John Robb Does Casablanca.

Play it again, Sam!

Don’t Bogart That Joint! John Robb Does Casablanca.

‘Play it again, Sam!’

Oddly enough, Humphrey Bogart never went to Casablanca. They filmed the whole damn thing in LA and just pretended they were in Casa! Fifty odd years down the line, and you still don’t see many white faces here.

Casablanca may be the biggest city in Morocco, but it’s not for tourists. They all schlep off to Marrakech or Fes for some of that medieval market magic, or up to Tangier, looking for a sniff of the old-school-sleaze that made Casa the home of William Burroughs (who later cast Casa as Interzone for his classic Naked Lunch).

While Casablanca was going through something of a population explosion, Tangiers was a popular stop-off on the Beat trail in the fifties, before it became the hot spot for Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams, who spent their summer hols there, hanging out with young chaps on the beach (it’s also the place where Tangerines got their name from!)!

Later, in the sixties, Casa became the hang out for hippies looking for some exotica on the cheap! After all, Tangier was only 14km from Spain. Another world: just over the water from spoiled Europe. Brian Jones recorded the HYPERLINK ""Master Musicians Of Jajouka here. The LP was released posthumously in 1971. It’s a wonderful record; wild drums channeled through a sieve of wonky weirdness.

Whilst Tangier, Fes and Marrakech are classic images of Morocco, their younger and bigger cousin, Casablanca, was always the true Moroccan city. Strange, then, that it looks so European! Built by the French, in 1907, on top of a few crumbling houses, it was a city of 10,000-inhabitants who had to run-like-fuck as a city the spiting image of Marseille was thrown over Old Casa like a concrete comfort blanket. 100-years later, nearly seven million people live in the choking smog of a sprawling city that buzzes with life. A city much loved by your humble correspondent!

Casablanca has none of the classic medieval architecture that makes Marrakech and Fes such popular Sunday-supplement tourist cities. Casa was hastily-appropriated by the French when they missed out on the country’s then main city, Tangiers, which had been turned into an International Zone. In my eyes, they created a beautiful monster, and today Casablanca is one of the biggest cities in Africa! A humming mass of stink and noise!

Casa also boasts the biggest Mosque in the world! It’s absolutely enormous; built on the seafront as a response, perhaps, to jibes that Casablanca was the only major city in the world with nils points on the board in the famous-buildings-stakes. It’s mind-bogglingly big; you walk up to it, it seems to go up & up forever! It’s the only mosque in Morocco that you are allowed into. Inside, it’s awe- inspiring! You can get 25,000-people into it and its surrounding courtyard. Imagine that. 25,000-people!

In Casablanca, music is the law. It’s everywhere; get in a taxi and the driver will speak at a thousand-miles-an-hour in French and crank up the radio, blasting out the Chaabi (a populist form of carefully blended Moroccan musical genres). They grin and batter their hands on the steering wheel as they transport you around the city; this is upbeat music that crackles with its own inherent energy.

Casa is a music city; it oozes the stuff. Every vehicle, every street corner is buzzing with electrified sound. It’s great to be somewhere where you don’t hear western music stomping around everywhere. No endless arguments over ‘who’s the coolest band in Britain’. ‘Why have the NME got another bunch of pale faced gimps on the cover?’ means little here. In fact, it means nothing at all!

There is a nascent hip-hop scene and, curiously, a death metal scene, a couple of punk bands . . . and that’s just about the sum total impact of Western music here (apart from in the CD stores, that is, that are crammed full of local stuff, but still stock the ubiquitous Pink Floyd section and a smattering of the British classics from the sixties and seventies).

The rest of the mini CD-kiosks are crammed with local stuff, like the mystic, hypnotic Sufi music, a trance like dirge employed by Muslim mystics to dance themselves into a transcendental states thousands of years before Superstar DJs began to gabble on about similar recreational pursuits.

There is also Gnawa music, another mystical trance style that seeped into Morocco from Africa over the years by osmosis. Also very popular is Rai music, from over the border, in Algeria. With its hypnotic grooves and political lyrics, Rai is the true populist music of Algeria, and its rhythms are a welcome break from the ‘boom-boom-boom’ of the bass drum so dominant in our post-industrial homeland. You start to listen to all this Moroccan stuff and you realise just how far from the fuck-beat our musical culture has become! The music here has sinuous, sexual energy that we have apparently lost in a haze of click-tracks and samples.

This music soon has you hooked. It’s got supple sensual rhythms, enticing melodies, and vocals sung by people who sound like they’ve been around the block a few times! Within 24-hours I’m off down to the CD kiosk; buying shed loads of stuff, pointing excitedly at sleeves, in the capable hands of my guide, the Amina from Algerian music magazine D-Tell - HYPERLINK "" - who has an endless list of cool stuff for me to pruchase.

Most of the CDs are, of course, bootlegs; the only difference here being that they actually burn them right in front of you on their rusting old computers. These dudes are pretty brazen about their work.

The traditional is everywhere in this music, constantly updating itself. Sometimes successfully, sometimes clumsily, but there is definitely no fear of the modern!

On the second night, I'm whisked up the motorway at well over 100-miles-an-hour to see an outdoor concert, by a driver who is stoned on kif! One of those white-knuckle-rides that requires the passenger to engage in a prolonged prayer interface with their God-of-choice!

By the time we arrive there are 10,000-people in a dusty field, buzzing away like Duracel bunnies in front of a huge stage! It’s just like being at a festival in the UK - except the backstage area is bizarrely sumptuous. Tents with carpets and a spread of fine food on platters, rather that the two-cans-of-lager-and-last-year’s-cheese-butty so beloved of UK promoters! Here it looks like 5-star food and no beer! A desert feast!

I’m here to see Haoussa - - who sound like early Chili Peppers. They play a tight, hard, funky set that has the crowd going bananas. The kids here are wild, really up for it! Haoussa have subtle political lyrics that get a big cheer every time they slip out.

They are followed by Hoba Hoba Spirit - - who kick out a sprightly rock that comes on like French urban-folk-worriers, Les Negres Vertes. They are huge here, and the crowd can’t get enough of them. Their mixture of rock, traditional, Gnawa and Rai is well executed, intense & utterly effective.

They’re followed by a Moroccan folk band who sound amazing! The sun goes down, and the party goes on! Moroccans sure know how to have fun! We slip back to the terror-car at the end of the concert, with 10,000-people staring at your correspondent’s greased-up-pompadour and non-touristico styling; a fucked up quiff, seemingly, is not the type of hair cut that graces these streets that often. Mind you, it isn’t in England, either - but at least here people are genuinely curious, instead of wanting to get into a scrap over hair.

Rock is big on the underground here. There’s the aforementioned death metal scene: a clutch of groups like Reborn, Butchers Of The Morgue (featuring the fantastically named Muslim Grinder Thereafter on drums), In The Nightmare and Nekros - as well as Algeria's Lithan and Carnavage, who make an equally fucked up noise! The stuff currently emerging from these two countries somehow sounds altogether heavier and way more bowel-loosening than any other death metal created anywhere in the world thus far. Butchers Of The Morgue are particularly (and unsettlingly) hatstand:

There’s a whole MySpace dedicated to the scene in North Africa! Check the following MySpace page for some Algerian info:

These are the kind of groups that headline the annual rock festival, to well over 30,000 kids! Their rampant misanthropy and blatant Satan-worshiping love of the dark side wound the local authorities up so much that a bunch of metalheads were actually imprisoned for wearing Satanic t-shirts in 2003 (a case that subsequently got enough international press attention to shame the authorities into releasing their captives pronto!). Not even the metalheads recitals of sections of the Koran deterred the sitting judge from jailing them! The metalheads were simply too much for him! He found it ‘suspicious’ that any indigenous musician would pen lyrics in English rather than Arabic, and said that; ‘normal people go to concerts in a suit and tie!’

One of satanic t-shirt wearers, Nabyl Guennouni, is the man on the local scene here; organising everything from festivals to foreign tours. As well as being in Reborn, he is a mine of information about the death metal and rock scene, not only in Morocco, but right across the Arab world to boot!

They don’t do things by half in Casa. As I said, this is the darkest, deepest, bowel-worryingly-heavy death metal, replete with constitutional guttural, growled-out vocals. Almost like they heard the initial genre defining gear, then took it into a deeper, darker place! It’s bizarre to hear such an icy, ostensibly Scandinavian form of music, played with such intensity in such an unsuitable environment! Bizarre, but quite brilliant as well! It’s also odd to have such intense discussions about Carcass and Cannibal Corpse in the backstreets of Casablanca with Redouane, spokesman for the Algerian death metal scene:

The metalheads are close Campadres with the nascent Moroccan rap scene; the rebel music here is in cahoots! We’re standing in the streets of Casablanca; I’m hanging with the cream of Morocco’s hip-hop scene, high-fiving in the midday sun. These crews have got the swagger of the old school, without all that new school arrogance! They burn with enthusiasm under the baking sun.

Hip-hop and death metal may be all encompassing here in Casa, but instead of blindly copying the Americans, they remain steadfastly hell-bent on making their own style, their own mark. No compromise. By any means necessary! Moroccan hip-hop uses traditional samples. They rap in their own tongue, with that kind of jazzy edge that French rappers seem to have patented over the years. It’s pretty damn cool, works very well on a multitude of levels, and goes down a storm in the land of their fathers. Rap crews like H-Kayne, Moby Dick, Fes City Clan, Bigg, K-Libre, Fnaire and Casa Crew are stalwarts of a scene that has slowly emerged over the last ten years. Crews even share DJs in this small but highly creative scene!

If you were to stand in a Casablanca bar in 2007 and say; ‘play it again Sam’, you’d get a very different reaction to the one you’d have received back in 1942! Instead of being hit with some cocktail-style-noodling, you’d probably get blasted to Algeria and back by some heavy-duty death metal!

Even a real man like Bogart would flinch at the thought!

John Robb – tMx 30 – 06/07