Discovering the world nextdoor: Morocco’s Timitar Festival

Angie Balata, Saturday 15 Jul 2017

Originally created to support Amazigh culture, Morocco's Timitar Signs and Culture Festival has grown into a hub for local and international musicians embracing classic, folklore, contemporary and experimental music

Oumou Sangare
Oumou Sangare from Mali performs on the first day of the Timitar Festival (Photo: Angie Balata)

It was Saturday night and Place Al-Amal (Hope Square) was teeming with people who had come to enjoy the closing night of the 14th edition Timitar Signs and Culture Festival in Agadir (Morocco). Every year this highly anticipated four-day festival ushers in the summer activities calendar in Agadir, and this year was no different.

The great Fatima Tabaamrant, a native of the region, started the night’s festivities. The 55-year-old is a Moroccan legend and known for her many roles, including being a member of parliament, an activist for Amazigh rights and a leader in traditional Amazigh music and folklore.

Amazigh flags are raised, unmistakable in their blue (representing the geographical expanse of the Amazigh, the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean), green (representing nature and green mountains), and yellow (representing the sands of the Sahara Desert) with the red (representing both life and resistance) Amazigh symbol, yaz, signifying “the free men.”

By the middle of Tabaamrant’s set, festival organisers excitedly congratulate each other backstage. They have just found out that official reports estimate that more than 250,000 people have made it to Place Al-Amal for the final night of Timitar Festival, with police having to turn away people for safety reasons and lack of space. 

Such numbers are not unusual in Morocco. Moroccans have mastered both the art of creating and implementing complicated festivals and expanding the cultural landscape to include music tourism.

In Morocco, every city seemingly has at least one or two yearly cultural festivals, with some festivals like Mawazine, Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, Gnaoua Music Festival, not only boasting millions of attendees, but longevity in having been around for decades.

The audience attendance at the Timitar Festival alone exceeded that at key global festivals, including Coachella, Glastonbury, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza. 

Timitar Festival began in 2004 as a project to promote and support Amazigh culture, but has grown into a place for Amazigh and international musicians to meet on the festival’s three stages.

At Timitar Festival, performances range from the classic and folklore to the contemporary and experimental. Heavily supported by the famed Moroccan energy tycoon and minister of agriculture Aziz Akhannouch, the festival is organised by the Timitar Festival Association in collaboration with the City of Agadir. While an army of staff and volunteers join the festival closer to its start date, the entire operation is mostly overseen by three permanent staff members. 

Over the last decade and a half, the festival’s transformation from a local affair to both one of the largest festivals In Morocco and a global music destination is due in large part to the creative and strategic efforts of the festival’s artistic director Ibrahim El-Mazned. 

Mashrou Leila
Mashrou' Leila from Lebanon perform on the first day of the Timitar Festival (Photo: Angie Balata)

The festival’s success isn’t based on the common festival formula in the region; namely powerful line-ups plus big stages that allow for expensive tickets and lead to profits. The reality is that true festival-making isn’t about the end revenue. And no one understands this better than El-Mazned, a man who travelled the world discovering other cultures through their music and art. 

A modern day cultural maverick, El-Mazned is a man who always makes time for a conversation or an email, despite an insane work schedule. He is of a small group of experts known in the both African and the Arab region for their impact on culture and their contributions to world music.

This fact is illustrated by the multiple juries El-Mazned sits on, and also by his extensive contributions to the music scene, including founding Visa for Music, the first professional music market and festival for Africa and the Middle East, and the Moroccan Music Export Office (MOMEX), a platform that aims to promote Moroccan music globally through administrative and funding support. 

He has achieved what very few have been able to do: create an open space where people set aside their own ideas, prejudices, and politics to meet, to network, and to experience music. In this Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-global-music stage, anything and everything is possible. At the same time, this open space is also a very political place, where identities are analysed, questioned and negotiated. 

In Morocco, not unlike much of Africa and the Arab region, music is both a major part of the local culture and plays an important role in public space. Much of the oral histories, the culture, the language, and the stories of diverse communities and minorities are transmitted through music. 

Music in Morocco is both a source of entertainment as much as it is a source of pride; it is nostalgic and political, inclusive and communal but, simultaneously, individual and unique. 

Unique to Timitar Festival, El-Mazned ensures that many of the performers aren’t just big names. Many are icons of struggle, like Mali’s Grammy-winning Oumou Sangaré, who is passionate about women’s rights, or Algeria’s Labess who gained fame in much of North Africa but is still not permitted to play in his home country.

The festival itself is based on an ongoing struggle. The Amazigh are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa and are found in at least 10 African countries between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. In Morocco, the Amazigh make up more than 50 percent of the population.

Historically, Islam’s connection with Europe, via the Andalus (or Iberian Peninsula) was through the Amazigh rulers. The spread of Islam and then pan-Arabism under Nasser dominated North Africa and lead to the exclusion of other cultures and languages, including the Amazigh.

In Morocco, it wasn’t until 2011 that the Amazigh language, Tamazight, was recognised as an official language in the constitution. Festivals like Timitar Festival are both building on these small gains and supporting an artistic renaissance within Amazigh culture. 

Large crowd attends 14th Timitar Festival (Photo: still from YouTube video)

“This is not just an Amazigh festival. It’s an Amazigh festival that is open to the world and includes different cultures, including Arab, African and international. The Amazigh identity is one that is shared by approximately 10 countries in Africa, from Siwa in Egypt to the edges of the Canary Islands in the West of Africa, and from the North of Africa to Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and Mali. This shared identity is very deep and came before the Arab culture by years in the region,” El-Mazned points out.

“[Amazigh] remains a culture and a language that is practiced and spoken till today, including in my own family. Amazigh music and culture is practiced in open space. This culture and music is about a way of life. And in Agadir, which is known for its rich Amazighi culture, it was natural that this becomes the home of the festival. This is a festival that is open to all regardless of race, religion or identity. This is the moment of the year where everyone essentially speaks the same language — music.”

And herein lies the secret of Timitar Festival’s success: they engage audiences, not ticket buyers. This festival’s formula is simple: understand that the primary audience are locals, offer line-ups that engage their diverse interests, promote the identity of the space in which the festival takes place, and eliminate socio-economic boundaries by making the festival accessible to and for everyone. 

The festival is seen as a social investment as much as it is a financial investment. 

“Timitar Festival costs $1 million, more or less. And the budget is divided like this: 40 percent public money and 60 percent private money. For us, the support is the support of the local government, which is approximately 4 million MAD or $400,000. Inhabitants locally discover more artists from our local music scene, along with international artists. This is an investment for the city in light of what it gains in promotion, in tourists, in filled hotels,” explains El-Mazned. 

“Of course, a city this far from the financial capital, Casablanca, or administrative capital, Rabat, presents its own problems. All our technical equipment has to be brought form Casablanca. We also have other issues that the majority of our visitors have to go through Casablanca, which means additional flights. However, Agadir is a city known for its beauty, its history, its wealthy culture and its openness.”

With such as substantial price tag, and with all the free shows, does Timitar Festival benefit Agadir, financially? According to El-Mazned, Timitar Festival returns more than 10 times to the city what was originally invested.

Asma Lamnawar
Morocco's Asma Lamnawar performs at the Timitar Festival (Photo: Still from Youtube)

“If we consider the investment from the public government, the audience spends double what they invest in the city, from food to accommodation and to other purchases. And I’m only speaking about how the general public spends; this doesn’t account for the foreign tourists, the guests of the festival, and locals from the higher economic classes that are also spending at higher levels,” details El-Mazned.

“And then there is also the public image and promotion of the city in the media and in pictures. We promote this festival and the city all year round. These are important benefits. For me, it is also important that public organisations invest in this festival because their budgets and money are public funds that belong to the people and the people have the right to a part of the budget for culture. The individual needs education and health, but also culture.” 

At the same time, it doesn’t hurt that El-Mazned makes sure that the guests invited are people that can, need, want, or should network with each other. It isn’t unusual to bump into music entrepreneurs/moguls like José da Silva (the maker of Cape Verde’s famed dame, Cesária Evora) or festival programmers from all over the world.

It’s part of the plan to make sure that local music has avenues to be exported out, unlike the current state in both the Arab region and Africa where the majority of music is imported. 

The local gain is evident in the circle of benefit that El-Mazned has created. To illustrative, the Algerian-Canadian Labess played their first major show at El-Mazned’s other festival, Visa for Music, where they were seen by a programmer from the UK’s Glastonbury Festival and played there before coming to play Timitar Festival. 

“It’s a bit like a drug for me. For me, I have a passion for my identity for my culture and for my music. When I traveled and discovered how other people have the same passion for their cultures, I chose to be more attached to their cultures to give sense to mine. For example, in our region the difference between east and west — the eastern Arab countries speak English and we in the west speak French. We don’t understand each other. So I tried to build connections between us,” El-Mazned explains. 

“And with Visa for Music, finally, independent music is traveling between [the Arab] countries. Our artists are traveling back and forth (and connecting with each other). We used to know the Arab region for pop music but now we are getting to know it for another kind of music altogether. And it’s the beginning of something.”

Over the years, Timitar Festival has hosted artists from all over the world, both internationally renowned and young artists needing a chance, including Majda El-Roumi, Youssou D’Nour, and Amadou & Mariam. No less than 40 groups fill the festival’s three stages and every year the festival advances into ground breaking numbers, often passing the 500,000-attendee mark.

This year was no exception with the festival featuring Ribab Fusion, Asma Lamnawar, Abdel Aziz Stati, Ahmed Soultan, from the local Moroccan scene. and Oumou Sangaré (Mali), Mashou’ Leila (Lebanon), Labess (Canada/Algeria), Ibrahim Ferrer Jr (Cuba), Nomfusi (South Africa) Kiwi & the Papaya Mangoes (Japan) and Elida Almeida (Cape Verde) from the international scene. 

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