Over the past two months, I have been very fortunate to make many wonderful contacts throughout the Moroccan music scene. Although the original parameters of the proposal for my fellowship indicate that my research pertains to drumming and drum crafting in different religious and spiritual traditions, while in Morocco, the focus of my research has expanded to include a more contemporary dynamic. (The overlying question remains, as to whether “spirituality” exists in modern music. In short, and I will expand on this in the next few weeks, is that I believe “spirituality” exists in almost all genres of music, traditional and contemporary, as music is an expression of the heart).
As I have reported earlier, much of my time in Morocco has been spent in Casablanca, living with Adil Hanine, the drummer of Hoba Hoba Spirit, a very popular Moroccan band. Indeed, Adil’s connection to the music scene here has been an indispensable asset for my research; nevertheless, we have become such close friends that it is like we are family – something that obviously transcends anything pertinent to my research.
I have been well aware that Hoba Hoba Spirit is very successful; yet, until Thursday night’s performance, my conception of just how popular Hoba is was completely redefined. During the sound check in the late afternoon, I was talking to Hisham, the band’s manager, about the show. Probably about a hundred fifty fans or so arrived around 4pm, even though the show wasn’t going to start until 9pm, so I was curious as to how many people would come to the show. When I asked how many people were anticipated to attending the concert, he asserted that “50,000” were expected. While the venue was more than suitable to house that many people, I was pretty skeptical that that many people would turn out for the show – the only other time I saw Hoba Hoba Spirit perform there was a crowd of about 2,500 people (the “girls only” show), a very good sized crowd, but no where near 50,000. Furthermore, there are only a handful of musical acts that can draw such a large crowd. So, I figured that I had misheard Hisham, and that he said, “15,000,” a seemingly more reasonable number, although still very impressive.
After the sound check was finished, the members of the band and myself went to Hisham’s apartment to kill sometime until the show. Some of the guys seemed particularly nervous about the anticipation of playing a big show – an absolutely reasonable feeling. The band was performing at the Qamra scene, a huge outdoor stage near the Rabat bus station – in fact, Qamra is the largest stage of the Mawazine Festival.
Around 8:30, we returned to the venue, it was absolutely packed with people – it turned out that Hisham’s prediction was wrong, after all. By just after 9 o’clock when the band took stage, 70,000 (!!!) people were in attendance. (The organizers of the festival confirmed this is an accurate statistic). Granted, this was a free performance; nonetheless, that does not undermine the amazing feat of drawing a crowd of that many people.
I was entirely overwhelmed by the size of the crowd: being surrounded by that many people is an indescribable sensation. There were people for as far as you could see; the crowd even spilled out onto the streets! (Fortunately for me, I was right up next to the stage, thanks to my pass, so I did not have to be lost in the sea of people).
What was most impressive about the (astronomical) size of the crowd was that almost everyone knew all the lyrics to almost all of the songs. That is to say, it was not just 70,000 people that showed up to see a free concert; it was 70,000 devout Hoba fans! I cannot imagine, as a musician, entertaining that many people; it must be an incredible feeling to make so many people so happy.
Of course, I will readily admit that, as I have developed lasting friendships with members of the band, I am a bit biased; regardless, Hoba Hoba Spirit’s performance was one of the single best concerts I have ever attended. There was so much energy – both on stage and throughout the crowd - that made for such a memorable experience, a true highlight of my year on the Bristol Fellowship. It is actually pretty funny how energetic the band was, considering how languid most of the guys were before the show. (The one exception was Adil, who was so hyped up before the show that he kept on telling me, “We’re going to burn Rabat down!”)
In terms of the band’s performance, they were outstanding, to say the least. Of course, I have seen Hoba play in Casablanca before; yet, this performance was head-and-shoulders better than that show. Everyone just clicked and played their best; and thus, the band sounded incredible. (Side note: all of the shows at the Mawazine Festival have had excellent sound quality, a testament to the professionalism of the festival’s organizers and engineers).
For just under two hours, Hoba Hoba Spirit played almost nonstop. The band had such fluid set list: there were minimal breaks, as almost every song bridged straight into the ensuing one. There was a concrete cohesion with the set list: the band opened with their hit, “Radio Hoba,” and did a reprise of the song for the encore.
Like any live show, it is very difficult to describe the sound of the show: to be as concise as possible, the show was very rock, very reggae, very punk, very gnaoua, and very, very cool.
Musically, the band has such a unique sound: because they are able to employ the sounds of so many different genres, all their songs sound very distinct. To give the band another level of expansiveness, everyone but Saad (the bassist), provides vocals. Surely, Reda, the lead guitarist, would be considered the lead singer as well; yet, the other guys do sing quite often. Furthermore, all of the members that contribute vocals sound very different from one another; so that expands the musical range of the band. Lastly, because so many of the members are capable of singing, the vocal harmonies are always superb.
There were so many great numbers that it is impossible to pick a single favorite; but, I think one of the highlights of the evening was, “Marock’n Roll,” a song led by Reda. Perhaps this was one of the most memorable songs as it is sung in English; but, it is such a catchy number, especially as Reda plays harmonica on it. Further, Adil’s smooth drum beat perfects the song.
By the end of the show, it seemed that everyone in the crowd was covered with sweat and dust: because most of the venue was just a dirt ground and almost everyone was dancing, dust caked the entire Qamra scene.
After meeting up with the band backstage to congratulate them on such an incredible performance, we all eventually departed for the Chellah, a site of Phoenician and Roman ruins with to a beautiful garden and palace-like facilities. There was a banquet (in other words, a feast) for the band, as provided by the organizers of the Mawazine Festival. The high life, indeed…
I spoke to Adil earlier today, and learned that on Saturday, the band was given a gift from the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, in recognition for their performance at the Mawazine Festival. Congratulations to everyone in the band for that award!
Below are a few videos and a bunch of pictures from the show. (The light show was awesome and the pictures don’t do it justice). To be completely honest, I was so engrossed in the performance that I didn’t really feel like taking the best videos/pictures possible. Being in the thick of the crowd was an experience I couldn’t pass up on: sure, it would have been nice just to stand by the stage the whole, but there was such much electricity throughout the audience, that I just had to get out there and dance!
The sound on the videos is pretty poor; the concert itself had extremely good sound quality, so watch the videos with that in mind. Also, I really wish I could have gotten an aerial photograph to give you all an ideal of just how many people were they, but I left my helicopter at home. I am still so impressed that 70,000 people came for the show!
Enjoy, and do yourself a favor, and get a hold of one of Hoba Hoba Spirit’s albums!