Lauren Razavi finds a party atmosphere and community spirit at the Rabat Mawazine Festival.
A shouting match with the Moroccan police force was not how I thought my night would begin. My driver barks his contempt at the guard as our car is waved on. We pull over a few metres ahead and he shrugs, sighs and gestures to me in apology. We don’t have the right pass; looks like I’m walking from here.
I’m heading towards the main stage of the annual Mawazine Festival, a week-long celebration of music that attracts performers from across the world. Mawazine (meaning ‘rhythms’) is the most important event in Rabat’s social calendar; a time when hotel suites are filled with global superstars and the city pulses with chaotic energy.
Tonight is the first of this year’s shows, and it’s a big one: Jennifer Lopez is playing the open-air festival main stage, situated in the city’s most upmarket district. For the people of Rabat, more exciting still is that 90% of the show is unticketed, courtesy of King Mohammed VI’s sponsorship of the festival.
As well as performances from international household names, Mawazine plays host to the best of Middle Eastern and African artists, spanning Arab Idol pop all the way through to the most traditional acts of the folk and world music genres.
After 10 minutes, I reach the stage and find myself standing among an audience of 100,000, watching J-Lo strut her way across the stage. Most of the crowd couldn’t normally afford tickets for shows like this, so Mawazine offers them a special, once-a-year experience for free. The show is also being broadcast live on Moroccan national TV, which explains the cameraman’s careful angles when things get a little too bootylicious on stage.
The next day, I visit a residential neighbourhood to see a less high-profile side of the festival: the community performances. Each year, Moroccan and African artists take to some of Rabat’s poorest streets to entertain local children with theatre shows, marching bands and carnival parades. A circus group called Colo Kolo, hailing from nearby Casablanca, is the centrepiece today.
The group’s colourful clothing and enthusiastic gymnastics are spreading a feverish excitement through the narrow streets and alleyways, and more and more children are running to the front of the swelling crowd. A few mothers in traditional dress look a little perplexed, but not unamused by what they’re seeing. Street sellers split their time between belly-laughing at the antics and selling their corncobs to passers by. Out in this suburb of Rabat, the whole vision of the festival — to make the arts more accessible — feels truly tangible.
Tucked up at my hotel that night, I hear the sound of a stage pumping out tunes in the distance. Rabat parties on, giving an enthusiastic send-off to another vibrant year of Mawazine.