The exterior of Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, Morocco, looks like an off-brand Universal studio. To the sides of its imposing double-arched entrance stand two regal-looking stone statues of Chinese guardian lions. Next to these are enormous 30-foot painted replicas of Egyptian Ushabtis, towering over the parking lot with crossed arms. A long poster of Jake Gyllenhaal from the 2010 film Prince of Persia stretches across the top of the entrance to let you know that this is not a theme park but rather an illustrious movie studio, the largest in the world in terms of square footage. But on this Saturday evening, a few steps from the Sahara Desert, the crowd gathered is not there to film or attend a premiere. They are there to dance.
It’s the opening night of Oasis: Into The Wild, one of the largest international electronic music festivals in Morocco. Having spent the last eight years scattered across the rural suburbs of Marrakech, the festival has now settled here in this cinematic wonderland, once home to films like The Mummy And Gladiator. What awaits you are two evenings of dance music from around the world – Honey Dijon, DJ Koze, Jyoty – in a uniquely transporting environment.
Inside, local Moroccan vendors selling poke bowls, authentic “New York” hot dogs, burgers and fries share space with flashy replicas of some of cinema’s most famous vehicles – a James Bond’s cherry red Ferrari and Brad Pitt’s sage-colored bus. and the 2006 film starring Cate Blanchett Babel — on the main festival square. Off to the side, a large wooden boat half-built from some movie has become a makeshift seat for dozens of young people in rave outfits. But the real adventure awaits you on the festival’s three stages, accessible after navigating a maze of corridors and side rooms.
Tonight, strobe lights illuminate the four giant sphinx statues flanking the DJ booth. By 10 p.m., a crowd of 50 fills the dance floor, moving to an energetic set from London DJ Nabihah Iqbal who hammers out a mix of retro pop and Middle Eastern-influenced selections. Behind me, a woman steps aside precariously with a full Native American headdress perched on her head (we’re three days from Halloween, but I’ll learn that’s just rave gear). People buzz, leave, come and go, grabbing libations at the no fewer than 10 bars scattered around the park.
Over the past decade, Morocco’s electronic music scene has exploded. Once a sparse community with little local talent has transformed into a bustling, rich center of dance music with several electronic festivals held each year across the country. Oasis: Into The Wild, which held its first edition in Marrakech in 2015 and saw artists like Chromeo, Jayda G, Derrick Carter, Four Tet and the late Virgil Abloh’s play, was a pioneer in this field, establishing the Morocco as a premier electronic music destination.
“A lot of people in Morocco didn’t believe that we were going to come up with this line-up because this kind of line-up had never come to Morocco before,” explains Marjana Jaidi, co-founder of Oasis and founder of Cultivora, the production company behind the festival, from the festival’s early years. But this former Moroccan-Filipino festival photographer in his thirties always believed that the country could be an ideal host with its generous and rich cultural heritage. Seven successful festivals later, Jaidi’s mission with Oasis is now to make it the biggest and best it can be: starting with this venue.
“It’s like everyone is playing in Morocco.”
“It’s like Disney World,” she says of Atlas Studios. Jaidi was first brought here on a reconnaissance trip a few years ago and kept it in mind. When she began rebuilding the festival after the pandemic – its 2020 and 2021 editions were canceled – she bet on Atlas. “It’s really a real maze and getting lost is fun. Even if you didn’t put any decorations on it, it would be so cool. I’m very, very influenced by Disney and this is the most Disniest thing I’ve ever done.
Indeed, moving around the festival gives the impression of visiting a sort of theme park. A turn left or right could take you to a cozy circus-themed bar, or to a spacious and airy tea room quiet enough for a chat, or to a Greek palace serving champagne and cheese, or to a carpeted alley straight out of a Moroccan Souk with palm readers and vendors serving traditional mint tea. On the first evening, I and the rest of the journalists invited here run through comparisons to Las Vegas and Universal Studios “but grosser,” but none really sum up the strange whimsy and whimsy evoked here.
It’s not just the venue that got a boost this year, it’s also the music. At the Kasbah, a vast roster of local Moroccan talent takes to its own stage for the first time in the festival’s history, a testament to the country’s thriving crop of local talent. On the first night, backlit by projections of dancing hands and trippy designs, there’s a standout B2B from Moroccan DJs Nathabes and Abel Rey who deliver melodic, hard-hitting house with playful bursts of hip hop and heavier techno .
The biggest local artist on the first night is Amine K, a festival veteran and widely considered the ambassador of electronic music in Morocco. He appears on the Agrabah stage under a full moon, kicking off a set that ranges from percussive afrobeats to classic EDM and soulful house. Halfway through, he brings in special guest WAHM, a Moroccan DJ duo playing later in the evening, who will unleash a wild guitar set.
The next day, perhaps with a hangover but undoubtedly with clearly worn vocal cords, the 38-year-old DJ takes stock of the extent to which the electronic community has taken over Morocco from its beginnings to the end “You had very few DJs, almost no producers, no one played abroad. There’s this crazy scene now where there are hundreds of DJs, hundreds of producers, and a lot of them are playing all over the world,” he says. “One weekend you’ll have Solomun and Peggy Gou at two different parties. It’s like everyone is playing in Morocco.
At Oasis, the festival’s international heavyweights include the prolific and intoxicating German DJ Koze, who closes the first night with a spellbinding three-hour techno set that comes and goes with almost mathematical precision. At its Cleopatra Stage, the energetic crowd is a mix of largely Euro-EDM tourists and locals, from young to middle-aged Gen Z, and a walk from the pit to the exit takes you through several areas languages, extracts from French, German. , British English, Arabic and more that I can’t seem to recognise. It is this globality that gives a kind of legitimacy to events like Oasis – and by extension to Morocco – as it establishes itself on the international EDM festival circuit.
On the second day, I meet cult London DJ OK Williams, whose percussive, rhythmic set explodes into sassy pop. At the end of the night, in the United States – and especially in New York – darling Honey Dijon tops it off with a raucous party for the girls. (And I realize retroactively how easily we breezed through a two-day lineup that was 50% BIPOC female DJs.)
“(Some organizers) book a venue, they book a huge DJ and they call it the festival, but it’s not a festival. It’s just a scene with a big name,” explains Amine K. “It’s a party. It’s a unique experience.
“In difficult times like these, music plays a role in people living in community and trying to make sense of the world. »
In 2023, international EDM festivals offering “unique” experiences will multiply. There are beach festivals, volcano festivals, and then there are the more extravagant ones. Like Boomtown in England, a five-day festival that is more immersive theater and takes place in a “town” built entirely from scratch, with its own storyline, traditions and cast of hundreds of paid actors. Or Meadows In The Mountains in Bulgaria, which actually takes place in the mountains and has you “dancing to the top of the mountain” and Maslow’s pyramid. All of these events tout utopian buzzwords like “total immersion,” “transcendence,” “community” connections, and “global” community. Some people actually achieve these things – after constructing an elaborate fantasy.
What Oasis offers is simultaneously the same, but feels more real. The sets, as convincing as they are, do not deny the existence of reality when you turn the corner and see a mass of planks supporting the walls or tap on the “stone” columns and feel that they are visibly hollow (a truly delicious experience). The world’s heaviest questions aren’t ignored or covered up by layers of conjured backstory.
The weekend of October 27 is when news agencies are reporting the largest wave of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip so far, a crisis that threatens the festival and impacts artists and audiences alike. participants, many of whom are from Arab countries, including a large number. they just feel for each other. On the ground, it’s not a matter of discussion or debate but an urgent release: a sustained chant of “Free Palestine” that breaks out after DJ Nabihah Iqbal ends her set with an enthusiastically received track of “Dammi Falastini » by Mohammed Assaf; keffiyehs are waved by the crowd while DJ Nooriyah waves hers on stage.
Early in the evening of the second night, while it is still dusk, I ask Kampire, who discusses his own feelings about the crisis, how much “global” connection, community understanding, and transcendence can actually be fostered in something like Oasis.
“I think people really have these very utopian ideas of dance music and peace and love, what do they call it? PLUR: peace, love, (unity and respect). I think a lot of things can be very wrong and actually cover up racism and sexism, which takes place in industries and events like this,” she says. “At the same time, I really believe that there is an opportunity for real connection and for people to be really good to each other and leave places like this with a better understanding of Morocco or Africa or whatever .”
These were the moments when we felt, as participants, that we came closest to realizing what a truly “global community” is: when we, foreigners, settled in a different country, were able to rallying around a central cause, even if for a brief moment, we were encouraged to do so. through music.
“In difficult times like these, music plays a role in people living in community and trying to make sense of the world,” says Kampire. “I thought DJs were supposed to be emotional choir leaders when they played. If it’s just to party, then what’s the point?