There Is No Rock In Morocco: Beyond The Festival Of Sacred Music

Denied access to the Festival Of Sacred Music where Björk plays for the Moroccan Royal Family, Joost Heijthuijsen (words) and Nick Helderman (photos) try to find the true local music

The city of Fez is located in a valley that works like a natural amplifier. The effect is especially overwhelming during the Fajr, the predawn prayer at 3.30 AM. In the stillness of early morning the imams from the more than 100 mosques start jamming on their PAs. When they switch their microphone on and off the electronics add the texture of an old-school technology to an ancient tradition. It reverbs like a surround-sound metal band that suddenly starts playing holy music.

We have come to Fez to cover the Festival Of Sacred Music, one of the major musical events of Morocco. Its aim is "to harness the arts and spirituality to promote human and social development and to foster harmony between people and cultures." Artists like Björk, Joan Baez, Archie Shepp and lots of big Arabic names perform in front of Bab Al Makina, a monumental gate and the main entrance to the Royal Palace. There’s also a night programme with free concerts. If you are lucky you can see locals crowd surfing to sufi music there.

Sitting on the rooftop terrace of our hotel in the Fez medina we hear an awesome Arabic cover-version of ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes in the background. It’s being played as part of the Festival Of Sacred Music… yet it’s the closest we will get to the actual event. For some reason, our request for official press accreditation has been declined. Unable to pay 305 euros for a festival pass, we’ve decided to cover the festival from the perspective of others who also couldn’t afford a ticket: almost all of the Moroccan people.

Outside the venue where Björk will perform we try to talk to the waiting crowd. The audience consists of foreigners (Moroccans call them "Christians") who want to see her in an exotic setting and Moroccans arriving in chauffeured black Audis and BMWs. In contrast to big pop concerts in Europe there are almost no people hanging around. Even at the backstage entrance, where Bjork arrives in an escort of black cars with a lot of bodyguards, there are no screaming fans. Only quaking frogs.

Having a friendly chitchat with the people in the streets of Morocco is very easy. There’s always a guy who wants to be your guide, sell you hash, or both. But it’s hard to find a guide to Moroccan life. After saying no to several hardcore guides who even wait for us in front of our hotel, we finally meet someone who wants to take us to a place where he usually goes out. The party starts at four in the afternoon and they even sell alcohol. We reconvene at the restaurant where he works, have a drink and talk about girls. It feels like home, although the drinking consists of hot and sweet mint tea instead of cool beer. Our friend is from the Atlas region. He is a virgin and his mother decides whom he will marry. He has four older brothers and two still have to marry. After that it’s his turn, Inshallah.

It’s still too early to go to the party so he asks his cousin Mohammed to show us around. We get insulted for "bargaining like Berbers" by shop owners, buy some high quality belts, a high quality shawl and a high quality tablecloth for a good price, student price, and try to convince Mohammed to bring us back to the hotel. We really want to party and do the things local people do, besides seeing tourists as a walking ATM. He pretends not to understand and wants to bring us to some more folklore places. When Mohammed finally guides us back to the restaurant our friend is lying on the couch. He’s too tired to join us. But another guy, a cousin also called Mohammed, wants to bring us to the party twenty minutes outside of Fez. A cab ride is around twenty euro and he wants to guide us for the same price. Seems like a deal.

Sidi Harazem is a tourist resort where no western tourists go. There’s a big 70s structure of rotting concrete, a small market with shops full of kitsch, picnicking families and separated swimming pools for men and women (the women’s pool is covered by a roof). The spa is known for its healing water, which solves the problems of kidney stones but also functions as a treatment for liver diseases. Guys sell it for a few Dirhams from mugs from a fountain. When we hammer half a litre our friend Mohammed says it makes you piss in three minutes. He’s not wrong.

The club, also part of the resort, is open air and quite empty. Some people sit in plastic Coca Cola chairs and get speedy on Coca Cola. The African coke is extra sweet and extra strong due to the high amount of pure cane sugar it contains. It really kicks in. The bartender also sells pots of mint tea and bootlegs mineral water by putting tap water in bottles. The audience consists of one bored couple, some sitting handclapping guys and dancing girls. The typical Rai dance for women is to headbang while the hips bellydance. One girl dressed in tight black clothes drives everyone crazy, especially if you imagine that normally every woman covers her whole body, and wears a veil.

At 5pm it’s still 33 degrees Celsius in the shade. It’s not the just the dancing, but the intense heat of the open-air club that makes you sweat. The concrete combined with the crappy PA and a high volume makes the music echo through the place. The DJ uses CDs, can’t mix and plays Rai tunes Shazam does not recognize. He doesn’t use headphones but shuffles his CDs on the PA. He often stops tracks in the middle and puts on a bigger and better one.

Then comes another guy called Mohammed. He brings his own keyboard in a sleeve and builds up his own stage set. His tunes start with long intros that sound like chillwave intros of Robert Wyatt remixes, building up to Arab Aphex Twin meets Gang Gang Dance pieces of big beats, heavy reverb and heavy finger virtuosity on the keyboard. It’s freaked out Rai on keyboard with lots of effects that sound like guitar solos. This kind of ADM, Arabic Dance Music, is one of the best things I’ve heard in years. The combination of lo-fi equipment, combined with finger virtuosity played on a crappy PA is killing, even makes Omar Souleyman sound gimmicky. We’re texting friends that this lower class local and undocumented music would be excellent for a Soul Jazz compilation called Moroccan Hotel Rai.

Afterwards we try to talk with Mohammed. He says he plays everything, just what people want: wedding music, Rai, Gnawa. You name it. If people like it he plays it. He has a daily residency at Sidi Harazem but also plays in hotel bars at night. We ask to follow him one day for a report, a concept he does not understand. We try to take a portrait picture of Mohammed, which he also does not understand. But he offers to be on the picture with us, so we all can be in the frame. Going back to Fez our guide is being scammed by a guy who wants money for washing his car windows.

Outside of the Björk concert in Fez a woman from the festival organization sees us talking with locals. She asks if we are press and want to enter. We say no. We’re professionals and decide to stay outside. Of course we’re making it more difficult for ourselves – from the outside we can’t make a report using the cliché of Bjork and Joan Baez playing in a beautiful façade of an ancient palace.

There is not only a language barrier and a cultural barrier but also a dictatorship.When we introduce ourselves as journalists hardly anyone wants to talk with us openly, agreeing to speak only off the record. Princess Lalla Salma, the king’s wife, supports the Fez festival and is inside. If you say something negative about the royal family or things related to the royal family you might be in serious trouble. Of course the secret service is checking foreign media.

It’s also forbidden to take pictures of women and policemen. Imagine – there are more police waiting outside a Bjork concert than during a football match between Millwall and West Ham. It’s not just the political reality that makes things difficult. Images are suspect in Islam and there seems no tradition of autonomous photography. Of course women dance, of course people drink alcohol and of course people hate the king. But it’s forbidden to talk or write about it. That’s the difference between the formal culture (in the media) and the informal culture (behind closed doors).

Some guys are waiting for a friend who is a bodyguard that can smuggle them in to the Festival. One of them wants to talk. He’s an English teacher and would like to practice his accent. Pointing at single guys arriving in expensive cars he says they are undercover cops. He talks like a lost character from an American sitcom, uses ‘OMG’ frequently and ends sentences with a higher pitch. He does not know Björk, but wants to get in: "This is really a really VIP event, tickets are 60 euros." Although he actually prefers other musical genres, which he describes as "middle class music". "I am not fond of the local Rai music. The songs are childish, only about stupid things like love. I love classic music, like Elton John and Metallica but it is not well known over here." When I ask him if they know western music he confirms: "All Moroccans want to hear ‘Wind Of Change’, that’s a classic tune. The Scorpions play their instruments well, but they also got great lyrics. Moroccan people learn English from their songs."

We’ve heard better Björk concerts. Depending on the wind, snippets of songs and the applause after ‘Crystalline’ reach over the walls. At some places the echo outside is ever better than inside. But the palace walls divide outside and inside, cruelty and beauty and there is no connection in between. Recently a Moroccan rapper was sent to jail for three years because he criticized local authorities. Björk performs in front of the royal palace, in front of the most powerful woman in Morocco. The Moroccan bourgeoisie is there. Although she was informed, Björk does not say anything about her fellow artist. Later Joan Baez will do, but life goes on. Outside people are grilling meat and selling underwear. Our reporters from inside tell us that the audience does not get the concert. Kids play videogames and the Moroccans are more interested in socializing then listening to a singer whose "songs don’t change."

After the Bjork show they are not flyering for other concerts, but handle très chique black flyers with lots of gold letters for luxury hotels: ‘Dj and performers will be there’. We meet the only music blogger from Morocco. By cab he takes us to the only McDonalds in town. Ali wears a The Strokes-shirt, studies journalism, likes garage rock but never saw a garage rock concert in his life, and recites NME like the Koran: "According to NME The Strokes are responsible for the garage rock revival, did you know that?" In his Samsung Galaxy Note he has songs by Animal Collective, Suuns, Metric and White Stripes, and the phone number of his girlfriend, which he stored as ‘Juicy Pussy’. When we ask him if he knows TV Buddha’s from Israel he reacts with a shock and point to the taxi driver. "Don’t mention bands from Israel here! In Morocco we can’t talk about Jews."

His blog lCassetta writes about local rappers, blogbands and the Scorpions. We compliment him with using French and making music accessible to the local scene but Ali apologizes: "We want to write in English, cause we want to become really big, like, I mean, really big, like Pitchfork-big!" The food at the McDonalds tastes like the food in every McDonalds in the world. His friends like 9GAG and Game Of Thrones and want to start a vintage shop, like all friends in the world. They went to the Bjork concert because they know some people connected to the royal family and went there "because we are rich." They seem to prefer Western music like they seem to prefer McDonalds: it’s more exclusive. When we ask about the local scene Ali apologizes: "there is no Rock in Morocco."

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