I cut my hand on a cactus as I was rushing to see Nicolas Jaar. There was the smell of rosemary and lavender on the desert air. Guided by a booming kick drum, I arrived at the rectangular pool that reflects the main stage of Oasis festival. As I joined the sweating crowd, a smooth electro track drifted into a soaring Arabic a cappella. A young Moroccan woman in a vest top that said “Detroit Hustles Harder” danced alone nearby. As Jaar slammed into a techno groove, thousands of hands flew into the air, beyond them the half-smile of a moon was almost lost among the stars. I instantly forgot about my injury.
European tourists have long come to Marrakech, chasing a fantasy of exotic Moroccan culture. And they find it: people in Djemaa el-Fna square really do charm cobras and pile colourful spices into gravity-defying pyramids. But over the past three years another kind of tourist has been visiting Morocco. Spurred by a wave of new electronic music festivals, the country’s clubbing scene has jumped into the spotlight, pulling in the kind of crowd who might usually spend their long weekends in Berlin or Amsterdam.
The biggest festival is Oasis (2018 dates tba), now in its third year, and held in September at a hotel complex just outside the city, with big names such as Richie Hawtin and Solomun playing alongside underground heroes and local DJs. The set-up strikes a neat balance between local culture and the gloss of a European festival: there’s the Moroccan square where music fans sit cross-legged and eat juicy grilled lamb but also a secret garden with sunset yoga sessions.
“Oasis made our biggest dream come true,” says DJ Amine K. “It shows people the culture and open-mindedness of our country. Some people still think we just ride camels and that the women all wear veils.”
Two other festivals sprang up in its wake: last year saw the first Atlas Electronic (30 August-3 September 2018), focusing on underground programming and cross-cultural collaborations; and the Atlantic surf city of Essaouira hosts Moga (postponed this year but running in 2018), aimed at a local crowd, and with cheaper tickets. These festivals are helping put Morocco on the worldwide rave map.
“The main goal was to use music to attract a different kind of tourist to Morocco,” says Marjana Jaidi, founder of Oasis.
But Morocco’s alternative music scene isn’t confined to festival season. In Marrakech’s well-heeled Guéliz district, I watch DJ Mehdi Sabir on the mezzanine of L’envers, a narrow bar with a hipster vibe, strung with bare filament bulbs. Here, local art vies for space on the walls with graffiti and Arabic calligraphy. It’s midnight on Monday but the place is heaving, with dancers whistling and throwing shapes. L’envers is unique in Marrakech, a bar dedicated to underground culture, with local DJs four nights a week and a defiantly open music policy. As Sabir brings in a brutal bass line the place erupts and a few people lose their beers. It’s OK though: the drinks here are some of the cheapest in town.
Though Marrakech has a lot of clubs, none is wholly dedicated to electronic music. Commercial places such as Mariinski and Rasputin run electronic nights but they’re very expensive. However, there are raucous parties for those who know where to look. The trick is to follow local promoters such as Plug-in Souls, RAK Electronik or Moroko Loko, who host parties in poolside venues such as Fellah Hotel and Jnan Lotf on the outskirts of the city. Entrance costs £15-£25 and often includes food and use of the pool.
Locals dance hard and are very welcoming – it’s hard to leave a party without a clutch of new friends. “There’s an intensity you can see in the people,” says Amine K, slapping his wrist. “People go out to listen to music and party hard.” At Moroccan weddings, he says, you’ll see 70-year-olds dancing until 5am. “We are a people who like to enjoy life. Moroccan people love tribal, repetitive music.”
Amine K could also be talking about Gnawa, the spiritual music rooted in Moroccan culture. When music streaming platform Boiler Room came to Marrakech in 2014, it filmed a performance by Gnawa master Mahmoud Guinia. Halfway through the set, Guinia and his group abruptly stopped playing and sat in silence. After a moment, the adhan, or call to prayer, echoed through the courtyard: in Islam it is forbidden to play music during the call to prayer. After a few minutes, the group started where they’d left off. This confluence of traditional and modern cultures is one of the unique draws of Morocco’s club scene: strobes blaze across Islamic mosaics and techno rhythms are loosened by the lilting rhythm of the goblet-shaped darbouka drum.
Before I arrived in Marrakech I wondered if the rash of new events was just the boutique festival machine finding a new destination, having little impact locally apart from lining the pockets of hoteliers. Instead, I found a vital party circuit ready to take off, with promoters and DJs building a scene according to their own visions.
Yasemean is a DJ from Casablanca who performed at Atlas Electronic this summer. She said: “I saw my country wasn’t doing parties the way it should and it broke my heart. The change needed to come from within. It was a struggle but I’m thrilled every time I go to a local party. We’re really making it happen.”
• This trip was provided by Oasis (theoasisfest.com)