire, I headed over to Sale on the late side to catch two Moroccan roots divas:  Rachida Talal, from the south of Morocco, and Sahraoui songstress Saida Charaf.  Both were backed by the same large ensemble, which included traditional percussion, guitar, bass, keyboards, oud, violin, and alto sax, and three backup singers.  Rachida's set--I just caught the end--had a gnaoua flavor, and Saida's made many nods to rai music, though her ripping vocal definitely carried the anguish and passion of the Sahraoui experience.  The Sahraoui situation relates to a territorial dispute in the Western Sahara that has dogged Morocco for decades.  Security was extra tight for this event because of that ongoing tension.  But the crowd was ecstatic, not just singing but shouting along with many of the songs.  I had to feel that including such a performance in "the king's festival," despite the contentious politics involved, was a positive thing.  The tension release was palpable, and music, sublime!

Rachida Talal
Crowd at Sale
Saida Charaf and Rachida Talal
Saida Charaf

Drummer for Saida Charaf
Much more to come, and I am gathering tape for an Afropop Worldwide broadcast on this amazing festival.  I've had a chat with Julian Marley--alas, I had to miss his sets, and Ernest Ranglin's, which I heard was sensational.  But we may get some audio for our program.  I also attended a rather sweet press conference with Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), in which he mused about life and this moment in history, still wearing his Peace Train t-shirt.  While he was speaking, a demonstration in Rabat was being rather un-peacefully closed down by police.  There are definitely those in this country who do not entirely appreciated the amount of resources going to put on this festival--among other complaints.  Nothing is simple in this part of the world.  But one thing is undeniable: these performances are giving ordinary Moroccans a soul-satisfying gift, and a remarkably broad education in a huge diversity of contemporary music.
Julian Marley

Yusuf Islam
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