This nine-day musical extravaganza in Rabat, Morocco, continues to deliver spectacle, exhilaration, and surprise. Perhaps the most picturesque venue is the 13th century Chellah ruin, where you watch music with a view of adobe walls and turrets, distant hills, and enormous black-and-white storks nesting in the tower of an abandoned mosque. This is where, on May 23, I saw activist and folk musician Daniel Waro of Reunion deliver a gorgeous solo concert, captivating a rather well-heeled Rabat audience with spare, soulful songs from his Indian Ocean Island.
|Daniel Waro at Chellah|
From one of the smallest and most intimate venues, I made my way across town to one of the largest and most insane, OLM Souissi, where Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) serenaded an adoring crowd that easily topped Kanye West's 50,000, both in numbers and enthusiasm. This is remarkable when you think that the artist has not released an album of new songs in over 30 years. Some in the crowd told me that he became something of a hero in this part of the world when he embraced Islam and changed his name. But this hardly explained an audience, young and old, who knew the words to his songs, and joined in like nostalgic children of the 60s. I myself was unexpectedly moved when he greeted the crowd and launched into "The Wind," a song I had not heard or thought about in decades, but which nearly took my breath away. Yusuf, as he likes to be called, sounded terrific, undiminished, and his easy warmth with the crowd was lightyears from the angry, remote, aggrieved person press reports about him in recent years might lead one to expect. This is an experience Americans need to have. Obviously Yusuf's new name and faith work against him there, but that should not be an obstacle. The music is as affecting now as ever.
Now for surprise. For some time, I've caught the buzz about a Casablanca rock band called Hoba Hoba Spirit. The music is metal-based, but hard-grooving, full of Moroccan grooves--edgy and ecstatic. The band caught on about 9 years ago after a stellar showing at the underground Boulevard festival, which showcases young, alternative bands. Hoba Hoba's lyrics are bold and political, not what you would expect to hear at "the king's festival" (Mawazine). In an interview for Afropop, the group's leader Reda Al Ali expressed some ambivalence about coming to play Rabat. He thinks that the protesters who advocate boycotting this festival raise legitimate questions, especially about how--despite all these great festivals--musicians don't get the sort of sustaining support that would come in the form of copyright protection, music and business education, and more year-round opportunities to earn a living from their art. Still, said Al Ali, he's not in the business of "boycotting cultural events." And when I saw the reception Hoba Hoba Spirit got, I understood why. This crowd of at least 10,000 at Espace Menzeh, a stage by the sea, was off the hook. Like nothing I have seen in years. These were young, mostly guys, so devoted to this band that they seemed near possession. They shouted out words, raised fists, tossed one another in the air, stood on one another's shoulders, and generally went berzerk for a good 90 minutes. But the mood was not angry. Rather it was hopeful and ecstatic. This concert, probably the most exciting one I've seen here, really demonstrated how youth, music, and technology (Hoba Hoba Spirit is a band that has marketed themselves on the internet, not through radio, TV or CDs) is a huge and maybe decisive force driving the Arab Spring.
|Reda Al Ali|
|Hoba Hoba Spirit|
Gotta run now. Next post will focus on a historic performance pulled together by legendary maestro Quincy Jones, but I leave you with some photos of Tunisian classical singer Sonia Mbarek (sublime!), gnaoua master Mustapha Baqbou (hypnotic and healing) and Congolese legend Papa Wemba, who played a lot of new material and rocked the African-focused Bouregreg stage. Much more to come...