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Meet the Woman Making Morocco a Dance Music Destination

posted on: May 23, 2020

Meet the Woman Making Morocco a Dance Music Destination
SOURCE: BILLBOARD

BY: KATIE BAIN

With her Oasis Festival in Marrakech, Marjana Jaidi is bringing global dance music stars (and their fans) to Morocco — and giving northern African artists access to a much bigger stage.

The camels stare as we pass by. Gathered on the dusty shoulder of the road, they form lanky silhouettes against the sun setting pink and heavy on the outskirts of Marrakech. Through the window of the packed shuttle bus, I can see makeshift stalls selling produce and meat, horses pulling carts of soil, women in burkas pushing strollers and men in long robes playing hand drums and smoking hookahs.

We stop at a sign written in Arabic, then take a left up a dirt road, where a very different picture unfolds: a sprawling resort complex of pools and palm trees called The Fellah. Meandering pathways illuminated with twinkle lights lead to tucked-away stages blasting house and techno music. Lanterns and hammocks hang from trees as visitors lounge on Moroccan rugs, sipping tea and eating tagine.

This is no ordinary group of tourists. We’re dance music fans from around the world who have come here for Oasis Festival — an event just as cool, posh and trendsetting as those we’ve attended in Ibiza or Miami or New York, but which feels, and truly is, a world away from them all. In its five years of existence, Oasis has made Morocco one of the newest and most exciting destinations on the international dance festival circuit. Its founder, too, is a refreshing presence in this corner of the music industry: Marjana Jaidi, a Moroccan-Filipino, first-time event producer driven by a vision of bringing a new type of music and audience to her ancestral home while giving artists there a meaningful spotlight.

Dance festivals in exotic locations are often designed expressly to draw well-off travelers and can thus end up feeling cut off from both locals and their authentic culture. But with its focus on fans and artists from throughout Morocco and northern Africa, Oasis is amplifying the region’s bubbling electronic scene while still attracting big global stars. “It didn’t feel right bringing people to Morocco just to party in clubs,” says Jaidi. “We wanted them to have an experience that feels Moroccan.”

The Seven Best Sets of Morocco’s Oasis Festival 2019

Last year, when I attended, the roughly 6,000 festivalgoers were about 57% Moroccan and 43% international, making Oasis itself feel at once familiar and novel — African attendees hear music by stars who rarely play the region, while those from abroad find the music and Western-style festival format they enjoy set against the allure of Marrakech. At least, that’s what usually happens. 2020, of course, will be different.

Like most festivals this year, Oasis has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. With international flights in and out of Morocco currently restricted, Jaidi is hunkered down at her home in the capital city of Rabat, where social distancing is being strictly enforced. “It was clear to me in the middle of March that the festival was not going to happen, but it wasn’t until mid-April that I became comfortable with the decision,” she says over WhatsApp. “After Burning Man canceled, I felt people would be more understanding than they would have been a few weeks earlier.”

Canceling five months ahead of the planned date allowed Jaidi and her business partner to offer ticket buyers either a refund or a pass for the next Oasis — planned for Sept. 17-19, 2021 — without devastating financial consequence. It’s a serious setback for such a young festival, but it hasn’t halted Jaidi’s larger mission: dreaming up new ways to make Oasis even more representative of music from both Morocco and Africa at large.

Moroccans have long celebrated their own musical traditions at festivals. The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music has been going strong for 25 years, the coastal town of Essaouira’s Gnaoua & World Music Festival has presented the country’s spiritually infused Gnaoua tradition since 1998, and Rabat’s Mawazine, a state-run festival intended to showcase Morocco as a tolerant nation, has attracted an astounding 2 million attendees annually for nearly two decades. (In 2019, its lineup featured major international acts like J BalvinFutureDavid Guetta and Marshmello.) Meanwhile, from 2002 to 2015, the desert rave Transahara served as an underground destination for Moroccan EDM fans.

But before Oasis, there was no northern African festival featuring stars of the worldwide house and techno scene — genres that in the past several years have supplanted EDM as the most popular forms of dance music in the United States and beyond. With Marrakech a roughly 10-hour trip from New York (there are no direct flights, with layovers largely in Casablanca, Morocco; Lisbon, Portugal; and Paris) and a four-hour direct flight from London, Jaidi saw an opening in the market for the country’s first Western-style dance music festival.

“Morocco is the part of Africa closest to Europe,” she says. “It’s the gateway to the continent.” She envisioned an event without the pyrotechnics or confetti spectacle of an Ultra Music Festival or Electric Daisy Carnival. Instead, Oasis would be intimate, upscale and designed for mature, adventure-seeking dance fans. Still, bringing a clientele known for its hard-partying ways to a Muslim country (albeit one Jaidi classifies as “more liberal”) presented a potentially dicey culture clash.

Discussions with local authorities — “We heard the word ‘pills’ a lot and questions about that,” says Jaidi — helped alleviate her fears, but Jaidi remained cautious, avoiding booking EDM acts who tend to attract raucous millennial crowds. “We didn’t want to be a stereotype, and we didn’t want to ruin it for future events,” she explains. House and techno became her focus — genres that typically attract older ravers with both the disposable income for the trip to Marrakech and the experience to stay on their best behavior (or at least hide their bad behavior better).

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SOLOVOV.be/Courtesy of Oasis Festival.
The scene at the 2019 Oasis Festival at the Fellah Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco.

At any rate, within its gates, Oasis feels much like any other upscale dance festival. While tourists in Marrakech are encouraged to adhere to local customs around alcohol consumption and conservative dress (especially for women), at Oasis booze flows freely, party drugs are available, and attendees dress in the same skimpy festival-wear of any given rave — not surprising, given that nighttime temperatures in September rarely drop below the mid-60s.

Raised in New York (where she still lives part time in the city), Jaidi spent every summer of her childhood visiting family in Morocco. Years later, after working in nightlife marketing, she launched a travel blog targeting music festival fans. While attending Miami’s Ultra in 2009, Jaidi realized that the dance music-fueled pool parties that worked so well in South Beach would make sense in Marrakech — a city also flush with pools and palm trees.

“My adult life was in a post-9/11 world,” she says, “and it felt like I was hearing people say uneducated things about the Arab community that I didn’t like.” When the Arab Spring occurred in 2010 — shortly after her trip to Ultra — Jaidi’s intention for Oasis became clearer. “I felt that if people traveled to some of these places,” she says, “they would have a better understanding of them.”

Working with her cousin and business partner Youssef Bouabid (a full-time Casablanca resident), Jaidi launched Oasis in 2015. It didn’t hurt that her father, Abdeslam Jaidi, is the former ambassador of the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Morocco to the United Nations: “My dad was happy to make some key introductions in the beginning, which definitely benefited the festival,” says Jaidi.

She stacked her inaugural lineup with popular international acts like Guy Gerber, DJ Harvey and Derrick Carter to draw dance fans who might otherwise never travel to Morocco. Some locals thought it was too good to be true and, convinced these A-listers wouldn’t show up, skipped the event. But while the debut Oasis was small — bringing a crowd of 1,800 to its original location at Marrakech’s The Source Hotel — it demonstrated an appetite among fans and a willingness among artists to play somewhere beyond the well-trod circuit of New York; Miami; Los Angeles; Tulum, Mexico; Burning Man; Ibiza; and Berlin.

“We’ve been doing parties [here] for a long time, but it was mainly underground,” says Moroccan producer Amine K, who has played all five years of the festival. “When Oasis came, it brought electronic music to the masses. Even people who’d never been to parties came because it was this huge event with the best DJs in the world, and people around the world were talking about it.”

In the following years, the festival grew in size and stature, expanding to focus more on local artists; up-and-coming global acts; famous favorites like Black Coffee and Solomun (who were set to return to Oasis in 2020); and scene heroes who had never before played Morocco. “It’s cool to be in new places where new people are enjoying the music because, ultimately, it’s about spreading creative and cultural freedom,” says veteran house and techno producer Seth Troxler, who came to Oasis for the first time in 2019.

“It’s a new market; it’s exciting,” says Jaidi of what now draws big names like Four TetNicolás JaarChromeoMoodymannCarl Cox and The Black Madonna. “A lot of artists might not have played in Africa before, so for them it’s an entrée into the country and the continent. Artists with a sense of adventure were open to playing Oasis.”

It’s hard to miss Marjana Jaidi at Oasis. As head of the festival’s creative direction, she oversees the site itself, and on the second day of the 2019 event, she could be spotted wearing a neon tutu, walkie-talkie in hand. Her staff describes her as direct, specific and no-nonsense, with high standards that she expects to be met. Meanwhile, Bouabid takes care of on-the-ground logistics like security, shuttle systems and liaising with local authorities.

Oasis is privately funded — sponsors throughout the years have included BMCE Bank of Africa, Royal Air Maroc, Maroc Telecom, Samsung and Jack Daniel’s — and since 2016, Jaidi has booked her lineups in conjunction with FMLY, a U.K. agency that represents DJs and books other independent festivals in countries like Portugal and Croatia.

All that support goes toward realizing one of Jaidi’s main goals: bringing more Moroccan artists into the spotlight. The Moroccan electronic scene mostly exists within a network of clubs, record stores and labels throughout Marrakech, Rabat and beyond. While this scene is still coalescing, it is on the rise, with producers taking inspiration not only from foreign house and techno, but from traditional Moroccan music like Gnawa, whose polyrhythms, particularly when matched with a beat, can inspire the same transcendental state of mind familiar to the dance music faithful worldwide.

Moroccan producer Driss Bennis, whose Casablanca-based label Casa Voyager hosted an Oasis showcase in 2019, says that as the festival has grown, so too has outside interest in the country’s electronic culture. (Jaidi says that from 2017 to 2019, people from 82 countries have come to Oasis.)

“Some of the best Moroccan artists that can’t travel abroad, often due to visa obstacles, are able to show their work to a more experienced crowd at Oasis,” says Bennis. “This shows them that on the global electronic music scene, there is a chance to make a professional life out of their passion.”

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Khris Cowley/Courtesy of Oasis Festival.
Moroccan rapper ISSAM performed at Oasis’ Mbari House stage in September 2019.

The festival’s emphasis on Moroccan and northern African culture is especially visible at its Mbari House stage. Curated by Marrakech’s Museum of Contemporary African Art Al Maaden and the art collectives Art Comes First and Marché Noir, the space presents African music, visual art and fashion. In 2019, Mbari hosted some of the weekend’s best sets, including Zimbabwean-British artist Shingai, Casablanca rapper ISSAM and Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def. “A festival is best when it’s more than just a party,” says Jaidi of the Mbari area. “When you can get some kind of personal enrichment or learning out of it.”

Now, in the wake of Oasis’ success, other Moroccan electronic festivals are popping up, like Atlas Electronic in Marrakech and MOGA Festival in Essaouira. Lineups for both lean even more toward the underground but include many of the same local artists Oasis brings in. Since these festivals launched, Oasis has even waived its radius clauses — agreements artists make with an event that dictate how long they must wait to play nearby — so these acts can play more shows in their home country. With the combined power of these new festivals and Oasis, Morocco feels like one of the most exciting new hubs on dance music’s evolving international circuit. It also could be, Jaidi hopes, the scene’s gateway to an entire continent.

For now, she is focused on the 2021 festival. While Jaidi had to cancel a research trip to neighboring countries because of COVID-19, she wants future iterations of Oasis to become even more representative of the continent as a whole. She’s working on expanding the Mbari stage and adding more African artists to the lineup while considering how genres like rap and rock might be integrated. “I really do see it as something that we do as a collective,” she says. “And as we grow the network, the representation of African culture will grow stronger as well.”