Israeli regional cooperation through music in Morocco

While the festival has had Jewish and Israeli musicians in the past, this year, Israel’s Ministry of Regional Cooperation set aside funds to bring dozens of Israeli artists.

 SOME PERFORMANCES at last week’s Andalusia Atlantic Music Festival in Morocco.  (photo credit: SHANNA FULD)
SOME PERFORMANCES at last week’s Andalusia Atlantic Music Festival in Morocco.
(photo credit: SHANNA FULD)

ESSAOUIRA, Morocco – The historic Moroccan port city of Essaouira has hosted a multicultural music event for some 18 years. But a couple of things made this year’s Andalusia Atlantic Music Festival different than any before, the addition of more than 60 Israeli musicians and partial funding from the Israeli government.

While the festival has had Jewish and Israeli musicians in the past, this year, Israel’s Ministry of Regional Cooperation set aside funds to bring dozens of Israeli artists, as well as a set of international journalists to fly to Essaouira.

Essaouira (also known in French as Mogador) is a Jewish and Muslim city where the two religious groups historically lived in harmony. It is also one of the few cities in the Arab world with so many synagogues (37) and at some points had even more Jews than Muslims until the 1960s. In most decades, the Jews of Morocco were protected by the king and relations between neighbors were friendly. Festival organizers say they hope the weekend educated the new generation.

The festival took place between Thursday, October 27th and Sunday, October 30th, with 16 musical events that were hosted in three different locations throughout the city. Main stage attractions were held at night under an enormous tent next to the beach. In the past, the festival’s big stage had 1,500 seats. Due to demand, this year’s free three-day festival is more than tripled in size with 5,500 seats. So many people attended the concerts that security officials and local police had to turn people away each night.

The inspiration to fund this event came after Arab-Israeli politician Issawi Frej made a visit to Morocco. Frej is the Minister of Regional Cooperation as well as the first Arab-Israeli minister to visit the country where he was warmly welcomed. While there, Frej met with world-famous André Azoulay, who is a Moroccan Jewish senior adviser to king Mohammed VI of Morocco. Azoulay enchanted Frej with his vision of peace and got him interested in the festival, which has a strong focus on peace and love.

 SOME PERFORMANCES at last week’s Andalusia Atlantic Music Festival in Morocco.  (credit: SHANNA FULD) SOME PERFORMANCES at last week’s Andalusia Atlantic Music Festival in Morocco. (credit: SHANNA FULD)

“The crown jewel of that visit was this festival.”

Yael Patir

“The crown jewel of that visit was this festival,” said Yael Patir, chief of staff for the Ministry of Regional Cooperation.

At any given event, Muslims, Jews and Christians sat side by side, enjoying the music and languages on stage. Some broke out in dance together and some just swayed side to side. Every show was packed and finding a seat became competitive. Perhaps people were overjoyed that Covid-19 had not stopped this year’s festival (the last two years it commenced on Zoom) or perhaps the public wanted to show up in support of peace.

Banners were displayed in a synagogue called Bayt Dakira saying “Salam Lekoulam” and “Shalom Alaykoum,” a play on words swapping Arabic and Hebrew greetings. The house of worship was filled with people of all faiths who looked at Moroccan Jewish artifacts and took seats for daily 10 a.m. discussions on peace, diplomacy and the importance of song.

“Music is a language for all. It has no passport,” Andre Azoulay told The Jerusalem Post. “Music is one of the most powerful gateways for mutual respect and understanding.”

Music as a sample of coexistence

AZOULAY STRESSED the importance of using the experience in Essaouira as an example for the rest of the world, even if the sample of coexistence came from just a weekend music festival.

“We have to give this a chance. It’s real. It’s not cosmetic. It’s thousands of people. No one is calling them to attend; they want to do it and are doing it by thousands,” Azoulay said.

The festival touted spectacular displays of Flamenco music with fabulous dancers on the main stage, including Ursula Lopez. The Spanish ballerina and bailaora stunned the crowd with her enormous energy and fantastic dresses. Her colorful dresses were so big that she had to grab hold of the tool and bring it close to her body just to free her legs and continue tapping. Of course, this was all part of the show.

The audience broke out into applause as Lopez finished, bringing the opening night act to a close. Next up was Arab Andalusian oud master Omar Metioui, who was born in Tangier, Morocco. He invited Israeli violinist Elad Levi with singers Yohai Cohen, Omar Jaidi and Hicham Dinar for a musical delight. Moroccan singer Zainab Afailal joined the Jewish Muslim crew, adding in her vocals, as well. The musicians played their wood instruments on stage in the shape of a crescent moon. It mirrored the actual crescent moon hanging outside over the ocean.

By 11:25 p.m. on Thursday, the tent was completely filled with families, young children, locals, visitors and loads of Orthodox Jews. Everyone clapped together on the beat to join the musicians, many taking to their feet to sway and dance. Off to the side was an energetic young man wearing a white kippah and an Arabic-style white cotton dress with stripes of royal blue on it. He sang every word of the Arabic songs and was possibly the most enthusiastic person in the room.

Friday afternoon the 40-person Choir of Essaouira Mogador presented its first-ever concert in the city’s community center called Dar Souiri. The choir was comprised of many Muslim women and was accompanied by the Andalusian Orchestra of Essaouira. The crowd, nestled inside the building within the walls of the Old Medina (the ancient walled city) encouraged the performers with exuberant clapping. That was just the beginning. Friday continued with Elad Levi and six of his music students from Tsfat, followed by impressive flamenco in the main tent and of course, a 12 a.m. performance (there was one every night, ending at 2 a.m.).

The Friday midnight performance had the whole city talking. There was one long table set up in Dar Souiri, with Muslim clerics facing Jewish chazzanim. Each group was in full religious garb, singing into the eyes of the other sitting across the table. The men sang one Jewish song followed by one Islamic song, with each group singing the same melodies but with different words in their own language. In Arab countries, particularly Morocco, religious groups used the same tunes and arrangements for hymns. With no prior rehearsal, the men were able to support one another’s song completely acapella. Orthodox Jews refrain from playing instruments on the Sabbath. The onlookers were overjoyed and festival-goers spoke of this event throughout the next two days.

In an interview, Patir from the Ministry of Regional Cooperation said watching the clerics sing together was a highlight.

“We pray for the same God and we share many of the same values, but when you see it like that at one table facing one another, looking in the eyes of one another, sentence after sentence in Arabic and Hebrew while the audience around is clapping and ecstatic, I felt this was a scene of hope being shot from the building throughout the region.”

SATURDAY AFTERNOON Miriam Toukan, an Arab Israeli singer who comes from a Palestinian Christian family, took us on a journey throughout the Middle East. She announced that she would and her first song was called “Haifa.” It was beautiful, melodic and relatable for the Israelis in the room. But within just minutes, she was already taking us to Beirut, Lebanon, with her next song. Toukan sang in Arabic, Hebrew and Spanish and was supported by a quartet who played Klezmer instrumentals (Ashkenazi Jewish music) throughout the set. It was a cheery and unusual pairing.

Saturday night’s performance in the big tent was so well attended that the city’s police had to physically barricade the entrances. Two flights broke outside and inside amongst women who wanted to enter and the performances were all one hour later than scheduled. It was chaos but the show went on. In fact, inside, the stage was filled with rambunctious percussion.

Moroccan celebrity Abir El Abed’s vocals filled the big tent Saturday night with a number of Arabic-language songs. She ended her performance by calling for peace in the world. Though it felt like the end of the festival, a final act of radical expression was held at 1:00 a.m. in the cultural center. Jews and Arabs played, sang and started to let loose with some abstract dancing. People chatted and enjoyed the last of the festival until the wee hours of the morning.

The Jerusalem Post caught up with vocalist Yochai Cohen, who was just coming down from his three-day musical high. He was first invited to perform at the festival four years ago with violinist Elad Levi, whom he had worked with before. Cohen’s specialty is in performing popular Moroccan music. Cohen’s great-grandfather and grandfather were raised in Morocco and wrote songs in Moroccan Arabic. He says playing this music feels very natural to him because of his roots.

“I was very excited to be on stage with Abir. It felt like we were really together. It felt like there was nothing between us. No crazy stuff. Nothing about Judaism, Islam, about war or anything,” Cohen said. “I think it was the first time I was with someone Muslim on stage and it just felt like love. A lot of love. And also from the band on stage. It was very powerful for me.”

Festival-goers came from all over Morocco to participate and some even flew in from the other side of the world.

David Bensoussin was born in Essaouira, but today lives in Montreal, Canada. He said the songs brought him back to his childhood.

“What is here is a little light. And I believe that there’s potential for this light to spread everywhere. This is a city of nostalgic people. There are meaningful undercurrents in this city. Between not only Jews and Muslims, but also Jews Muslims and French. There were hard times, too, but overall, this is a city of nostalgic people.”

Chourk, 14 years old, says she came to the festival because she is from Essouira and loves the city and its culture. She said the festival was better than last year, which was hosted virtually because this year she got to experience people from France and Israel who were in the crowd.

“I respect all the religions and I love the idea of bringing up Jewish and Muslims to reunite them in such a festival like this and it’s a great idea to bring peace. We bring Jewish culture here and they bring Muslim culture to their Jewish places. It’s helpful”, Chourk said.

Organizers of the festival from the Association of Essaouira Mogador say the biggest challenge this year was coming back to the stage after being off for two years due to Covid-19. Some organizers left the city, new volunteers needed to be trained and this year, bringing 60 musicians from Israel to Morocco was a big logistical challenge. As for the artistic side, the vice general secretary of the association Yossi Louk, said he invested time into finding the common ground between the Jewish and Muslim musicians in order to make the highest quality musical arrangements.

In 2020, Israel and Morocco inked a normalization deal, making it simpler for Israelis to visit the country. Louk says before the deal, people didn’t even feel comfortable uttering Israel on stage. It was too political. Now, he says, it’s no big deal. With all of this cooperation, Louk and his partners intend to continue to bring more Israeli artists to Morocco. In fact, the planning for next year begins today.

The writer was a guest of the festival.