This is a piece covering last year's Visa For Music. Due to circumstances both in and out of our intrepid reporter's control, it wasn't filed in time for timely coverage. But we here at Noisey are dedicated to supporting great music all over the world, so we run it now as a preview of the upcoming Visa For Music. If you're in Rabat, check it out.
The term “world music” can be a tool of useful narration, a sign telling us where we stand in relation to other genres, or a weapon, something invented by a nefarious “they” to set borders and further divide us. Is it worse or more meaningless than calling something “hardcore” or “trance?” And what is "world music," when American pop music is imported all over the world, taking all international source material and, perhaps inadvertently, erasing it into an Auto-Tuned stew. And what if that music it’s a delicious Auto-Tuned stew that gives people joy? Is it rendered malicious by its connection to the market? And what does any of this matter when thousands upon millions in the places that that put the “world” in "world music" have been displaced?
I didn’t go to Morocco to the annual Visa For Music conference, in the capital city of Rabat, for answers to any of this. I went because I love "world music," whatever the hell that is, and I had a free flight. (Full disclosure: on the US embassy in Morocco’s dime). But the questions were there, either vocalized or hanging unsaid over everything.
I was greeted at Casablanca airport by two eager and handsome Visa For Music workers. I piled into a van with some New York and French bookers and a couple South African Musicians. We talked about Trump and we talked about The Mars Volta. As we drove to Rabat, where Visa For Music was being held, the driver was playing Turkish Islamic pop that that sounded like Christian pop—anodyne and soothing. He didn’t feel like discussing it. Minutes into the drive, I saw ACAB graffiti on a sun-bleached building surrounded by desert and construction.
I went to Morocco with the stated purpose of covering Visa For Music, the “SXSW Of North Africa” in its third year, founded by Brahim El Mazned and supported by the largess and cultural capital of Morocco’s King Mohammad VI (and a smattering of private corporate donations). Started by Brahim out of a frustration with the absence of locally-controlled markets for world music, it’s by all accounts the only conference of its sort. Eight hundred applicants vie to take part in the conference; a jury that changes each year, with representatives from all regions of Africa and the Middle East, pick 45 artists to perform.
While there are numerous free and well-regarded festivals (Mali’s Festival In The Desert—and it’s roving in exile child Cultural Caravan For Peace—was brought up with a consistency that supported its reputation as both star maker and communal Camelot), Visa For Music is the first event where the framing is not just performance. It's a festival that allows musicians from the Middle East and all of Africa to convene for industry talk, to woo and be wooed by bookers from all over. Unlike other festivals where the artistry is centered and the business side taken for granted, Visa For Music operates under the knowledge that someone, somewhere is going to profit off the arts; and it might as well be the artists and promoters and labels from the native countries.
Rabat is, according to the guide books, the least-interesting city in Morocco. Friends I made from Casablanca agreed. But I've never been to the other cities in Morocco (besides my hour or so at the Casablanca airport) so Rabat was wonderful to me. Having nothing to compare it to, I wandered the streets blissfully, counting cats and taking pictures of the souk. I went to every monument I could find; payed my respects at the shrine to Mohammad V, liberator of the country from French colonial rule; enjoyed every moment of the sun in my face and my phone without service. I can't count the number of new bands I've ruined for myself by having too many points of comparison, so I was happy to have this not be the case with the city. Rabat may have been Parquet Courts, but I'd never heard The Fall.
If I had a guide for the fest, it was Amine Hamma, a wry and soft-spoken musician and writer who works for Visa For Music. A native Moroccan, he’s a polymath in black leather (complete with DOOM patch) who’s played in various metal (including Morocco’s first metal band, Immortal Spirit) and indie outfits. He co-wrote (with Dominique Caubet) a new overview of the last twenty years or so of the Moroccan music scene, and is currently a guitarist in Betweenatna, a terrific punk/funk/hard rock/surf/reggae/metal supergroup that’s Morocco’s answer to both Mano Negra and the Circle Jerks. I asked him about the current state of World Music, and how he sees its current place among the (dubiously dubbed) Western genres.
“World music is a term to identify the musical expressions from artists around the globe by the music industry," he told me. "Political rap sung in Swahili, electro cumbia or punk in Arabic language will be obviously labeled “world music” in Occident. Apart from protecting and transmitting certain genres in extinction, mixing them and the resulting fusion is helping generations in discovering and sharing other styles from different places within the world.
The new generation of artists raised with the energy of RATM, the commitment of Public Enemy or the psychedelics of Radiohead and the airy atmospheres of Pink Floyd will naturally put their references into their work. It’s the definitely the music of the past and the future, for now it’s cooking.”
That last sentence stands in for much of what I heard from both artists and industry types in Rabat. In various conversations and panels, and occasionally in the few bars a largely-dry festival affords, Empire was taken as a given evil, and not one people were eager to afford more emotional territory then it already had. Whether it was a wilful idealism or just not wanting to be rude to a guest, my more cynical theories were rebuffed in favor of focusing on the possibilities of the music itself. This is not naivety but a working knowledge of imperialism that seemed to have less time for academic discussion of the perils of a term. Citizens of African and Middle Eastern countries know about Western hegemony. But they wanted to tell me about sick-as-hell bands.
This is not to say that the subject was ignored. Numerous panels during the day wrestled with subjects ranging from cultural diversity to music of forced diaspora, from “The Integration of immigration or exiled artists in the host cultural area” with Hannibal Saad of Syrian Music Lives, to “the independent culture scene in the Arab region.” I took part in a panel discussion on "World Music and Radio," where deejays spanning from The Netherlands to Senegal discussed the weight of balancing local music, in whatever form, with the market forces that bring American pop into everything. I was questioned from the audience what I thought about American music being a dominant force worldwide and I had to honestly answer that I didn’t know of any solution or even if that a solution was something people wanted.
It’s shallow, but if I said I knew whether the international love of hip-hop was forced or natural—or if it’s a bad thing at all—I’d be lying. It would be perhaps easier to denounce if people were being aurally coerced to like Bon Iver or Night Ranger, but they ain’t. The Dutch journalist, Bastiaan Springer put forth the perhaps facile but still sweetly compelling solution of calling everything world music on his radio show. He’d play the Beatles, but from them as “this band from the United Kingdom, The Beatles.” Perhaps precious, but when a small part of the intrinsic problem is one of semantics, a small solution, earnestly offered, was welcome. Alioune Diop of Radio Senegal Internationale discussed how even in Senegal it’s an uphill battle to get listeners from one specific in-country region to embrace another’s. And even this allows for the cultural flattening by Western radio.
What seemed to be a dominant theme throughout the conference was less a fear of lost culture than an excitement for the new, homegrown musical cultures. I met up with Mounir Kabbij, who runs Ginger Sounds, a booking and management company that represents some of my favorite artists (2016 alone saw astounding albums from Alsarah and The Nubatones and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh) in the “world music” category or any other. We talked about Abu Ghazaleh’s album Thulth, a bracing avant-folk record that sounds as ancient and modern as anything being done today, and I asked him about the avant/traditional divide in the music that he works with. Mounir told me, “There is are different social histories between the West and African and Middle Eastern countries. The Western avant-garde comes from a generational clash, between the '60s and the old days, the old and the new schools, the new would throw away the past and build a new sound not based on the establishment arts and culture. In Africa and the Middle East, that generational clash didn’t happen, at least not in the same way. So in these cultures young people don’t feel the need to discard the past. They are proud of it. You can hear it in young artists, Malian or Libyan or Moroccan or wherever, everything new that they do…the roots are present.”
His theory, while by his own admission not airtight, was born out by performances I saw by bands like Bargou 08, who combined traditional Tunisian folk with deep Moog waves, and 47 Soul a Palestinian-in-exile band that combined a local pop called Dabkeh with electronic dance beats in a fusion the band calls “shamstep.” Then there was Doueh-Cheveu, a super combo made up of the French indie band, Cheveu and the Western Saharan Group Doueh.
For every “traditional” band I saw over the four days I was in Rabat, I saw even more taking the music of their home and mixing it with drone or doom or jazz or techno or sounds of their own imagination, never for a moment sounding like they were compromising or breaking from the past.
The only criticism I heard about Visa For Music from musicians was the entirely reasonable point that any Middle Eastern or African festival—be it Visa for Music, taking place in a former French colony, or Beirut & Beyond, which is partnered with Oslo World—is working within an almost intractable power imbalance. To have one’s livelihood dependent on what people from outside a culture find “authentic" or even “good” is, for lack of a better phrase hella problematic. There is no viable touring circuit in the region for non-traditional musicians, so all artists, no matter how popular or forward thinking they are, must please or impress the foreign bookers.
That’s a necessarily icky proposition for anyone even a glancing familiarity with colonial history. And if the bookers or foreign attendees get skittish about terrorism, a more common violence to most non-westerners, then an evening of a fest or even an entire festival can be cancelled, leaving musicians high and dry. As much money as the Moroccan state may put in to supporting the arts, it pales in comparison to what is necessary to tour and survive as a working musician. For that, one usually needs the Europeans and American bookers and/or governments. And that global history is not one where the West has too much to be proud of. None of this invalidates either the festivals or the bookers’ genuine love for the music, but it warrants mention.
It also merits mention that the headliner of the conference was Labess, an Algerian/Quebec chaabi outfit. Chaabi is the most popular music in Algeria, a danceable folk-pop: mournful, lilting and wedding appropriate. Labess is a very traditional sounding band, or at least as traditional as any folk music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The crowd for them was almost uniformly teen to young adult, the hipster youth of Rabat. There were waves of tight pants and manicured facial hair and I saw for the first time the slightest amount of midriff. I saw a bunch of kids pose for a group photo. They said "hashish" instead of cheese. These kids were entirely unconcerned with any clash of modernity and tradition. They selfied the living heck of themselves, throwing rap hands while pony-tailed Labess strummed and drenched strings over the entire theatre. It was not innovative. But it was gorgeous.
Before I had a moment to settle, the conference was over, and I had to fly back. I decided I hadn’t seen the ocean yet, so I went looking for it. I got lost for an hour looking for the impossibly huge body of water that is at the end of every continent and, in this case, realistically a 20-minute walk. There’s a lesson or metaphor there probably, if I’d travelled to Morocco for lessons or metaphors rather than to cover swell bands. I was depressed to leave. That I know.
The flight to Morocco was beautiful music, people dressed head-to-toe in vibrant reds and purples, a row to myself, hardly any Americans. The flight back was overcrowded, filled with distended ho-ho’s dressed in highway yellow and sweatpants grey, returning to the weaponized fart that is my country. It was boring and loud and I feel like even the inflight movies weren’t as good on the way back. I looked out the window and sulked, knowing that I had no more illumination of the mechanisms that ghettoize any art that falls outside the perimeters of "American pop." But, listening now to the music I discovered (for myself) in Rabat, I set aside the term, any terms, and am grateful for the musicians at Visa For Music and the fact that, outside this indie/pop/whatever world, where almost all is pastiche, there are new sounds.
Zachary Lipez is a New York-based writer and journalist. He is the co-author, along with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, of three books: Please Take Me Off The Guest List, No Seats On The Party Car, and Slept In Beds. You can follow Zachary on Twitter.