Party Like a Berber

Article by: Christina Ammon

Sat April 19, 2014 | 00:00 AM

Morocco has been called “The Festival Capital of Africa.” It’s a big continent, so that’s quite a designation. But there are lots of reason to dance in the Maghreb: to celebrate the present-day convivencia of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, to honor its cultural richness, and to revel in the many earthly pleasures that this abundant country offers: almonds, roses, cherries, dates… and camels!

Some of Morocco’s festivals are tremendously well known—like the mega-watt Mawazine Festival in Rabat where Stevie Wonder and Mariah Carey have performed. The Fes Festival of Sacred Music has cast its spell as well, with a fusion of ancient chants, dervishes, and singer-song writers, like Ben Harper, performing in the beguiling 1,200-year old city of Fez. The gravity of these festivals pulls fans from around the globe.

But what about the smaller festivals? No matter when you visit Morocco, there is a high likelihood that some sort of exotic shindig is taking place during you visit. While you may not schedule your trip around say, the Almond Blossom Festival (although many do!), it’s well worth the effort to see what’s on while you are there and making a point to go--if only because a festival provides the perfect excuse to jump the rails of the tourist track.

Away from the hubs of Rabat, Marrakech and Casablanca you’ll encounter another Morocco: one of soft poppy-daubed hillsides, Grand Canyon-like vistas, roadside honey-stands, and delicious truckstop tagines. Soon you’ll be on an adventure all of your own, having a pure, unscripted experience.

Don’t expect hotdog stands, shower blocks, or beer gardens at these festivals. There is unlikely to be any glamping. Here’s what you might find instead…

Desert Ships

September is a lovely time to visit a desert town like Goulimine, and all the better if you join up with the camels and Saharan tribesman at the Tan Tan Festival. Camels—or dromidaires-- are the focus of this weeklong event, but there is also poetry, contests, crafts, games, and performances—including the Guedra, where women beat kitchen-pot drums and induce a trance state.

Historically, Tan Tan was a meeting point for caravan crossings, but in recent years the festival has taken on somewhat of a tourist quality—afterall, with the advent of the 4x4 camels are no longer the coveted ‘ships of the desert.’ Still, even if you can’t tell a real Tuareg from a fake one, you’ll feel part of something great. UNESCO has proclaimed Tan Tan “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”

4,000-year old Rock Bands

When Beat writer William Burroughs heard the jamming panpipes and rhythms of the Joujouka musicians he declared them “a 4,000- year old rock band.” He and Paul Bowles might have been early-adopters of this ancient genre, but it was Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones who unveiled their sound to the Western masses on their Steel Wheels Album. These days you might catch the “Master Musicians of Joujouka” at Glastonbury Festival, or even at The Knitting Factory in New York City. But to see them in June at their home base during the Joujouka Festival in the remote Ahl Srif tribal area in northern Morocco is truly majestic.

The Joujouka Festival is a small event, but potent as a medicinal tincture. In fact, the music is thought to deliver listeners from their physical and mental ailments—acting as a sort of primordial Prozac. Frank Rynne, the organizer says of this micro-festival: “It is unlike any other offering in Morocco in that it is a village hosting as a one off each year. It is not some holiday village ...this is the real thing, real sheep real people.”

A Direct Line to God

The idea of Sufis singing and dancing as a performance art is relatively modern. The spinning, impressive though it is, isn’t about a Sufi showcasing his talent, but the quite the opposite: it’s about the Sufi shedding his ego. This isn’t a dog-and-pony show, but a visceral form of prayer meant to establish to a direct line to God. You will find plenty of Sufi spinning at the eight day Fez Festival of Sufi Culture each April, but there is plenty of fodder for the spirit and intellect as well– films, academic discussions, and art. But at the core of this festival is a sense of community prayer. The line between audience and performer gets blurred as the observers are swept up, and sometimes fall under rapture themselves.

This festival was conceived by Faouzi Skali, who is also celebrated for creating the beloved Fes Festival of Sacred Music. But while that festival is an all-embracing survey of many traditions, this event dives bone deep into one—Sufism—to reach a spirituality that is universal.

The Sound of Andalusia

Andalusian music is distinctly evocative of the confluence between Spanish and Moorish culture—it combines a dash of cante jondo (the ancient form of flamenco), the tonal longing of Arabic music, and the dark beauty of duende, so loved by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

The genre fired-up during the 9th-15th centuries when the Arabs dominated southern Spain, but found new form in north Africa with the resettlement of Jews and Muslims. Today, it is celebrated each February at the Fez Festival of Andalusian Music where you’ll find art and instrument exhibitions and debates led by professors and experts.

Never-ending Roses

What could be lovelier than a valley full of roses? The month of May is harvest time, and the flowers bloom in El Kelaâ M’Gouna, which is 50-miles northeast of the well-known town of Ouarzazate (Africa’s Hollywood). At the Morocco Rose Festival you can tour a rosewater distillery and learn random facts—like that it takes 7,000 pounds of petals to make 34 ounces of oil!

Why all this fuss about roses? Rosewater is used for perfume, for ablutions, and for the skin. So fling some around, dab a bit on your crows-feet and pulse points, and take a scented walk among the hedgerows.

There is also a coronation of a Rose Queen in an open-air stadium, singing, sword fighting, and dancing—all in the name of roses!