March 29-April 3, 2014
Jazz breathes new life through the Jazzablanca Festival. Rethinking Jazz culture is a difficult process, as no findings about jazz audiences in Morocco exist. Jazz is only brought to the fore of discussion at festival time. The media does not publicize jazz the rest of the year otherwise, only partnering with festivals for coverage purposes.
Hence, the elitist question around jazz has not been solved and is always present, especially considering expensive tickets, let alone the mystery revolving around the aesthetics of jazz and its culture. To shortcut that distance and reach a wider audience, festival organizers went to the street. Fez and Tangiers experimented with that concept, and this year it was Casablanca's turn to present jazz in a sprawling metropolis.
Casablanca may not be as exotic as other Moroccan cities, but has charm of its own. It is the country's economic capital and represents trendy Morocco with art galleries, upscale stores, numerous restaurants and hip night clubs. Mostly built in the 20th century during the time of French protectorate, it was redesigned by French architect Henri Prost, per the request of the first French resident.
The wide boulevards, old white houses, public parks and fountains keep the memory of French design intact. The wall-protected Medina embodies Morocco's traditional, sinewy back streets, shopping stalls and famous clock tower. At the crossroads stands Place des Nation Unies, a recently restored terrace hosting free Jazzablanca concerts.
Six shows were scheduled to charm fans and passersby. From jazz, funk and blues to fusion, the 9th edition sought to create a musical bubble in the city.
The off program also included concerts at a hotel, as well as gigs in a jazz club next to main stage for preludes and afters featuring highly respected artists like Jan Prax
, Karim Ziad
, and Majid Bekkas
. Even more, to open up the festival, a late morning, outdoor parade in the beachfront of Ain Diab corniche was given by the French brass band Le Gros Tube. Five main concerts were scheduled as usual, on the racecourse of Anfa Hippodrome, a unique leisure venue for horse racing and events that has hosted Jazzablanca since 2012. This year's lineup centered on the worldly dimension of music. In fact, the festival has been renamed as Jazz & World Music Festival, thus featuring illustrious musicians of different genres : British soul singer/songwriter Joss Stone
, smooth American singer/songwriter Stacey Kent
, Franco- Lebanese composer and trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf
, American rock icon Patti Smith
, and the Electro Deluxe Big Band, a powerful, witty French ensemble. Day One: March 29
Barefoot in a sleeveless dress, short blond tresses around her neck and a big smile on her face, Joss Stone passionately hopped on stage to deliver beautifully charming notes. In a few minutes, her fragile yet strong voice had cast a spell on an audience which yearned for energy and soul. A colorful Motown style was a good balance between trendy popular music catering to all tastes and a touch of soul that contextualized the festival's jazzy feel.
Stone focused mainly on songs from her album Soul Sessions Vol II: "I got the... ," "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People" , "Teardrop," "High Road" and "Sideway Shuffle..." Similar to the album's takes, this performance was an opportunity for Stone to converse with her audience, invite them to respond to lyrics, and test their ability to recognize songs flowing into each other. Stone surprised everyone by inviting Moroccan singer/composer OU
on stage for a duet, which inflamed the crowd. More astonishing yet was Stone's smooth rendition of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" and Bob Marley's "Turn Your Lights Down Low." Day Two: March 30
Well versed in languages, originally specializing in literature and open to cultures, Stacey Kent was a female voice which aroused curiosity. She brought serenity to the stage and, through her languid vocals, absorbed the void of the complex. Silence and pauses became sounds of great intensity and allowed dynamics and melodies to have a greater impact. Be it in English, French, or Portuguese, Kent can bring joy, together with sorrows. The refined melancholy of Kent is the landmark of her compositions along with Jim Tomlinson
Kent dug into her repertoire of originals and standards. From Antonio Carlos Jobim
's authentic rendition of "Waters of March" and "One note of Samba" to the sensual, tango- driven "Mi Amor," written by Claire Denamur, to the wistful "Jardins d'hiver" originally composed by French troubadour Henri Salvador, the Kent's musical voyage is marked by graceful interpretation. Not adventurous, Kent seems to have the vocal abilities to make her music livelier, but prefers to play it safe even when the audience clapped and sang to follow up "Jardins D'hiver." Day Three: March 31
On Monday evening, the most awaited artist of the festival walked on stage: Ibrahim Maalouf, who modestly appeared in the background among his brass band. Blowing at the same wave length or echoing each other on a par, Maalouf and his band took the audience to the summit of enthusiasm. Blowing Arabic melodies through the four- valve trumpet invented by his father-Nassim Maalouf
- Maalouf produced quarter-tones familiar to the Moroccan audience yet within a rock groove. One cannot say that the exoticism sought by Maalouf is savored merely by non Arab audiences, since Maalouf does not re- create Arabic solos based on maqams, but defamiliarizes Arabic music.
Maalouf's orchestral show along three trumpeters was reminiscent of big band, especially with a verse chorus form predominant in songs from the album Illusions
. Similar to a voyage, Maalouf flowed songs into each other even when he played totally different songs such as "Beirut" and "Diagnostic" from the album Diagnostic
. The synchronized yet improvised music through solos merged rock, pop, funk and jazz that could not but fascinate the crowds gathered at the concert. Day Four: April 2
April the first was a day off for main stage shows and thus, an opportunity to party in the jazz club with three enthusiastic bands:Blues Ramblers, Karim Ziad
, and Sophia Charai. The bands presented their finest work, each with a touch of their own through either blues, bebop, or gypsy music. On Wednesday, 67-year old rock icon Patti Smith appeared on the main stage,with Lenny Kaye on guitar, and Tony Shanahan on bass. Unplugged, the performance was a folk demonstration of Smith's catalog. Between youth's passion and motherly wisdom, Smith read, sang and spoke to an audience impressed by the artist's legendary dimension. The storyteller opened with her famous rendition of Van Morrison's "Gloria." After warming up, Smith played the best of: "Free Money," "Elegie," "Because the Night" ....to finish with "People Have the Power," sung by the audience. Day Five: April 3
To achieve a ceremonial closure, the choice of a big band is relevant. The XXL format of jazz guarantees celebratory sounds. Less purist but overtly open to swing, fast rhythms and funk, a big band seems to reach a wider, less demanding audience. Not surprisingly, the Electro Deluxe Big Band, obviously unknown to this audience, conquered the stage with 18 musicians who flipped their lids. Conducted by saxophonist and arranger Thomas Faure
and fronted extravagantly by American vocalist James Copley
, the band swayed in a dance-like rhythm.
One of the things Jazzablanca surely sought is variety. The ninth edition pushed the concept of diversity further through the 'world music' dimension, and featured eclectic musicians with distinct musical styles. It seems that the overall aim is to attract more people to the Jazzablanca village. However, jazz purists may feel ostracized because less specialized music is featured. The truth about Moroccan jazz fans lies somewhere in between, while the considerable number of people attending concerts may be a good incentive for future happenings.
Photo Credit: Mehdi El Mouden