A deep dive into the state of Moroccan music over the years.
Words by Jeffrey Callen, Ph. D.
In the late 1990s, an alternative music community came together in Casablanca that would dramatically change Moroccan popular music. Cultural outsiders, brought together by shared aesthetics and the support of a local community organization, hip-hop, rock, electronica, and “fusion” musicians joined together to make common cause to expand the boundaries of Moroccan music. Although it was their joining together in the late 1990s that would dramatically change the country’s musical landscape, each of these genres has its own separate history in Morocco.
The Prehistory— Genres on the Margins
Rock ‘n’ roll. The history of rock ‘n roll in Morocco goes back to the 1960s when young musicians formed hundreds of rock bands in cities throughout the country. By the 1970s, the first Moroccan rock explosion was over, eclipsed by a folk–revival that began in Casablanca and soon swept through North Africa, spearheaded by bands such as Nass el Ghiwane and Jil Jilala. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that rock reappeared on the scene. Identified as “rock”or “hard”, Total Eclypse, Immortal Spirit and other heavy metal bands were at the heart of a small rock scene centered in Casablanca. By the mid-1990s, a Casablanca–based community organization that works with youth, Federation des œuvres laïques (F.O.L.) was providing metal bands with a place to practice and presenting occasional concerts.
Hip-hop. At the same time that rock was reasserting its presence, a fledgling hip-hop scene was developing. The first appearance of hip-hop culture in Morocco was the formation of breakdancing troupes in urban centers throughout the country. Graffiti artists and rappers followed in their wake. By 1993, the first hip-hop hit appeared— “Ash Kein” by RAP TO TOP of Meknes. By the mid-1990s, there were rappers practicing their craft in cities throughout the country. A sense of hip-hop culture was beginning to emerge, and individual artists and groups sometimes organized themselves into hip-hop crews that included rappers, graffiti artists and breakdancers. The first significant local hip-hop scenes developed in Casablanca and Meknes.
Electronica. A small electronica scene has existed in Morocco since the early 1990s. In 1994, the group Aisha Kandisha’s Jarring Effects (Marrakesh) released the first Moroccan electronica album, which blended club beats with Moroccan street sounds, rhythms and melodies. Electronica remains on the margins of Moroccan musical culture; most electronica produced in Morocco has been released in Europe, mainly on the Swiss Baraka label.
Fusion. Although it’s musical roots go back to the folk–revival of the 1970s, “fusion” was not an identifiable genre of Moroccan music until the late 1990s. Fusion artists, however, do build upon the pioneering work of Gnawa fusion artists—Mâalem Hamid Kasri and Majid Bekkas—and jazz fusion artists—Caravane and the Soussi Trio—who blended Moroccan traditional musics with jazz during the early 1990s. Gnawa music (a musical/spiritual/healing practice rooted in West Africa) would play a major role in the development of fusion in the latter half of the 1990s. Another source of inspiration for Moroccan fusion musicians was the work of French North African fusion bands, such as Gnawa Diffusion and Orchestré National de Barbès.
A Community is Formed
By the mid-1990s, F.O.L. was actively supporting young musicians in the Casablanca area who wished to create music outside of the commercial mainstream. The organization regularly presented concerts of “alternative” music in their theater and, more importantly, provided rehearsal spaces and a place for young musicians to gather. Theâtre F.O.L. quickly became the social hub of Casablanca’s fledgling alternative music scene. In 1999, F.O.L. established a yearly judged competition of alternative bands that would be an important step in gaining visibility for alternative music in Morocco. Le Boulevard des jeunes musiciens quickly became the premier alternative music event in Morocco. It also introduced “fusion” as a genre label. The Boulevard was organized with separate days for different styles of alternative music: hip-hop, rock/hard, electronica and fusion (a catchall category for bands that did not fit into the other categories). Within a couple of years, fusion became an accepted category for music that blended Moroccan styles with non-Moroccan styles, predominantly Western pop music. The emergence of fusion coincided with a Gnawa music craze that swept the country in the late 1990s, sparked in large part by the sudden success of the Gnawa Festival of Essaouira (established in 1998). By 2002, a close relationship had developed between the Boulevard and the Essaouira festivals, and fusion acts featured at the Boulevard were soon appearing at the Essaouira Festival. Both festivals also developed close relationships with the Ministry of Culture and soon fusion bands were appearing on the stages of music festivals throughout the country. The Boulevard grew steadily during its first few years and, by 2002, it was attracting bands fans from cities throughout the country. The growing alternative music scene, while still centered in Casablanca, was forming outposts in other urban areas. Fusion and hip-hop quickly gained popularity, while rock and electronica maintained small but devoted followings.
Alternative Music Hits the Front Page
In February 2003, the Moroccan national police arrested 14 musicians and fans who had played at or attended a heavy-metal concert in late January at Theâtre F.O.L. The 14 youth were accused of practicing Satanism and attempting to lure Moroccans away from their faith (a violation of the criminal code). This capped a period during which Islamist politicians had attacked alternative music and the organizations that provided support for it as foreign and anti-Islamic influences intended to corrupt Moroccan youth. The attacks had begun the previous spring when an Islamicist newspaper accused the Gnawa Festival of Essaouira of being a Jewish plot to lure college students away from studying for their exams. Shortly after the arrests, individuals active in Casablanca’s alternative music community organized to demand the release of the 14 youth. Their efforts, which included public demonstrations (including an open-air concert) and a petition drive, gathered widespread support among the public and sympathetic press coverage. In late March, the government dropped the charges against the 14, and the coalition formed to protest the arrests in the press vowed to continue the struggle for freedom of artistic expression. The alternative music community in Casablanca was energized and F.O.L. committed itself to presenting the largest and most successful Boulevard ever. The 2003 Boulevard, held at an outdoor stadium, was attended by 50,000 people and marked a turning point in the visibility of alternative music in Morocco. Within a few years, the Boulevard was drawing more than 100,000 people per year. At the same time, media privatization was increasing the number of radio stations on which alternative music, especially hip-hop, could be heard. The popularity of hip-hop dramatically increased and fusion steadily expanded its audience.
By the middle of the decade, distinct regional styles of hip-hop emerged. The three most influential styles were: a hard, in-your-face style typified by Casablanca-based artists, such as Mafia-C and Don Bigg; a high–energy, interactive style typified by Meknes and Fez-based bands, such as H-Kayne and Fez City Clan; a fusion of traditional Moroccan music and hip-hop innovated by Marrakesh–based band FNAIRE. Other popular artists, such as Muslim, developed idiosyncratic styles not identified as part of a regional style. Female rappers also increasingly moved to the forefront of Moroccan hip-hop culture (I.e., Tigress Flow, Soultana). Fusion also increased its audience in Morocco and bands such as Hoba Hoba Spirit and Darga became pop sensations and top attractions at music festivals. The use of fusion as a marketing label also lost some of its saliency as bands, such as Hoba Hoba Spirit, Haoussa and Barry created music best described as Moroccan rock ‘n’roll. Fusion has become a label more appropriate for jazz–based ensembles such as Mazagan.
An Uncertain Future
Making a living as a musician in Morocco remains difficult regardless of the style of music played. With a complete lack of copyright protection and widespread record piracy, musicians must rely upon live performance as their primary source of income. Some prominent alternative artists, such as Don Bigg and Hoba Hoba Spirit, have supplemented this income stream through sponsorship agreements with prominent corporations. However, this route is not available to up-and-coming artists who must struggle to gain exposure.
The cohesiveness of the alternative music community has also broken down over the last few years. Heavy metal and electronica have not gained commercial access and do not seem likely to do so. Increased access of rock, fusion, and especially hip-hop to the commercial success has led to a fragmentation of the sense of community that existed in more difficult times. Without the necessity to struggle for freedom of expression, political differences between different artists have become obvious. The lack of a common response to the events of the Arab Spring highlighted the differences between the different artists. The alternative music community changed the musical landscape in Morocco. Hip-hop, fusion and Moroccan rock have moved into the cultural mainstream, while the support of an alternative music community may no longer be needed.
Want to see and read more? Check out MTV Iggy’s special report on Morocco’s music scene, here.
Jeffrey Callen is a storyteller living in San Francisco. Along the way to receiving his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, he learned the bracketing of reactions, the deep hanging out, the willingness to be surprised that are the sine qua non of the ethnographic method. An ethnographic approach is integral to all his work as a writer, researcher and consultant. His writing on music and popular culture regularly appears in scholarly publications and popular outlets, such as PopMatters, The Wall Street Journal(wsj.com), SF Weekly, East Bay Express, The Beat and Afropop Worldwide.