Morocco is perhaps not the first country that comes up in any conversation about nightlife, festivals, and youth culture. In the eyes of many, the North African country is a conservative, sleepy place—one of the last places one would associate with electronic music or other recent innovations in popular culture. But Morocco is modernizing. Throughout the calendar, there are events that challenge tired old perceptions and display the diversity of experiences Morocco has to offer.
October’s Moga Festival in Essaouira was certainly in such modernizing vein. The beautiful seaside town is perhaps better known for hosting events that celebrate traditional Moroccan music, most notably the magnificent Gnawa festival, which takes place every year after the month of Ramadan, as well as being a filming location for Game of Thrones.
Moga Festival (named after Mogador, the name the colonizing Portuguese gave to Essaouira) bucked that trend and brought a glamorous, unashamedly modern feel to the shores of the Atlantic.
Moga Festival does not represent a cross-section of Moroccan society—it is unquestionably aimed at those in the country who choose to live a lifestyle more in line with Western culture than with the Middle East. The festival is certainly aimed at the haves more than the have-nots. It takes place at the five-star Sofitel resort, where festival goers can be seen sipping cocktails or stretched out on floats and loungers in the middle of the expansive swimming pool. But this is not a place dominated by foreigners. Those attending Moga experience an authentic part of modern Moroccan society, and one that is here to stay.
Events such as Moga Festival are both a reflection and a cause of the vibrant youth scene in Morocco.
Events such as Moga Festival are both a reflection and a cause of the vibrant youth scene in Morocco. Anas Bel Haj is head of Apéros Électro through which he organizes electronic Music parties in the capital city of Rabat. He spoke to Inside Arabia about the effect of festivals in driving modern Moroccan youth culture.
“Rabat is known as the quiet, boring city,” he says, “but you’d be surprised what happens ‘underground.’ We started doing this two years ago and, without festivals such as Oasis and Moga leading the way, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”
Moga festival is far from the only high-profile event in Morocco’s youth culture calendar. The Oasis festival, alluded to by Bel Haj, is a highlight for electronic music lovers around the world. This year’s event took place between September 13 and 15 at the Fellah Hotel, a fabulous five-star resort in Marrakech, the city which, along with Casablanca, is leading in showing Morocco’s modern face to the world.
Today’s Marrakech is frequented by celebrities from around the globe and boasts a range of high-class nightclubs, casinos, cafes, and bars—a far cry from the ancient desert city many tourists think they are visiting. The Moroccan government has consciously spent money in Marrakech to turn it into a world city—some older locals regard it as unrecognizable from the one in which they grew up.
“If a famous face had brought private jet after private jet full of celebrities here for a party 30 years ago, it would have been bizarre,” one Marrakech resident told Inside Arabia. “It would be like a Hollywood movie star throwing an event in Kabul. But today, when David Beckham has his 40th birthday party here, it works. It shows how much the city has changed in that time.”
Morocco is a country with an immense divide between the culture of cities and rural areas, and the chasm between the generations is just as wide.
Morocco is a country with an immense divide between the culture of cities and rural areas, and the chasm between the generations is just as wide. One can find parts of the country that represent the height of modernity: life in parts of Rabat and Marrakech is little different from life in Paris or Madrid. Meanwhile, one can find parts of the Sahara and the Atlas that have scarcely changed in the last century.
In a country as diverse as this one, it is important that all aspects are reflected, and festivals like Moga do their bit to reflect the more modern, outward-looking aspects of the culture. Anas Bel Haj believes that making these more modern aspects more visible can help transform the country for the better. “Festivals are democratizing electronic music and creating more opportunities for people like us,” he told Inside Arabia. “People that had not listened to this kind of music, or who had preconceived ideas about it, are now more and more open to it.”
As in many countries around the world, youth events like Moga Festival are a way to push progressive political ideas, whether directly or indirectly. A large number of Moroccan artists played at the festival, showing that Moroccans can play a real part in a modern movement like electronic music. One artist, Glitter, is one of the very few female DJs from a Muslim-majority country playing major events today. She is regarded in the industry as a pioneer.
Another artist, Issam, uses Trap music (a subgenre of Hip-Hip) to discuss political issues in a way that resonates with many young Moroccans. This energy was unmistakable during his performance at Moga and is making huge waves: Issam recently appeared on the front cover of GQ Middle East. In his music, the 26-year-old speaks powerfully about social and economic inequality, drawing from his own experience of growing up in a tough Casablanca neighborhood.
What Moga Festival shows it that there is not just one Morocco. Morocco’s festival scene is just one part of the life of a country which could be taken as a blueprint for others to follow, as a place that has modernized without losing its soul.
What Moga Festival shows it that there is not just one Morocco. Morocco’s festival scene is just one part of the life of a country which could be taken as a blueprint for others to follow, as a place that has modernized without losing its soul. The choice of Essaouira as a location embodies this perfectly—it is a place that embraces juxtaposition. Essaouira shows off the splendor of Moroccan architecture, complete with the visible influence of the French colonial style.
Here you can witness the Medina and fish market in full swing during the day, with the call to prayer echoing in the background, and then head off to the shows at Moga Festival at night. These competing visions do not undermine one another, but rather complement each other, combining to tell a fuller story of life in modern Morocco.
Events such as Moga and Oasis play a crucial role in upholding their end of this elegantly struck balance between tradition and modernization. Morocco has found the killer formula.