- The landscape 30 minutes to the south of Marrakech is arid and largely desolate, but what buildings you do see show two very different sides of Morocco. On the one hand, there are grey, crumbling shanty towns, many of which are half-built or uninhabited. In the surrounding areas, children play in the dust, men crouch stock-still, and donkeys pull carts heavy with grapes and bananas. Travel a few barren blocks either side, though, and you'll find huge, pink hotels, many of them five-star, catering to tourists from across Europe and the Arab world. Some even advertised plans for 18-hole golf courses, yet to be built.
The Fellah Hotel is one of the more luxurious examples in the area. Situated at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, it marries traditional Berber design with all the modern trappings. Several chocolate-coloured villas are dotted across a vast cactus-strewn site, and there's a huge pool, a spa and even a small farm, which, when there's not a festival on, is home to donkeys, chickens, goats and rabbits. It prides itself on being eco-friendly—food is locally sourced, waste water is recycled and all of the lightbulbs are green. It's classy without being flashy, the kind of place you can imagine ageing rock stars seeking out for a bit of R & R.
Last weekend, though, it was home to another kind of clientele. The Oasis Festival was billed as the "first event of its kind" in Morocco, a three-day house and techno affair that aimed to bring international artists to a national audience, and vice-versa. From what I could tell, the crowd was more foreign than local—mostly English and French—though there was definitely a decent Moroccan contingent. The action was split between two stages, Desert Oasis and Bamboo Arena, the first of which was centred around the pool, with the booth on the roof of one of the neighbouring villas. Towering Funktion-One stacks provided loud, impressive sound, and from lunchtime through 8 PM, when the sun started to set, the pool was full of people splashing about or sipping drinks on rubber rings. The scene resembled an afterparty in Ibiza, and the atmosphere was nearly always relaxed and cheery.
I spent most of the first night over at Bamboo Arena, where Michael Mayer, tINI and Cassy were the main draws. A minute's stroll from Desert Oasis, this stage was much more low-key, with the DJ closer to the crowd. The Kompakt boss went first, playing a set of mostly over-egged melodic house. It grew weary after a few tracks, so I ventured back to Desert Oasis, where DJ Tennis was doing a much neater job. He started with a remix of James Blake's "I Am Sold" before working in Larry Heard's wicked remix of Moodymanc's "Black Paint," as the floor slowly filled beneath him.
The festival's sprawling layout lent itself to wandering about. Just behind Desert Oasis there was a restaurant, where on the last night I wolfed down a tasty, affordable Moroccan meal, and situated smack bang in the middle of the site was an enclosed, open-air space with a pool table, ping-pong and a few bean bags. Whiskey brand Jack Daniels were behind it, and the branding was unashamedly in-your-face, but after a few drinks it was exactly the kind of ridiculous hang-out you want at a festival. As it turns out, a game of blackjack with people from five different countries for fake money where nobody knows the rules is a surprisingly fun way to take a breather from the dance floor.
tINI and Cassy had the run of Bamboo Arena from 10 PM through 3 AM, when the festival closed. tINI opened and eventually found her feet after a sloppy start, throwing down weighty tech house to an appreciative mob. She and Cassy went back-to-back for the final stretch, which was good in places but a little dull in others. Closing out Desert Oasis was Âme's Kristian Beyer, who, unlike everyone else, resisted banging it out. Playing to the largest crowd of the night, he cranked up the intensity layer by layer, mixing with exceptional precision. The music was bold and catchy, and for the first time in a while I got why the Innervisions DJ is so popular.
The Fellah Hotel itself was reserved for the DJs and staff, so punters and press were shuttled to and from near-ish hotels by free, punctual mini-vans. Most of these were only a short taxi ride from Marrakech, which meant that a day exploring the Medina was easily done. I was back on site by 7 PM on Saturday for Axel Boman, who turned out two hours of groovy house. Dyed Soundorom played deeper and just as well, before a trip over to Bamboo Arena for the last of Ellen Allien had me cutting serious shapes to a track I wasn't expecting to hear: Gesloten Cirkel's "Submit X." But the night's highlight—and perhaps that of the whole weekend—was DJ Harvey's four-hour sweep through trancey disco and synth-heavy house. (Harvey liked the venue so much that he spent his whole weekend there, and was spotted ambling around in Saturday night's pink shirt on Sunday afternoon.)
On paper, though, Sunday's lineup was the strongest. By the pool, Will Saul and Gerd Janson had the 5 and 7 PM slots respectively, so I took the opportunity to strip off, find myself an inflatable toy and float about to breezy house, classic disco and Still Going's "Still Going Theme." Carl Craig, my choice over the night's other headliner, Pachanga Boys, led with Salif Keita's "Madan," and then played punchy house until it was time to unleash the hits again (Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," Chic's "I Want Your Love.") Gerd Janson joined him for the final hour, and the euphoric tunes and feel-good vocals continued until the lights went off.
I warmed to Oasis more and more as the weekend progressed. Part of that was down to the music and the friendly atmosphere, which improved day-on-day, but it was also because I was slightly sceptical at first. Something about attending a festival with a moneyed, international crowd in the developing world didn't sit right with me, but the more I thought about it and chatted to people, the more I came round to the idea. I didn't catch any of the local DJs that played earlier in the days, but I've seen posts on Facebook since that labelled the festival "a dream come true for our scene." And it wasn't just the dance music community that benefitted: all the security, bar staff and drivers were locals, and the on-site food and drink options were pop-ups of establishments in Marrakech. If electronic music is ever going to really take off in a country like Morocco, then it's going to need more events like this that put it and its DJs on the clubbing map. Expertly organised, easy-going and fun, Oasis felt like a strong step in the right direction.
Photo credit: Correa (Cactus, Bamboo Arena), George (Âme, Carl Craig and Gerd Janson)