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In Morocco, music fests draw sounds and fury

Some see shows as assault on values

Young Moroccans dance at the Burning Spear show last month in Casablanca. Young Moroccans dance at the Burning Spear show last month in Casablanca. (Abdeljalil bounhar/AP)
By Alfred De Montesquiou
Associated Press / August 31, 2008
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CASABLANCA, Morocco - This is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, but you wouldn't know it from the music festivals.

Held in July, the Casablanca festival turns the commercial capital into an urban Woodstock, with masses of young people clogging the mosque-filled streets and partying to the pulse of hip-hop, rock, pop, and Arab music. An estimated 2 million people attend free concerts at a dozen venues, many snapping up the action on their cellphones.

And Casablanca is only one of about 400 yearly festivals sponsored by authorities across the country, not to mention the sports, dancing, and singing contests organized on popular beaches every summer.

The promotion of culture and leisure by Morocco's moderate government has a political undertone. The country's increasingly powerful Islamist groups view it as a deliberate attempt to deviate youth from traditional Islamic values. Even some government officials admit the aim of the merrymaking is to promote the liberal values they'd like to see society embrace rather than radical Islam.

Most youths don't see it that way. They just enjoy the free music and the opportunity to party in this country of 34 million where unemployment is particularly high among young adults and where parents usually keep a tight grip on their children.

"I like these concerts . . . the artists are role models for young people," said 19-year-old Fadoua Hakki at a hip-hop event in Casablanca. Oumaima, 17, praised the "big strides" made by the new generation of homegrown Moroccan rap singers. "They're very good, and they voice our concerns," she said.

The streets full of trendy teenagers stand in striking contrast to the near-medieval living conditions in Morocco's countryside or the sprawling slums around Casablanca, which have become a hotbed of Islamism.

Such festivals would be unheard of in more rigorous Muslim states, where the mixing of boys and girls, free sale of alcohol, or even dancing in public can be forbidden. But Morocco, a strong US ally and a major tourism destination, prides itself on a cultural diversity that allows scantily clad girls to attend a concert side by side with women wearing Islamic headscarves.

Artists in Casablanca this year included international reggae and hip-hop stars. The yearly Gnaoua mystical music festival in the resort of Essaouira attracts top jazz and rock players, and in Rabat, Morocco's capital, this year's edition of the Mawazine world music fest included Whitney Houston for her return to the stage, jazzman George Benson, and French electro DJ David Vendetta.

Mawazine takes place a stone's throw from King Mohammed VI's palace and under his direct patronage.

Organizers say bringing in big names to festivals reflects Morocco's traditions of mixing cultures and people from Europe and Africa.

"That openness can only continue if there is an exposure to cultures from the rest of the world," said Ahmed Ammor, the head of the Casablanca festival organizing committee. "It's part of the king's project for society, that's why you see a festival in nearly every town."

With a budget of about $3.18 million, Ammor's festival remains the largest. Like many official events in Morocco, it is half funded by public money and half by large companies close to the government. Ammor himself works for free, presiding the rest of the time over a subsidiary of the national carrier Royal Air Maroc.

Massive police presence can be seen around most festivals, as at any other public event in Morocco. Organizers say unruliness is rare, noting that parents often attend with their children and then take them home.

But many have qualms with all this revelry. Some critics say funding the stars' contracts costs the state a fortune. Others deplore the import of Western music such as rap, which they accuse of corrupting Moroccan youth. Others still say the large spring festivals are badly timed because they interfere with exam periods.

"There are too many festivals in Morocco . . . as soon as one finishes, another starts: No wonder young people don't read anymore," said Zine Eddine Bekkal, a Casablanca shopkeeper.

The most vocal critics are usually affiliated with the Islamists, who hold growing sway in Morocco. The gap between the educated, wealthy, and Westernized elite and the vast majority of the impoverished population has been widening.

"We stand against the debauchery observed during these festivals," the leader of Morocco's biggest authorized Islamist group, the Justice and Development Party, Abdelilah Benkirane, said on a state TV talk show.

More hard-line Islamist groups, like the semi-legal Justice and Charity movement - viewed as the largest in Morocco - see more than bad morality to the partying.

"It's not only dissolute, it's cynical," said Nadia Yassine, spokeswoman for the movement and the daughter of its founder, Sheik Yassine.

"It's like ancient Rome: bread and circus to keep the masses happy," she said, accusing the government of trying to divert public attention from Morocco's lasting problems, such as unemployment, poverty, and corruption.

Moroccan government officials say the drive for culture comes within a wider plan to improve public education and build new infrastructure throughout the destitute hinterland.

But they also gingerly admit they are waging a struggle for the hearts and minds of the country's youth.

Associated Press writer Hassan Alaoui contributed to this report.

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