Mrabti's hands-on approach was adopted by the rest of Atlas's small, dedicated team. I was struck by the honesty of their collective vision "to be a cultural bridge between the Western and African World." Atlas provides African artists with a platform—and it also happens to be a banging party.
Thursday's opening concert featured a mixture of cross-cultural live acts, showcasing the power of collaboration. Things got off to a rocky start with Hieroglyphic Being—who I had been most excited about seeing—cancelling his performance alongside Yousef Chegra due to illness. Chegra still played with his Gnawa band. Deeply rooted in Moroccan culture, Gnawa is a hypnotic strain of North African music that has recently caught the ear of influential musicians worldwide, James Holden among them.
After Chegra, Rotterdam-based artist Philou Louzolo gave a hybrid electronic performance alongside Groupe Bana, a local group who play popular traditional Moroccan music with Gnawa influences. Thirteen men dressed in shimmering green Djellabas beamed from ear to ear at the centre of the packed Amphitheatre. They chanted while playing traditional instruments including darboukas, a gimbri and a strikingly long trumpet called a nefar. By twilight, the energy was peaking. Fatima Yamaha played live later that night but his set was subject to sound issues, and it fell flat by comparison.
Each day the music started at around 2 PM, but it didn't really get going until the early evening. People spent their afternoons in various ways: lounging by the poolside stage, taking part in a yoga class or, if you were feeling more adventurous, grabbing a taxi into central Marrakech to explore the rich sights, smells and sounds of the labyrinthine medina.
On the Friday night, Brian Shimkovitz, AKA Awesome Tapes From Africa, played twice, once in the Amphitheatre and again on the Red Light Radio stage, which, like last year, was located on the roof of Villa Janna. Reminiscent of the desert planet in Star Wars, Tatooine, and with views across the Sahara, this was by far the most scenic spot. The sunsets were spectacular. Shimkovitz rolled out choice cuts like Om Alec Khaoli's "Enjoy It," whose saccharine chords fused perfectly with the warm evening air.
A thunderstorm took Villa Janna by siege on Friday night. For about an hour it seemed like the whole thing could be washed out, and I lost count of how many times I saw lightning strike. People took shelter wherever they could and simply got on with it. When the music returned it was as if nothing had happened. Ata Kak, who was playing his first festival on African soil, was well received, while Bicep, Midland and Ben UFO provided notable DJ sets throughout the night.
Some of the best things about Atlas were left open for discovery, such as the ambient room where crews like Amsterdam's Strange Sounds From Beyond curated evenings of outré music. On Saturday, C. Love, Shanti Celeste and Casablancan DJ Dex Le Maffo were all on good form, though it was Amazigh Blues, a traditional band from the Moroccan desert, who stole the show. They agreed to fill a gap in the programme mid-festival, travelling 11 hours through the night to come and perform to an intimate crowd on the roof.
Running a festival in Morocco, a strict Muslim country, is an uphill struggle. "There are no procedures," Mrabti told me. Everything is a waiting game, so logistically it's a constant challenge. But despite everything, Atlas's second edition went smoothly. Word of mouth spreads quickly, and the crowds hit a peak of 1200 attendees across the weekend. To preserve its cosy atmosphere, Mrabti and the team want to cap it at 2000—a wise move that will surely see its popularity continue to swell in the coming years.
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