A singing, drumming Guadeloupean Carnival band, decked out in burlap and flowery dresses marched down the main boulevard in Rabat, Morocco, recently. Cars and motos honked, both in rhythm and with impatience. Following just behind was Slatucada, a Moroccan percussion band playing the big, rhythmic surge of Brazilian batucada, and an Amazigh group performing ahwach, one of the songs and dance traditions of southern Morocco. This prismatic parade led the following throng of onlookers to the Mohammed V Theater for the opening concert of the fifth annual Visa For Music festival.
Since 2014, Visa for Music has brought a beautiful medley of musicians from Africa, the Middle East, and their diasporas to the streets and concert halls of Rabat. In its words, the festival was “born from a paradox.” Exceptional music flows through the many cultures of these vast regions like milk and honey, but much of it is unheard by an international audience.
This festival seeks to elevate these artists and their music, build global connections, and cultivate strong local and international music scenes. And, as the name suggests, it envisions a world where musicians can travel as easily as their music. Cross-cultural musical dialogue and its medicinal effects on society are stifled by rigid borders and immigration laws, particularly for artists from these regions.
Visa For Music, run by and for Middle Eastern and African music industry professionals, is one of the few locally-controlled festivals in the nebulously-termed “world music” circuit. It is an enduring frustration that major success and global mobility for such artists disproportionately depends on attracting the attention of American and European audiences. The term “world music” itself, which gloms together every music that is not in the economically-dominant Western genre, implies a Western gaze.
Although this dynamic inevitably exists at Visa For Music, the festival makes bold strides in confronting it. Labels, producers, and concert bookers from Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Benin, Algeria, and beyond were on the scene. For better or for worse, most of the media present (with the exception of this one) were based in Africa or the Middle East. Daily conferences took place, discussing funding for artistic projects, amplifying the presence of local music on local radio, and using art as an instrument of “social peace.”
Of course, musicians are the heart and soul of the festival. From an annual pool of hundreds of applicants, a jury of African and Middle Eastern music mavens selects 45 to perform on three different stages. Of this year’s selection, some inhabit a musical space that could be considered “traditional,” but most live in between the lines, or rather, without lines at all.
For globally-minded musicians in a dizzyingly globalized world, ambiguity is the vanguard. Trying to taxonomize contemporary global music is not a useful activity. It is better to let the music speak for itself while recognizing the web of kinship that binds it to people worldwide. The new wave of musicians may honor tightly-held tradition, but tradition is always in evolution, and evolution goes nowhere without innovation.
Festivals, for that matter, unfortunately, go nowhere without money. Visa For Music is financed largely by the Moroccan state and royal funds. Recently, however, the kingdom’s Minister of Culture, Mohamed Laaraj, cut a large chunk of government funding. Some speculated that this year’s festival might end up being the last. Younes Boumehdi, the Director of the Hiba Foundation, which is a major sponsor of the festival, emphasized that, regardless of how it may appear, Visa For Music is “desperate for financial support.”
Director Brahim El Mazned, is nonetheless hopeful. Money may find its way to the festival from other sources, he speculates, or, perhaps, the ministry–which has failed on funding in the past–will realize the festival’s value for the country in general and the city of Rabat in particular.
These are some of the artists that Inside Arabia heard at this year’s Visa For Music festival. The lineup went far beyond these few, though — explore the list to hear the rest, including some cutting-edge DJs who closed out each day with a late-night after party.
Farah Siraj, a Jordanian songstress with a smooth, easy sound and a crystalline voice. Beyond music, she works as a humanitarian, writing and performing music to raise awareness of human rights abuses and war.
Mounira Mitchala is one of the stars of the under-heard Chadian music scene. After being part of the group H’Sao, she launched a solo career as the “mitchala” or “panther” of N’Djamena, Chad’s capital. She radiates an ebullient air. In a sparkling gold dress, she lit up the stage with a voice that swooped from low growls to high soars, singing in Chadian Arabic. Behind her, the band churned out tightly knit grooves with a palette of traditional Chadian music and Congolese soukous.
The polyvalent Tunisian percussionist Imed Alibi has a long career in globetrotting musical projects, engaging in dialogue with musicians from India, the Middle East, and Brazil. The project he brought to the festival this year is called Frigya, a word that means “Africa” in the Ancient Tunisian dialect.
Alibi’s acoustic battery of drums melded with the heavy, enveloping synthetic texture of Khalil Hentati’s electronics. Burkinabé singer Kandy Guira and veteran French trumpetist Michel Marre brought their colors to the dark mix. If there is such a music that could be called “Arab-futurism,” this could be it.
Ooldouz Pouri’s stage was subtle and vulnerable, yet powerful, joined only by the brilliant, young qanun player Afarin Nazarijou. The Iranian duo offered their take on traditional Persian songs — mournful, warm, and drenched in emotion.
Mehdi Qamoum, a gnawa musician from Agadir, in southern Morocco, plays some of the best gnawa fusion around. His concert was, without a doubt, one of the best of the festival. Qamoum has three parallel projects — one acoustic and Amazigh-focused, one classic gnawa group, and this one, a powerhouse of a gnawa rock band. All are equally outstanding. Led by Qamoum’s untiring fire on the bass, vocals, and percussion, the tightly knit group made the concert hall go wild.
Al Raseef, which means “the sidewalk” in Arabic, was born on a sidewalk in Ramallah, Palestine. The seven-piece brass band, which now lives in Genoa, Italy, makes “Mediterranean” music, taking inspiration from big Balkan brass sounds, the rhythms, and melodies of the Levant and Italy. Saxophonist Tamer Nasser told Inside Arabia that Al Raseef “reaches for community . . . elders, kids. That’s part of our social and musical responsibility. And I believe now, in Italy, it’s also part of our political responsibility as well.” He hopes for the band to be a kind of musical ambassador, to humanize Palestinians in the eyes of a global public that struggles to see them as regular, modern human beings who can dance in the street. At home, he hopes to inspire more young Palestinians to pick up instruments, be free, and have fun.
Ilam, a bluesy Senegalese guitarist, and singer living in Canada.
Mbokka Project is a brainchild of the Moroccan arts non-profit, Afrikayna, whose mission is essentially pan-African. Mbokka speaks clearly to the vision of an African continent in solidarity and in dialogue with itself.
Musicians from Morocco — an African country that in the past has tended to shy away from identifying as African — joined the stage with those from Mali, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire. Adil Hanine, the drummer for the much-loved gnawa reggae band Hoba Hoba Spirit, propels the band.
Achille Outarra, a masterful Burkinabé jazz-funk bassist, played with a drummer and frenetic, long-haired keyboardist and violinist.
Shayfeen is among a new wave of Moroccan rap artists who seem to turn out bigger, rowdier, and younger crowds than just about anyone else. Hundreds packed the Cinema Renaissance to the brim, taking selfies and rapping along with every word.
Comprised of Small-X and Shobee, the duo deals in hard-edged trap music. Their sound is well-crafted, but, disappointingly, they spent most of this concert lip-synching with a backing DJ.
The Beninese-Senegalese rapper Moonaya let loose her incisive hip-hop at Cinema Renaissance. She has a lot to say about the toxic psychological dregs of colonialism and the sinister reality of neo-colonialism but makes sure to leave space for the equally-important subject of love.
Wesli, an indefatigable Haitian guitarist and bandleader led his Montreal-based band at a late-night after party in the club Amnesia. Their wildly fun stew of reggae, soukous, and Haitian rara, twoubadou, and compas, far outshone the booming house DJ next door.
Omar and the Eastern Power, a Korean-Moroccan-Egyptian kaleidoscope of a band that lives on a volcanic island, was a heavy-hitter. Drummer Wael Fahmy Ibrahim Zaky left his home near Cairo to study in South Korea a decade ago. Moroccan Guitarist Omar Benassila’s story is more circuitous, but after leaving his hometown of Casablanca, he eventually landed in Seoul, where he and Wael met. The two teamed up with Korean bassist Tehiun Kim and guitarist Oh Jinwoo to create the Eastern Power, getting their start in the hip venues of cosmopolitan Seoul.
The quartet soon migrated to greener pastures: the resort island of Jeju, off of South Korea’s southern coast (an island which, incidentally, has received many Yemeni refugees). Island life brought them closer together, into an organic, musical “couscous,” as Omar told Inside Arabia. The starchy base is psychedelic rock, soaked in a sauce flavored by Saharan blues, North African rhythms, Nigerian Afrobeat and ‘70s East Asian psychedelia. Omar describes their music as the “heritage of the whole world.” Tehiun puts it simply: “Different faces, but one groove.”
Ifriqya Spirit is a spirited, polymathic, psychedelic gnawa funk band from Algeria. Some songs were weaker than others, but their energy was infectious.
Asmaa Hamzaoui is a real rarity in the Moroccan gnawa world, being one of the few professional female players of guembri (the traditional three-string bass of gnawa music) and leading a band of all women. Gender is not the reason she is on the bill, though. She is a stellar musician and an attentive bandleader, with a rich, mellow voice.
Moov, an all-women Carnival band from the Caribbean island of Martinique, brought the street heat of Fort-de-France.
The popular Cairo-based band Sharmoofers wrapped up the festival showcases, with their amorphous Egyptian electro-reggae funk, which tried to be a few too many things at once.
Be on the lookout on Inside Arabia for in-depth profiles of some of our favorite artists.