Invited to sing at the International Arts Festival in Morocco Vidya Shah returns with a vivid account of her experience.

The drive from Casablanca to Assilah is confusing; nothing to see on the way really except for occasional towns and hamlets. Also the monsoon hasn't yet arrived so the landscape is very dry. Somewhat like a train ride from Jaipur to Sri Ganganagar. But after a four-hour drive you begin to feel the sea breeze and the coastline starts to appear. Assilah is a fortified town on the northwest tip of the Atlantic coast of Morocco, about 50 km from the better-known Tangier. It is now becoming a popular seaside resort with modern holiday apartment complexes on the coast road.

 History, revealed

Story goes that this town was founded by the Phoenicians around 1500 B.C. It was a prosperous trading post until a group of pirates ransacked the place, turning it into a hideout in the early 1900s. The town suffered decades of decline and had fallen into disrepair. It wasn't until the late 1970s when Mohamed Benaïssa, the Culture Minister of Morocco, who was later elected mayor of the town cleaned up Assilah, restoring many of its historic buildings, including the Raissouni Palace, now a concert hall, and the Al-Kamra Tower citadel in the Medina. He also brought together a group of artists, invited them to culturally refresh the town with their ideas and creative inputs. This was really the beginning of the Assilah festival, one that has emerged and established itself as a popular International festival for over thirty years now.

 As in most towns in Northern Africa, life in Assilah revolves around the Medina. It is a bit of a maze, but since it is a small town it is difficult to really get lost in — one street eventually leads you to where you need to go. The shops sell everything from antique turquoise, coral and silver jewellery to hand woven Berber rugs. Hotels and vehicles aren't allowed inside the rampart walls making it a lovely walk through its cobbled streets. And around this time of the year the town is particularly alive and buzzing because of the Festival.

 This Assilah International Festival established in 1978, is an annual cultural extravaganza that takes place in the month of July/August. Both studio and performing artists from all over the world, journalists, writers, painters, musicians and dancers gather here imparting the setting with colour, exuberance and dynamism. Over the last three decades, the event has promoted cultural dialogue, exchange and solidarity. It hosts more than 100,000 visitors. There is a performance a day from across the world open for general public which included this year contemporary dance from Portugal, Jordanian trio on the Lute, an Andalusian Ensemble from Tangier and my music from India, making the spread vibrant.  Of course now every city in Morocco boasts of an annual Cultural festival, the most well known being the Fez Spiritual music Festival.

 Farid Belkaiah a well-known artist in Morocco informs me that the festival has grown considerably in content and numbers over the years. Where it began with artists, it now is much more encompassing and brings together major global figures from the world of culture, politics, diplomacy as well as the arts, including journalists, writers, painters, musicians and dancers to meet, share ideas and collaborate. Belkaiah who works with Henna, was most amazed at the “orange” beard of my accompanist Khan Sahib and incidentally has had the pleasure of listening to and knowing Pt.Ravi Shankar from the 70's.

 Land of music

Hamza Abdaless studying Business Studies, my transportation coordinator at the Festival over a cup of the famous Moroccan mint tea, tells me in great detail about the different kinds of music that comes from this beautiful country - Chaabi, Rai Andaloussie, Arabic, Gnawa, Berber, Reggada to name a few. He is embarrassed about the “Pop” music blaring out of the shops in the Medina that is busy, full of locals and tourists way beyond midnight. He laments about how music like the Gnawa - the slave music which came into the country in the 16 th century or the Rai  - which literally means an opinion, a form of protest music, somewhat akin to the Blues, lead by peasants in Algeria, subsequently banned in the country, or the rich and exuberant Berber music is getting displaced by “mindless” popular stuff!

 Haj Youness, the well-known Oud player, endorses this view. Haj who has been recognized by the Smithsonian for his contributions to Moroccan music, is quite a National hero, is very popular, every one wants an autograph and a photo with this director of the Music Conservatory, and says that television reality shows on which he is also a judge are no solutions to real talent. Young musicians need training, hand-holding opportunities, or else they end up playing in nightclubs and no more. A story only too familiar to the Indian terra, a refrain that is also very much a symptom of the satellite television in the globalised world.

 But in my travels through this town and then to Casablanca, Marrakesh and Rabat, the one thing that did become apparent, repeatedly is that Morocco is a unique cultural fusion of Middle Eastern, European, and African influences. You can have the opportunity to experience life in a Muslim country while exploring the distinct society and traditions of the Maghreb and the French culture as well. To venture in and out of shops in Morocco is a pleasure for the eye and the mind as diverse colours converge into moments of shopping, eating, and entertainment.  A mélange of the traditional and the modern is very visible within different societies and towns in Morocco.

 Whether sitting at a café in Casablanca enjoying a croissant and tea, or visiting Marakkesh, wandering through the medina's looking at apricots and prunes, or sitting at the train station in Rabat looking at a woman sweeping the platforms at ten in the night, every experience in Morocco makes one reflect on how irrational stereotypes can be. It is the simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of different cultures that makes the country even more fascinating. A young boy who sells me a little pellet of Indigo rummages through a pile of used plastic bags looking for the one that will be just enough for the portion I have bought. A young woman dressed in a pair of shorts and short top on Casa's Corniche Beach walks along with a more conventionally attired young girl in a Djellaba or a Gandora, this co-existence of modernity and tradition seems to be the face of Moroccan nationalism.

 Assilah is a case of political will in moving culture from a softer focus to an issue of cultural diplomacy between communities and countries, leaving me a craving for such approaches here – creating an international platform for not only performance, but on deliberating how culture can become a powerful vehicle to centre-stage syncretism in the sub-continent. Only I wish the wonderful people didn't call out to me on the streets as “Namaste Shah Rukh Khan”!

 Vidya Shah is a Musician.

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