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MOROCCO: Rock, rap and heavy metal music fans rejoice in newfound freedom

April 20, 2010 |  6:46 am

Morocco-rock
Most of the head-bangers pogo dancing wildly to heavy metal music at Casablanca's Tremplin Festival recently were too young to remember a time when people were sent to jail in Morocco for doing just that. 

Seven years after Morocco's satanic-music trial, the alternative music scene in the North African country is alive and kicking; it has even received a grant from king Mohammed VI himself.

The Tremplin festival, which took place at Casablanca's disaffected art deco slaughterhouses, is a kind of  "American Idol" for the alternative music scene in Morocco: The winners go on to play the much larger L'Boulevard festival in Casablanca next month. The last edition of L'Boulevard drew no less than 160,000 visitors, spread out over six days and two football stadiums – enough to attract the interest of major commercial sponsors.

It wasn't always like this. One of the members on this year's jury was 30-year-old Nabyl Guennouni. Now a manager at an events agency in Rabat, Guennouni was one of 14 heavy-metal musicians who in 2003 were arrested and sent to prison for practicing "satanism" and "endangering the Islamic faith."

"We weren't doing anything wrong, but the authorities didn't understand what we were doing," he said. "They saw a bunch of kids hanging out together dressed in black T-shirts, and they wanted to know what was behind it."

Urged on by the conservative Arab media, who took their cue from similar events in Cairo, Moroccan authorities arrested Guennouni and the others at their homes on Feb. 13, 2003. At the trial they were asked questions like, "Why do you cut the throats of cats and drink their blood?"

"They didn't ask if we did things like that; they just wanted to know why," said Guennouni. "The entire case against us was built on CDs, T-shirts, posters ripped from our bedroom walls and generic 'satanic' pictures pulled from the internet." 

Guennouni was sentenced to one month in jail; others got prison sentences from six months to a year.

In hindsight, the satanic music trial proved to be a watershed for the acceptance of alternative culture by Moroccan society.

"The outcry over the trial generated an enormous amount of solidarity," said Mohamed 'Momo" Merharim 38, who started the Tremplin/L'Boulevard festival 12 years ago with his partner Hicham Bahou.

Decades of dictatorship had made people cynical; they no longer believed that they could change anything. But the charges against the 14 musicians brought everybody together: human rights activists, left-wing militants, journalists, college and high school students and lawyers.

When the musicians' trial came up on appeal, the public prosecutor himself asked that all charges be dismissed. For Merhari and Bahou, things would never be the same again. "The publicity over the satanic-music trial catapulted us from obscure concert halls for 200 people to football stadiums," said Merhari.

Weeks after the trial ended, 45 people were killed in simultaneous suicide attacks against various targets in Casablanca that were blamed on Islamic radicals. The people behind Tremplin/L'Boulevard immediately responded by organizing a "metal against terrorism" concert. 

"If we didn't succeed in channeling the aspirations and frustrations of young people in Morocco, the alternative was terrorism," said Guennouni.

Some in authority appear to agree. In 2009, the organization behind the Tremplin/L'Bouevard festival received nearly $250,000 from King Mohammed VI to build a state-of-the-art recording studio at its headquarters at Technopark, an incubator for startup companies on the outskirts of Casablanca.

Fusion bands like Houassa, Ganga Vibes and Hoba Hoba Spirit have gained a wide audience at home and abroad. With acts like Bigg, Casa Crew and H-Kayne, the Moroccan hip-hop scene may be the most vibrant anywhere in the Arab world.

Because the bands tend to use the Moroccan dialect, darija, rather than classical Arabic or French, they have also contributed to a social and linguistic revolution. Darija, which was long looked down upon by Morocco's elite, is now the language of choice for advertising and some media.

Not everybody in Morocco is a fan of this rock revolution. Islamic and conservative newspapers run sensational photo spreads of the music festivals, suggesting that they are modern-day Sodom and Gomorrahs where young people fornicate and use drugs. The Islamic party PJD has called L'Boulevard "a menace to Morocco's identity.".

One newspaper, Attajdid, has been campaigning for months against an upcoming Elton John concert, scheduled for the capital Rabat next month, which it describes as part of an international plot to "homosexualize" Morocco.

-- Gert Van Langendonck in Casablanca

Photo: Moroccan metal-heads at a recent concert in Casablanca. Credit: Gert Van Langendonck / For the Times

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