Dancing in the desert: get to know some of the artists taking North Africa’s electronic scene to bold new places
Drive beyond Marrakech’s city walls towards the horizon line and you’ll find yourself in a tangerine desert that seems like it’ll never end. That is until you take a swift left turn down a dirt road, where the low bassline of a kickdrum emanates from behind a 15-foot wall. I’m here to find Oasis, a weekend-long party found an hour or so drive outside Marrakech’s labyrinthine medina that for three years has been a welcome hub of hedonism near the Sahara. It’s places like this where Moroccan dance music not only exists, but thrives.
“The first party we ever did?” asks music producer and DJ Amine K, meeting as the evening Moroccan sun shimmers through the window of an all-white hotel lobby on the outskirts of Marrakech. “It was in a shithole. A super dirty, super nasty, small hookers club in Rabat, but that was actually the perfect setting for us.” It might sound like an odd thing to imagine in a country like Morocco, where unfounded misconceptions often wrongly dictate the western understanding of the country, but Marrakech is a city of contradictions and colours, those cultures bleeding into their interpretations of dance music.
“That’s actually a good example of what the city is,” Amine says when I put this to him. “You walk into the Medina and it’s dirty, it’s filthy and sometimes it can be scary – but you open a door and it becomes a huge paradise. It’s a beautiful mess, and within that, that’s where we exist.”
What goes on inside these parties are hidden away from the outside world, or perhaps just far enough away for any authorities to happily ignore – even if they do give you a side-eye when stepping through the main gates. “I feel like dance music has a long history of the pilgrimage,” says the festival’s organiser, Marjana Jadi. “I read that people used to travel in the UK for a really long time for raves, and that mentality is just ingrained in the history of electronic music, especially here in Morocco.”
Younes Bahmad, aka Unes – the ‘godfather of Moroccan electronic music’ – traces his lineage back to America’s former industrial heartland. “There is a musical solidarity between Morocco and Detroit,” he explains sheepishly, admitting that this is only his second interview in over two decades of performing. “We Moroccans have a music called Gnawa. It’s the rhythm of the south of Morocco and the music of the nomads, and it’s a very repetitive, almost tribal style of music. So automatically we’re drawn to the sounds of Detroit, because it’s music that’s very similar to our own. You hear this kind of music in the streets or the squares of Jemaa el Fna, and that has become the sound of our everyday life.”
In Morocco, records that beat with a four-to-the-floor rhythm aren’t what you hear from contesting car sound-systems out on the streets, nor is it played through the phones of snake charmers in one if its sprawling main squares. Amine describes how, in an ever-changing Morocco, the culture that bubbles underneath is often at odds with the wider public. “The majority of people here aren’t very understanding of what we’ve been doing for all these years,” he says. “Some are just not happy of what we do and what we represent, others are just ignorant, most are jealous – and that did affect us for quite some time. When you’re sacrificing everything you have to make something beautiful but you have people throwing a spanner in the works, that’s not really too enjoyable.”
As electronic music is largely instrumental, those mindsets have slowly started to change over time, which helps when the risk of being arrested for offending lyrics is an all-too-real possibility. The lyricist Othman Atiq, aka Mr Crazy, received jail time in 2014 for ‘offending the state’, and in the same year – for a second time – so too was the Moroccan rapper and activist El Haqed. El Haqed’s track “Mellit” (‘I’m Fed Up’) became a YouTube anthem for the 20th February pro-democracy movement in 2011, a protest that challenged the rule of King Mohammed VI. “We try to change the mentalities of people through our music in the same way rappers do,” Amine says. “However, our message may not be as explicit as in hip hop. It might seem way less scary to some people than what the hip hop guys do.”
Through that wider acceptance the scene has thrived in recent years. “There are a lot of free parties here, thrown by people having to do their own thing and keeping it all very secretive,” says musician Driss Skali of how the music scene has been kept alive there. Born in Casablanca but now residing in Montreal, Skali has been at the helm of Moroccan dance music since the mid-90s. “That was more out of necessity, really. You’re not going to discover anything in clubs here, nothing, but right now these parties and these festivals which are coming through right now are creating something. It’s happening, slowly and surely.”
“No standing, only dancing,” describes the unofficial motto of the Marrakech collective and free party veterans RAK Elektronik. It’s a slogan you should probably take with a pinch of salt though, as one of their most recent free parties took place atop Toubkal Mountains. “Here in Morocco, when you try to do something new, it's better to be quiet about it,” says Diego Lasou Ugarte – who alongside his partner Nabil Hamdaoui fronts the RAK Elektronik collective – from his Marrakech home. “But what we want to do is prove that dance music can be played everywhere, not just for clubbers on MDMA or anything else. People come to party for the music, or the spirit or the vibes. We wouldn’t ask people to hike 4,167 metres, to the highest point in North Africa, unless we thought we could achieve that.” And what do they want to achieve? What would be the pinnacle of dance music in Morocco for them? “Eventually…” says Lasou Ugarte. “One day, I’m pretty sure that a young student could dance with a veiled woman walking in the street. I think dance music could do that…”
The Moroccan artistic curator Alya Sebti once described Morocco as “the artistic meeting point between Africa and Europe,” a crossroads of artistic and cultural exchange that stretches back for centuries. In that, it’s little surprise that while Marrakech may be a hub for all things electronic across the entire country and further beyond, Moroccan artists are morphing, mangling, warping and reincarnating their traditional forms of music and turning them into something that is firmly future facing and outward looking. Here are five artists pushing Moroccan dance music into exciting new directions.
Merging his dual Moroccan and Belgian heritages, Jabo flips the Moroccan music he grew up surrounded by in his family home on its head. Previous cuts like 2016’s “Maysa” nod to his home country while showcasing an influence that’s more closely rooted in Chicago juke and footwork than musical incarnations from North Africa. On “My House Is Your House”, however, Jabo takes it back to 92 and the sound of Cha3bi Rave, a celebration of Belgian EBM, rave and Chaabi, a form of traditional North African folk.
Understandably, most people’s view on Casablanca may have been formed through the movie of the same name, a romanticised image filtered a rose-tinted 1940s charm that never existed in the first place. Tourists flock here for that reason, but once they’ve gone to bed, Yasmean crafts the city’s after-dark soundtrack. As an Aphex Twin fanatic, a regular of Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio, and a lover of dance music’s wonkier outer edges, Yasmean brings a little bit of grit to a local dance scene that can sometimes sound a little too polished.
‘Prince of Morocco sounds from the big city’ is how AkizzBeatzz describes himself, turning the spiritualities embedded in the heritage of his homeland into cuts designed for club basements. With echoes of Bonobo, Auntie Flo, and flutters of Daniel Avery’s brand of machine funk, AkizzBeatzz makes music designed for the pitch black emptiness of the Saharan desert and its everlasting skies. On RAMAL, his latest EP, and its title track Ain Hijla, AkizzBeatzz celebrates the shared cultural identities across all of North Africa.
THE INTERGALACTIC REPUBLIC OF KONGO
The Intergalactic Republic of Kongo (IROK) were formed from an epiphany. Band leader Mike Title, the east Londoner born into an indigenous Moroccan Berber household, was on the stands watching a Moroccan football match when he decided to channel the feelings of chaos, ecstasy and panic he felt beneath the hot sun. That came to fruition in 2013 and the interstellar funk-futurism of their debut LP OO AA OO, a record with dual identities that simultaneously takes you back to the psychedelic edges of both happy hardcore and Ibizan balearia.
KINSHASA is the sound of a North African Fuck Buttons. It’s heavily distorted, aggressive electronica that somehow finds a groove and soulful, cosmic bliss within the flutters of madness. Hailing from Morocco, KINSHASA’s music reflects the hyperactivity of Marrakech’s streets, a musical sensory overload that leans as much towards UK jungle and jump up as it does Afrobeat from Nigeria and traditional forms of street music from the Congo.
Photography Molly Macindoe