Many may wonder what to expect from a jazz festival in Casablanca, Morocco. It is not a place that necessarily springs to mind when thinking of the dissonant tones of Gershwin, Coltrane, or Miles Davis. And no doubt such thoughts must have occurred to many first-time visitors to Jazzablanca, which took place this year in the city from July 1 through July 3.
Yet a whistle-stop tour of 20th century North African cultural history would be enough to assuage the apprehensions of even the most skeptical Jazzablanca attendee. The last century was a time when the beat generation, from Capote, to Kerouac, to Bowles, wrote some of their best work in the smoky cafes and cramped hotel rooms of Tangier and Essaouira and when Jazz musicians from all over the world plied their trade in the clubs that line the coasts of the southern Mediterranean and the north Atlantic.
Regardless of what festival goers were expecting, what they got was a seamlessly organized, joyous celebration of world music, with an impressively broad spectrum of artists making up a superbly balanced program. For the non-paying public, a stage was set up in the United Nations square, with the likes of Hamid El Kasri, Saad Tiouly, and Faïçal Tadlaoui topping the bill. The inclusion of this stage was a symbol of the tentative yet real steps that are being made to include the general population in Morocco’s impressive yet traditionally elitist cultural events.
To describe Jazzablanca only as a Jazz festival would be to do a significant disservice to the range of music on show and to overlook the degree to which other musical forms, such as blues, rock, and Gnawa music, were fused with the Jazz performances to produce the festival’s signature sound. Yet Jazzablanca stayed faithful to the spirit of jazz and in more than just the music. Even the setting for the festival, the still-under-construction Anfa Park in the heart of the city, presented a chaotic façade true to the dissonance at the heart of jazz music. As the musicians played, colored lighting illuminated the unfinished high-rise buildings and cranes. Amid this subtle ethereal backdrop, construction-workers peered down upon the proceedings – the best seat in the house if one is willing to stay long past the end of the working day.
The site layout also exuded an effortless class. The attendance figures contributed to this – enough to achieve a vibrant atmosphere but few enough to prevent the event from becoming too crowded. The two Anfa Park stages also complemented one another in an ideal fashion. Stage 21 gave the early arrivals the chance to relax on the grass below the late afternoon sun. The Moroccan group Bab L’ Bluz opened the show on day one, followed by the godfather of Ethiopian Jazz, Mulatu Astatke; their stylish, pleasing tones eased the audience into the festival spirit. Stage 21’s bookings for days two and three achieved the same effect, with traditional jazz artists Natacha Atlas, EYM Trio, Majid Bekkas, and the wonderful Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 combining to kick off the show in style.
Each day, as night fell, the crowd sidled across the cooly lit “Chill Zone,” where beanbags and blankets lay beneath trees festooned with fairy lights, to the Casa Anfa stage. This is when the real party started.
The opening night was arguably the best, or at least the most crowd-pleasing of the three. French Trumpeter Erik Truffaz got the audience in the mood with a brand of upbeat jazz/blues fusion that captured the moment perfectly. Things really went up a notch however upon the introduction of surprise guest Hamid El Kasri and his Gnawa band. Gnawa, the brand of Moroccan and west-African Islamic rhythmic music, created originally by slaves, is rooted deeply in the culture of Morocco. Indeed, perhaps the country’s most important music festival, which takes place every year in the majestic port-city of Essaouira, has Gnawa as its focal point. The appearance of El Kasri flipped a switch and the crowd danced and sang their hearts out, united in jubilation. The festival had suddenly become Moroccan. But more than that, what we were watching was quintessentially what the festival, and perhaps jazz itself, are about – fusion: fusion between different kinds of music but also between different cultures, different states of being.
The cherry on top of Jazzablanca’s triumphal opening night was the show-stopping headline performance of Lebanese trumpeter and all-round showman Ibrahim Maalouf. Following Truffaz and El Kasri’s performance was going to prove difficult, but Maalouf soon revealed them to have been merely a transition to a higher plane. The show built and built, with every song upping the tempo. Maalouf’s being Lebanese undoubtedly aided his connection with the audience, which followed the band on a journey fueled by relentless and ever-increasing energy. By the end, the crowd were singing and banging their heads in unison in scenes more reminiscent of a heavy metal concert than an ordinary jazz festival. But this was no ordinary jazz festival, and Ibrahim Maalouf proved to be the ideal headliner.
Saturday picked up where Friday let off. After Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 had stolen the show on the Stage 21, the Casa Anfa crowd was treated to a memorable performance by the legendary Brazilian musician and former minister of culture Gilberto Gil. Gil’s tour de force performance was something of a distillation of Jazzablanca’s variety in and of itself, covering a spectrum from rock, to samba, to reggae. While perhaps a little past it, the old master forged an effortless connection with the capacity crowd, not least by employing his excellent French.
Gil was followed by a feel-good set by Asaf Avidan. The booking of an Israeli artist in a headline slot was significant in itself and a reminder of how times have changed. Avidan is the latest and most high-profile of a number of Israeli acts to perform in Morocco in the past two years.
Morocco officially opened diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, following Israel’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The warm reception for Avidan vindicated Jazzablanca’s explicit mission to promote intercultural understanding, a theme that dominates modern cultural events in Morocco.
If variety and fusion were the themes of this year’s Jazzablanca, Sunday’s program encapsulated that mood even more than the previous two days. A mesmeric, spiritual performance by Oum held up the Moroccan end of things before Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals broke out the electric guitars to give the festival the rip-roaring send off it deserved.
But that is not quite the end of the story. Like many cultural events in Morocco, Jazzablanca’s planners insisted on the themes of tolerance and intercultural understanding and diversity. This was apparent in the multicultural nature of the artists as well as the wide variety of musical styles on show. But what of a wide variation of social classes? What of promoting understanding between people from different parts of society?
When the stage lights illuminated the crowd, a quick scan of the faces present revealed many of the same people that one will meet throughout the Moroccan arts scene. The reality is that the kinds of Moroccans who can and do attend such events are still overwhelmingly from the francophone (and now increasingly anglophone) elite. The price is a huge factor in this, with a ticket for Sunday alone going for around $60 – around 30% of the average Moroccan’s monthly salary.
But there are also cultural barriers. There are still two Moroccos – the elite and the rest – and a sizable chunk of the population, if they were aware that Jazzablanca was taking place at all, would not have recognised the country that exists within its temporary walls. The public stage at the United Nations Square was an excellent addition and symbolic of the very real attempt that Morocco has made in recent years to make cultural events more accessible to people from all walks of life. But the atmosphere and clientele of the main event showed how far there is still to go. For the foreseeable future, the only working-class faces to be seen at events like Jazzablanca will be those of construction workers, peering down from cranes and unfinished high-rises, sneaking a glimpse, at the end of a lengthy shift, of how the other half live.