«Vampiria! Vampiria!» shouts a crowd of 20,000 young Moroccans, urging the Portuguese gothic metal band Moonspell to play their favourite song. Much of the crowd is garbed with typical metal accessories: studded belts and black make-up. The band seems almost puzzled by the size of the audience, and by its enthusiasm.
From June 1 to 4 2006, the 8th edition of the Boulevard de Jeunes Musiciens took place in Casablanca, featuring acts ranging from rap/hip-hop, to rock/metal, and fusion. Originally started as by a small group of people who dreamt of building an underground music scene in Morocco, Boulevard now attracts huge audiences, and has developed into the most important platform for alternative local bands. It is the only one of its kind in Morocco – and maybe even in all of North Africa and the Middle East. The publicity and media attention created by Boulevard helped pave the way for a number of now well-known Moroccan groups like Darga, Hoba Hoba Spirit, H-Kayne, Barry, Total Eclypse, Aba’Raz, Fnaïre, Haoussa and others.
The attention surrounding the festival reached its peak in 2003, after the so-called «Affair of the 14 Satanists», in which 14 heavy metal musicians and fans, accused of being «devil worshippers», were sentenced to up to one year in jail for «undermining the Muslim faith». They were also charged with «possessing objects contrary to good morals», as represented by t-shirts, CDs and posters with heavy metal symbols. The sentences rallied Moroccan civil society activists, who flooded the streets to demonstrate their solidarity.
Since the events of 2003, the atmosphere seems to have slightly changed. Nineteen-year-old music aficionado Amine Charif points out that the festival is becoming bigger each year, and that there are now heavy metal concerts taking place almost weekly in Casablanca and Rabat. In 2005, he recalls, Boulevard featured the German band Kreator, who performed from their new CD, entitled Enemy of God. «There never was such an event in an Islamic country before!» As witnessed this year, the rock/metal evening drew the biggest numbers of visitors. When asked why heavy metal appeals to so many young Moroccans, Amine stresses that the music itself is the most important factor, even more than the desire to rebel against society, to be different, and to experience something new. He adds that the young generation in Morocco has never really felt any connection with the music broadcasts by the national TV and radio, which includes Egyptian-style music sung in Moroccan, traditional Andalusian music or chaâbi tunes (popular music): «There was like a dictatorship by mainstream adults telling people what they should listen to. But in the past two decades, with the evolution of the media and the Internet, international music has become more easily accessible, and young people can make their own choices, among them for metal.»
Apart from occasional cases of overt censorship, such as in 2003, musicians mainly suffer from marginalization, being excluded from subsidies as well as means of production, distribution, and promotion. As studios are expensive, and the music industry is not prepared to take risks, only a few local bands are able to produce CDs and gain access to the market. Rock and metal are especially perceived as too alien by dominant cultural norms – and the international image that Morocco is creating for itself.
Although Boulevard now attracts famed international bands, including Karim Ziad, De La Soul and Moonspell this year, it has not forgotten its initial goal: to provide a venue for young alternative Moroccan bands, especially for those that lack commercial support. While the evenings feature a mix of better known local and international groups, the afternoons are solely dedicated to local groups, all of whom take part in a competition. The idea of the competition is to motivate young bands, by providing them with the opportunity to play in a professional framework. The winning band is awarded a monetary prize that allows them to realize a particular musical project.
The competition is divided into genres. The rap/hip-hop category this year was won by Mobydick, a group from Rabat that displayed influences from French rappers like IAM, Pharaon Monch and Non-Phixon. Four young MCs from Fez, calling themselves Shabka, received the second price with their gangsta-style inspired by Dr Dre and 50 Cent. The rock/metal competition was dominated by bands from Rabat. A surprise came from the band Z.W.M., whose extraverted performance helped galvanize the audience. Using punk, rock and ska elements, they named as their influences Rancid, the Ramones and NOFX. The second prize went to the very young band Anarcky, who played an elegant grunge between Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Fusion, the third category, is the largest one, including mainly the so-called «world», «oriental», and «ethno» music. It was won by The Wailers Maroc from Kenitra, who convinced the jury with a reggae-dub, incorporating flamenco and gnawa (the music of descendants of former slaves originating from Sub-Saharan Africa). The second prize was secured by Caravane, a band from Mohammadia who presented an original blend of gnawa, reggae and rock.
Boulevard also offers music workshops, where young bands meet more experienced musicians. Hicham Bahou, one of the principal organizers, stresses that the next important step for the association Education Artistique & Culturelle, which holds the festival, will be to find the monetary means and spaces for production.
Apart from Boulevard and other concerts during the year, the Internet is playing an increasingly important role in disseminating Moroccan alternative music. A special website created after the «Affair of the 14 Satanists», www.marockmagazine.com, displays the ironic logo «Undermarocked – Wait & See», trying not only to counter the wide-spread perception that heavy metal and rock are somehow associated with Satanism, but also helping publicize a scene still underrepresented by the media. Other websites aim at promoting young Moroccan talent, and serve as alternative distributors by offering downloads of songs and space for evaluations and comments.
Boulevard’s organizers don’t see a problem in combining genres such as hip–hop and rock/metal with fusion and local music such as gnawa. Within this context, the usual deliberations about «Westernization» which so often dominate discourses about the impact of globalization on the «Arab world» seem very removed. Amine Hamma, a key figure in the building of the Moroccan alternative music scene, writes in the festival magazine Kounache: «How are we to call these new music waves? Urban? Alternative? Contemporary? Amplified? Western? We will call it – being aware of the small number of productions – Moroccanized occidental music, or the opposite, (raï-hop or metal-gnawa or electro-chaâbi). Far from political correctness, this music is based on the free copy to fill the void of diffusion, on creativity (when it comes to recording facilities, performance arenas, and new modes of creation), and on cultural mix.» He notes that although this melange is increasingly stirring curiosity and acknowledgement even on the international stage, «these kinds of music are still hardly understood, and therefore classified as the music of ‹marginalized youth›, challenging the adult world.»
Boulevard also provides the space to reflect on cultural issues, such as the question of language and music. During this year’s festival, for example, a round-table discussion was held on the Moroccan «Darija» as a language of cultural creation.
«We sing in Darja and French, and we don’t bother to translate anymore. The use of French is criticized because it’s a colonial language? Well, we have also suffered a lot from Arabic domination, and government language policies have largely failed.» explains Reda Allali, journalist and member of the Casablanca band Hoba Hoba Spirit, who participated in the discussion. «Our priority is to reach the millions of people here, before we think about making ourselves understandable in the Arab world.»
While Morocco is heavily exposed to Middle Eastern media, the transfer in the other direction doesn’t really take place. In addition, the way in which Middle Eastern countries present their cultural production in North Africa seems to create an uneasy relationship. «Me, personally», says Reda, «I feel much more at home in Senegal than in Egypt. When I was in Egypt it was like finding myself in an Egyptian soap opera, without a remote control to turn it off». In terms of music, he continues «we currently feel most estranged from the dull Lebanese music clips that invade our media».
Language clearly plays a role in this communication gap. Reda argues that the time has come to acknowledge reality: «People say for example they love Nizar Qabbani. But the question is whether they really understand him? Some people say they love him because they don’t understand him. That’s the point. People who don’t master Arabic still feel inferior, and we intend to take this complex away from them. In the end, it’s all a question of identity.»
Amine Charif thinks that shifting musical tastes reflect the cracks in the pan-Arabic imagery. While he observes that there’s still a good deal of young people who enjoy mainstream commercial music from the Middle East, with its romantic lyrics and dramatic video-clips, he argues that many don’t feel any affinity at all. «Arabic music is advertised as the music of our brothers and of a dreamed great Arab nation, but when you compare it to Western music, especially non-commercial music, many Moroccans find that Western music offers a better quality, while Arabic music is antiquated, full of clichés and, musically speaking, poor. Other Moroccans just don’t feel that they are Arab, and the majority are of mixed Berber, Arab and African origins. So they adopt occidental lifestyles more easily and, accordingly, music tastes.»
Boulevard is also reaching out to the musical scenes in Algeria and Tunisia that try to offer an alternative to mainstream music. The vision of building a North African alternative scene led to the founding of the unofficial «U.M.A.» (Union du Maghreb Arabe), and bands from the region were invited to Boulevard: the power metal band Litham from Algeria in 2003, Gnawa Diffusion from Algeria in 2004, and the Tunisian metal band Melmoth this year. The success of these encounters offers an indication of what common events could look like. «We are all fed up with mainstream raï», comments Reda Allali. «How can they still sing about romance seeing what’s going on in our region? Maybe it was provocative to sing about free love and alcohol some 10 years ago, but now there’s a new generation.»
Then why not present some Middle Eastern alternative bands, in order to help counteract the dominant media images and show the diversity of Middle Eastern cultural production? Tareq Hgili, from the Moroccan group Barry and music producer, argues that the interest has to be reciprocated, and they haven’t received any invitations from countries in the Middle East. In Lebanon, for example, the country most often criticized for dumping superficial music on the regional markets, alternative events rely mostly on local groups and big names from the US or Europe to draw audiences. Bands from Morocco are almost completely unknown, as there are still no distribution channels for the few alternative bands that have managed to produce CDs between North Africa and the Middle East. However, mutual interest in other’s alternative scenes may finally be on the rise. Reda Allali says, «For me, it is much more important to present bands from the neighbouring countries or even the Middle East than De la Soul. They are famous, ok. But they are dealing with different problems in their music, so they don’t really speak to us.» And some of the Lebanese activists in the alternative music scene, such as In-Concert and Incognito, are also increasingly interested in bringing Lebanese and Moroccan bands together.
Over the years, Boulevard has come to include other events, such as the screening of documentary music films, and photo exhibitions. It has also become a venue to promote social and political issues. NGO’s and associations have stands at the concert venues, like the Association de Lutte contre le SIDA, providing information about AIDS prevention, and Attac Maroc, mobilizing against international trade’s repercussions. Perhaps inevitably, criticism is also mounting that Boulevard is becoming increasingly corporatized. Public funding, however, is still marginal and Boulevard relies mainly on private donors, with some assistance from foreign cultural institutions.
As the festival grows, the challenges increase. This year witnessed Boulevard’s security staff receiving training on crowd control by experienced staff from Garorock, a big festival in Bordeaux.
The organizers are aware of another challenge, as well: how to attract more female visitors and performers. Although during the more relaxed afternoons the audiences are almost half female, in the evenings only very few girls can be spotted. Under the title «Girls wanted!» Meryem Valo writes in Kounache: «Girls in the alternative Moroccan scene are very rare. The explanation? It is without doubt as simple as it is depressing: A young woman going out with her group of friends to a concert is not yet a behaviour accepted by families. The parents always imagine the worst and this in general, without any connection to reality: they already see their offspring kidnapped as in a movie by Steven Seagal or vanishing into nature with her presumed Don Juan for a sweet soirée under the full moon.» On the stage, girls are even less visible. One the one hand, Meryem contends that it is still difficult for girls to excuse themselves once a week to attend evening rehearsals in a garage, as parents often associate music groups with bunches of junkies. On the other hand, she argues, girls fear the reaction of the mainly male audiences. She predicts, however, that with more girls performing on stage, the audiences will gradually get used to it and learn to react in an appropriate manner. Finally, she appeals also to the girls themselves to develop more courage: «We hope that the coming editions will feature more and more girls. But this cannot happen unless they themselves decide to take their destiny in their hands and fight for recognition.»