Villa Janna, Morocco
Everything is bigger in Morocco.
The music is louder. The dancing is more spirited, the vibe more electrifying. It’s hotter – temperatures reach up to 46 degrees in the sun – but even that doesn’t hold things back in the Villa Janna, a mudbrick ecolodge in the desert outside of Marrakesh, where the second edition of Atlas Electronic is burning.
Atlas is a four day-long music and arts festival that celebrates not only music, but the bringing together of people from all over the world. Its roster boasts not only contemporary electronic artists, but a host of African artists from Morocco and beyond. Afrobeat and Gnawa music are not styles I know very much about, and I was admittedly apprehensive about how the festival’s four days would play out as a solo traveller in a new city. Luckily for me, Moroccans are incredibly welcoming; I never felt alone at the festival, a feeling that somehow extended into the music. Performances by local acts were especially warm, inclusive and full of life.
On Thursday night, the festival opened with a concert at the picturesque Amphitheatre, a coliseum-like stage at the base of a half-moon of tiered steps covered in Berber rugs. A highly anticipated collaborative performance by Hieroglyphic Being and Youssef Chegra was unexpectedly cancelled as the former was too ill to catch his flight, so Chegra and his band filled the slot solo. Playing the krakebs (a type of Moroccan castanet) and the hajhuj (a three-string lute) they sang in the traditional Gnawa way, in which lines seem to be repeated over and over, creating a kind of trance that was hypnotic and addictive. The energy in their opening numbers set the pace for the weekend as revellers were literally pulled from their seats by band members to dance, every part of their bodies moving in time with the music. This was no place for the classic heads-down techno shuffle.
Berlin-based DJ and label boss Habibi Funk played intermittent sets throughout the opening night, keeping the energy up while the set-up for the night’s numerous live acts changed. Boddhi Satva appeared to be on decks while Maalem Hamam, a local Casablanca project, performed live. Crowd favourite Fatima Yamaha closed out the opening concert, whose set, while full of dancefloor classics and upbeat to boot, for me, fell a bit flat in comparison to the live local acts in a been-there-done-that kind of way.
The next day, all three stages opened, with a poolside stage, a small ambient room, and a rooftop hotspot run by Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio. Festival mainstay Awesome Tapes from Africa got things started with one of his many performances over the weekend, playing beat-up old tapes with gusto. Ghanaian rapper Ata Kak, whose resurgence came about thanks to his discovery by Awesome Tapes, played his first big show on African soil, taking to the stage in a haze of smoke and lights. His rapid-fire lyricism and exuberant personality had smiles plastered to every face in the crowd. “You do the clapping, I do the rapping!” he called at one point, as the audience happily obliged. The pool stage delivered mostly euphoric house and disco all weekend, with UK’s Banoffee Pies, French outfit The Pilotwings, and Bicep among the line-up playing to an insatiably rowdy nighttime crowd who could often be seen dancing in the pool itself. Swathed in strobe lights and heaving bass, Midland and Ben UFO both played strong sets in Amphitheatre stage to close out the second night.
The nice thing about Atlas is that many artists played twice or more over the weekend and each set was different. So while Saturday brought Shanti Celeste to the pool stage in good form, her real shining moment was a more intimate show at the Red Light Stage on Sunday where she DJed back-to-back with the incomparable Saoirse, delving into a few garage tunes, some Afrobeat and a bit of disco. The Red Light Radio stage continued to deliver with acts like Yasmean and C.Love live on Saturday, as well as a very special surprise performance by Bedouin band Amazigh Blues, who had apparently travelled days through the desert to play at Atlas and wax poetic about love and life – a true highlight of the festival.
The next day, Houariyat, a five-piece female band from Marrakesh, had the crowd spellbound with an incredible Gnawa set at the Red Light stage, their call-and-response vocals full of emotion as they danced and played the tambourine. Casa Voyager boss Driss Bennis took over shortly afterwards as the sun set over the desert – another weekend favourite. Belgian-born Berliner San Soda was right at home at the pool stage, meanwhile, as half the crowd, overworked from four days of festival, was lounging poolside and smoking shisha, the other half absolutely losing it on the dancefloor to his signature house-meets-disco-meets-RnB. Floating Points’ Sunday closer was perhaps the weekend’s most anticipated set as far as talk amongst festival goers went. But from where I stood he was outshined by the local acts, who not only made the world of African music so special and so fun, but invited newcomers like me in with open arms.