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Music, magic and art in Morocco, Africa’s festival capital
Eight reasons to come to Morocco that aren't the Marrakech souks
Morocco is Africa’s cradle of rhythm and music with internationally recognized music and art festivals showing off Arab, African and Berber influences.
In one summer, you can strutt your way through the beats of traditional Gnaoua music in Essaouira as performers enter a trance-like state, then head to Agadir to discover Berber sounds and culture.
You can headbang through metal guitar solos in Casablanca’s urban music festival then soothe your soul courtesy of Sufi master Egyptian Sheikh Yassine El Touhami at the World Sacred Music festival in Fes.
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1. Dakhla Festival: Dakhla
Woodstock might be over but its spirit is alive in a remote corner of Morocco.
Dakhla offers a quiet and cool "West coast atmosphere of the 1970s," as José Kamal, founding director of the Sea and Desert Festival, puts it.
Festival-goers can mingle with local and international artists and sports champions here. The New York Times ranked this town one of the top 2012 travel destinations.
"What attracts tourists is first the magic of the place: the wilderness that embraces the ocean with the bay with turquoise waters, it is simply sublime," Kamal says.
The Dakhla Festival features a “Women from here and there” corner to honor female African artists and athletes. It also celebrates various ancestral musical influences as Dakhla is at the crossroad between Sahraouian culture (from the Sahara desert) African, Maghrebi and European cultures.
Date: February 2013.
Getting there:There are almost daily local flights from Casablanca to Dakhla.
Good to know: It is worth walking on the fine sand of the 25-meter high white dunes. You can also taste great seafood as Dakhla farms oysters, clams, mussels and the south coast of the Atlantic Ocean is full of lobsters.
2. Mawazine World Rhythms Festival: Rabat
“Music has no border” is the motto of the Mawazine World Rhythms Festival.
The nine-day celebration of world music offers a fusion of dances, folk traditions and eclectic music. It embraces musical styles from Indian folk to Electro, Balkans folk, Rai (Algerian music), Reggae, R’n’B and Rock.
The Mawazine World Rhythms also celebrates street shows with young drummers, capoeristas and choreographers. Previous sessions showcased Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), Scorpions, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Cliff, Khaled and Youssou N’Dour, to mention a few.
It is also an occasion for travelers to attend panel discussions and workshops about Morocco’s music and art.
Date: Late May 2013.
Website for tickets: www.festivalmawazine.ma/en
Getting there: You can land at the Rabat-Salé airport.The Rabat Ville train station is located in the center of the city so you can hail a little blue taxi to get around (minimum fare is about 50 cents).
Good to know: Rabat might not be the most exciting place to visit in Morocco but you can still see some nicely preserved cultural features.
3. The Gnawa World Music Festival: Essaouira
From The Beatles to Kerouac and Ginsberg, many a godfather of hippiness has paid a visit to one of Morocco’s most enticing cities. Even Hendrix reportedly got a little buzz on the beach here in July 1969.
Included are jam sessions with local and international artists, including KyMani Marley, The Wailers, and Paolo Fresu.
The four-day festival celebrates mesmerizing Gnawa (an ethnic group descendant of black African slaves) rhythms, a mystical form of music halfway between African shamanism and Islamic ritual.
While moving from one stage to the other, travelers will see Gnawa performers rotating their heads, using a minstrel banjo and clacking castanets.
"Essaouira’s Festival is often compared to Woodstock or an African carnival. It’s a space of freedom where everyone is here in a spirit of celebration and sharing,” Hicham El Kebbaj, the festival’s artistic coordinator says, as he recalls “wandering freely” in the harbor with Robert Plant.
Date: June 20-23, 2013.
Getting there: You can land at the Essaouira airport.Local flights are available from Casablanca to Essaouira and Marrakech to Essaouira.Bus rides are available daily from Casablanca (US$12, six hours) and Marrakesh (US$6, 2.5 hours).
Good to know: You can visit the local souks (markets) to shop for some Moroccan handicrafts, herbs, spices and delicious cakes in the old Medina (ancient fortified town), which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage. You can also walk on the ramparts, eat grilled fish, visit art galleries or improve your golf skills.
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4. The Timitar Festival: Agadir
Berber culture comes alive with this dance extravaganza and folk music fest encompassing jazz, hip-hop, Indian, Spanish and Cuban beats. The Timitar Festival is a cultural project born of the desire to pay tribute to Morocco’s Amazigh (Berber) ethnic group.
From artists like American jazz pianist Randy Weston and Nass El Ghiwane, this festival has grown to become one of Africa’s biggest music events. It features more than 40 artists in free concerts in three open-air venues.
Curious tourists can also learn about this culture by attending colloquia and workshops on Amazigh culture.
Date: June 2013.
Getting there: Agadir–Al Massira airport has direct flights from major European cities. If you are already in Morocco, there are daily bus services from Casablanca (US$18, nine hours), Rabat (US$20, 10 hours), Marrakesh (US$8, four hours) and Essaouira (US$6, four hours).
Good to know: Agadir, which offers 300 days of sunshine a year, is Morocco’s first seaside resort. You can walk along the shimmering sea and take advantage of the thalassotherapy, balneo-therapy and hammam (public oriental baths) treatments.
5. National Festival of Popular Arts: Marrakech
This festival will enchant sightseers with its extravaganza of music, color, tastes and belly dancers.
As Morocco’s oldest festival (48 years), it promotes traditional culture as an important part of the collective memory.
The five-day event displays exhibition areas with traditional arts and crafts scattered throughout the “Red pearl” city. Travelers can learn how to build rare musical instruments and taste various local products.
The festival also showcases dance shows, photography exhibitions, film screenings and lectures with researchers and specialists on Morocco’s ancestral culture.
Festival-goers will also witness Morocco’s various musical influences from verbal jousting, Melhoun (folk poetry), Andalusia-inspired songsters as well as improvised declamation.
Date: June 20-24, 2013.
Website for tickets: www.marrakechfestival.com
Getting there: There is a large selection of low-cost flights to Marrakech airport.
Good to know: Fortune tellers, snake charmers, fire-swallowers and acrobats are a must-see in the city’s main square, Jamaa El Fna. You can wander through the dizzying array of food stalls and shops. You can also visit the Koutoubia gardens and minarets and walk along the sun-splashed city walls. You can then attend a fantasia with Arabian horses near the Al Badi palace.
6. Festival of World Sacred Music: Fes
This is the most spiritual music festival of the year. The United Nations designated it in 2001 one of the major events contributing to the dialog between civilizations.
This mystical festival offers the opportunity to experience a wide spectrum of music from European classical to Moroccan Sufi chants, Pakistani qawwali incantations, Egyptian madhi odes to flamenco-style saeta, Bulgarian orthodox choir, ancient Indian gwalior chants, Turkish whirling dervishes and Celtic sacred music.
It brings together artists such as jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, pianist and vocalist Amina Myers, Icelandic singer Bjork, Ravi Shankar and Miriam Makeba.
Festival-goers can also take part in various seminars and discussions. Every year, the festival brings performers, philosophers, academics, economists and artists from every corner of the planet to debate today’s intractable issues.
Date: June 7-15, 2013.
Website for tickets: www.fesfestival.com
Getting there: travelers can land at Fes Airport located about 10 kilometers outside the city.
Good to know: Fes has been Morocco’s intellectual capital for many centuries. Along this cultural journey, visit the old medina for the Dar Tazi gardens, or relax on Berber rugs and sip mint tea.
7. Boulevard of Young Musicians festival: Casablanca
They rap rough. They breakdance. They exhort festival-goers to jump. The Boulevard of Young Musicians Festival in Morocco’s romantic city is the best way to get introduced to Casablanca’s urban music scene.
With a mix of funk rhythms and shout-along refrains, this four-day festival gives a taste of the live energy and exuberant attitude of Moroccan youth.
The Artistic and Cultural Education (EAC) association organized it as a competition to reward the best talent in four categories: Electro, Rap, Rock/Metal and Fusion. It’s a vibrant musical patchwork with other styles like Raga, Jazz, Reggae and Rai.
The festival showcases Moroccan and North African artists like four-piece hip-hop group H-Kayne, Darga and Hoba Hoba Spirit and Gnawa Diffusion.
Date: June 2013.
Website for tickets: www.boulevard.ma
Getting there: Travelers land at the Mohammed V airport in Casablanca, Morocco’s busiest airport.
Good to know: The Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest in the world, is a landmark monument with its remarkable architecture and delicate carving. It stands right above the Atlantic Ocean. For lovers of the movie “Casablanca,” the legendary Ricks’ café (www.rickscafe.ma) remains the same with its sculpted bar, balustrades and piano (but without Sam!).
8. Tanjazz Festival: Tangier
Jazz aficionados will not be left out. In Morocco’s charming port of Tangier, Arabic jazz (jazz rhythms played with the oud, a North African instrument similar to the European lute) meets Western jazz.
This five-day festival blends different sounds and harmonies from upbeat jazz to traditional local music.
Artists include American jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Italian jazz singer Roberta Gambarini, British jive and swing band The Jive Aces, Deutsch band Witchcraft as well as Moroccan jazzmen such as M’Oud Swing Quartet and Gnawa Express.
The festival includes jam sessions, street jazz gigs and free be-bop dance lessons. Some concerts also are free on public stages.
Tanjazz revives the spirit of the 1900s, when Tangiers was a retreat for experimental writers like William Burroughs and romanticized by artists such as Matisse.
Date: September 19-23, 2013
Website for tickets: www.tanjazz.org
Getting there: You can either book a flight to Tangier or take the ferry from Spain. There are high-speed ferries from Algeciras, Tarifa and Barcelona to Tangier almost every hour as the Moroccan port is only nine miles from the Spanish coast.
Good to know: Sipping a Tangier-style mint tea on the terrace of the Hafa café (open since 1921, which is probably the last time they bought new chairs) is a must. The place offers a magnificent view of the Strait of Gibraltar and the Spanish shores, where the Atlantic and Mediterranean Oceans meet.
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