Article By Evan Verploegh
MERZOUGA, Morocco- Situated on the isolated cusp of the Sahara Desert, a celebration of art, light, and music has furiously painted the sandy dunes for eight years. The Transahara festival has set a new sense of freedom for both Moroccans and foreigners and opened doors for future music festivals of the sort in the country. In its final incarnation, the deeply immersing, five-day electronic music festival has inspired thousands of people, spanning the globe, to pack up and join the dance party in the desert.
“It is wonderful to be at a festival in such a special location. There is something so calming and peaceful about the desert,” says Jesse Thompson, 23. Thompson is a professional photographer who traveled from Australia to shoot for Transahara as well in engaging personally in the jubilatory event. “I feel like it sets everyone on such a good vibe.”
An impressive list of over 80 musicians and DJ’s spread out over two psychedelically lit stages and world-class art installations has allowed the event to gain worldwide notoriety among festival-goers and adventure seekers alike. With drugs flowing with a sense of reckless abandon and music so loud it causes the sand to pulsate, the secluded festival takes on the role of an oasis in an otherwise conservative country. Transahara has broken firm ground for future concert opportunities and given Morocco a significant identity in the world of electronic music.
“Festivals like this are good for society. They allow people to relax from the stress they have at home,” says Noamane Blide, 26. Blide was born and raised in Casablanca but traveled from his current residence in Paris, France for Transahara. “I think electronic music and these festivals have the power to make the world better. We need more raves, more people having fun. It’s up to the young generation to make the people happier.”
Transahara was an LSD-fueled vision of Moroccan founder, Abdou Elouali that he had while hiking the dunes with his friends in 2001. He desired to create an event that not only provided an outlet of liberation for young Moroccans but a celebration that represented elements of his home country. Organizers keep the exact location undisclosed until the beginning of the festival to keep the illusion of true “isolation” intact. The uniqueness of the event has drawn people from over 60 countries as far as Japan, Canada, and Australia to take part in the commemoration of music, art and freedom. Unfortunately, the remote site and high ticket price of near 2,000 MAD discourages the attendance of many of Morocco’s citizens.
“I know a lot of people who talk and dream about going to Transahara but can’t afford it,” says Blide. Blide organizes his own electronic music concerts and parties in Paris. This was his first year attending the festival after years of fantasizing about it. “Electronic music is growing in Morocco, though, and I think Transahara helped a lot of people get involved in starting their own concerts.”
Even with the joyous atmosphere and overwhelming sense of optimism, Transahara was not without negative aspects both this year and years past. Many were disappointed with the lack of necessary resources and expensive costs of food and drink which forced patrons to pay 20 MAD for a small bottle of water. Also, people did not receive as authentic of a Moroccan experience as they were promised or had hoped.
“Showing more Moroccan roots in the artwork at the festival would have been nice,” says Giovanni di Marco, a German DJ, who goes by the name “Brojanowski.” “Other festivals often put in more effort to show a representation of the culture. But in general, I had a very good experience at Transahara. One of the greatest moments I have is wandering through the dunes. I love being able to travel, discover nature and experience a festival all at the same time.”
Blide seconds this notion.
“There needs to be more Moroccan music to attract more Moroccan people. If you want to get more local people to come, you have to have at least a little bit of Gnawa or Sufi music. It is not fair to the people of the country and the people who want to experience Morocco.”
Despite the festival swelling from 50 attendees in 2002 to a near 2,500 in 2015 and the decadent notoriety Transahara has developed over the years, the festival has not been able to turn a profit. The secluded location, lack of necessary resources, expensive sound equipment and an extensive lineup of well-respected musicians and DJ’s has prevented the festival from continuing in its current format. But, an alternative is billed to come in Oasis Festival in September 2015. The current organizers of Transahara, Moroko Loko, have set out to create a sort of “successor” to the festival in a more accessible and vibrant location in Marrakech.
“Oasis will be a good chance to get more Moroccan people to go to these types of festivals,” says Ismail Kasby, or “Darkalien.” Kasby is a DJ and organizer of Transahara. He has been tirelessly working alongside Abdou Elouali since the first edition of the festival while also performing each year. “Marrakech is an easier location to get to, and has a much larger population.”
Transahara has undeniably been a gateway for the introduction of electronic music and debauched youth culture into Moroccan society that has sometimes struggled to shed its ingrained traditions. Word-of-mouth promoted raves, and underground dance parties have been becoming more popular in cities like Casablanca and Tangier and given Morocco a name as an emerging destination to go for electronic music.
“It is cool to be a part of because there is not too much of an electronic music scene in Morocco yet, outside of Transahara,” says Jesse Thompson. “Although, there is no question that it is growing.”
The festival can be considered a catalyst not only for music in Morocco but music festivals all over the world. The popularity of “destination” events has been flourishing, taking adventure enthusiasts to all corners of the globe to experience music and give the opportunity to meet other like-minded individuals. Transahara has been an integral launchpad for Morocco to become involved in this growing phenomenon.
“We need to introduce more people to this music and these festivals,” says Blide. “Dancing, and getting absolutely lost in the music allows you to escape from the unhappiness in life. Morocco needs more of that. I hope that one day I’ll come back a do a festival of my own here. I want to do something good for my country.”