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Morocco’s Music Advances Sustainable Development

One oasis community shows how music can support locally prioritized development.

Rabat – A raging fire is burning in the jungle. It’s such an overwhelming disaster that all of the animals are watching the conflagration in shock. 

A hummingbird says, “I’m going to do something about the fire.” 

It flies to the nearest stream and takes a drop of water. It races back to the fire, where it drops the water onto the flames. Back and forth it goes, over and over, while the larger animals — like the elephant whose trunk could deliver so much more water — stand watching. 

Eventually, they ask the hummingbird, “What do you think you can do? You’re too little!” 

Without pausing, the hummingbird answers: “I’m doing the best I can.”

The Moroccan government reports that two-thirds of the country’s oases have disappeared over the last 100 years. Halim Sbai tells me the story of the hummingbird as he describes the situation facing his native desert oasis city M’Hamid El Ghizlane. Founder of the internationally famous Taragalte Festival, Sbai now focuses on promoting conservation and education through responsible tourism. Sbai is proud to be the President of a local music school.

Joudour Sahara Music School

This Playing For Change Foundation (PFCF) project connected with Sbai and other locals in 2015, and opened a music school for 15 children in 2016. Stakeholders saw the importance of education in promoting change. Sbai shares a strong consensus human capital is the oasis’s greatest asset in development. 

Local teachers and an international staff now provide musical education to 20 students, an equal grouping of girls and boys.

Like the hummingbird, every person has their part to play. The school’s students play their part on instruments from a variety of traditions, all long part of the diverse Saharan city’s cultural fabric. They attend regular classes and participate in special events.

Each April, Earth Day enthusiasts can listen to guitar tunes amplified on solar-powered speakers. They can also enjoy students’ poetry and songs about the importance of environmental preservation. Students, locals, and visitors plant trees in the threatened oasis, accompanied by desert rhythms. 

The Joudour school does more than teach music. It harnesses the universal power of song to address desertification.

Sbai first channeled local change through music in 2009. He organized the Taragalte Festival, set to celebrate its tenth edition in November. He organized the early editions to preserve natural and cultural heritage by bringing music and life to this city on the desert’s edge. Sbai saw the festival as a platform to address critical issues like climate change. 

When I ask him directly, “why music?” he points out that I contacted him because he “made some noise.” 

“When you travel across the desert, and you feel very small,” he explains, “you need to make some noise.”

To experience music, he enthuses, involves joy. Two people may share a space, speaking different languages and keeping their distance. When music starts up, they begin to dance, they begin to laugh, and they connect through the world’s strongest, universal language – music. It is such a powerful experience that the festival now draws attendees from all corners of the globe. 

A Struggling Landscape

There is more than enough reason for M’Hamid’s people to sing loud and clear, calling for attention. The oasis, like so many in Morocco and across the Sahara, is severely threatened by desertification. The population’s ancestors farmed, herded, and flourished, but water scarcity has taken its toll. Where date palm and fig trees once covered a lush landscape, the desert encroaches ever closer. 

Morocco is widely lauded for its environmental development initiatives. Home to the world’s largest concentrated solar (CSV) plant and building the world’s largest desalination station, the kingdom is making clear strides. 

Sbai sees this national development narrative fail at the community level. He emphasizes that King Mohammed VI’s development vision and passion align with people’s needs. But as policies trickle down from Rabat to community levels, profit-seeking and corruption disrupt progress.

One famously failing initiative involves watermelons. Morocco’s government provides funding for agricultural development, but profiteers invest in the water-intensive fruits and further desiccate Morocco’s south. They take M’Hamid’s water for profit, says Sbai. And when they have depleted water, they move on to the next place, and they kill it. 

Sbai is passionate about properly constructing dams, harvesting rainwater, and drawing on reservoirs to supply the area’s water needs. Water falls from the sky to the sands, but like the “parachute policies” he describes from Rabat, water isn’t successfully harnessed.  Instead, desert water from the High Atlas Mountains is woefully mismanaged.

Sbai is hopeful that involving the right actors in development projects can make the king’s and the community’s shared vision a reality. This requires officials who are familiar with local culture and local challenges. Sustainable water management through dams and reservoirs can reverse the Daraa Valley’s desertification and once again support a thriving community.

Reviving an Oasis Generation 

Approximately 7,500 people now populate M’Hamid. Despite well above replacement level birth rates, population has steadily declined from around 9,000 since the ‘70’s. Environmental pressures continue to stall agriculture and other traditional activities. Sbai envisions turning this trend around and inspiring immigration from the big cities to the oasis. 

He describes how M’Hamid is now composed largely of an older generation and their grandchildren. Working-age residents have left to major cities to find gainful employment and support their families back home. Without anything to do, locals can’t be expected to sit idly by, and working-age residents are scarcely half of the current demographic. 

Higher levels of education have also shifted the community dynamic. The city requires different livelihood opportunities for an educated base. Many of today’s younger generation work in tourism, on the same lands where their grandparents farmed and herded, or perhaps freely roamed as desert nomads. 

Degradation and a lack of employment opportunities are two major drivers for out-migration. Proper water management, promoted by a musical platform and responsible tourism, can help to reverse the rural-to-urban migration trend. 

According to a common Moroccan saying, “when your stomach is full, it tells your head to sing.” Here, music can promote water policies, and water can bring song.

Beyond M’Hamid, Beyond Environment

Music driving development isn’t unique to M’Hamid. The annual Global Citizen Festival draws tens of thousands of socially active music lovers to a New York concert with the biggest names in American pop music. The festival is broadcast around the US, and 2018 also marked a special edition in Johannesburg to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s memory. 

The festival aims to promote the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) using a musical platform. Egypt’s Citadel of Music festival follows the same SDG-focused approach. The SDGs involve environmental action, but also social development. Empowering girls and women (SDG 5) draws focus from these platforms. 

Today, only 15% of Moroccan musicians holding a professional card from the Ministry of Culture are women. Despite adopting the Government Plan for Equality (ICRAM) from 2012-2016, which helps promote women’s participation in creative industries, the discrepancy persists. 

Sbai’s voice rings with pride as he speaks of providing opportunities for Joudour’s female students. When he attended school 40 years ago, his fellow classmates were exclusively boys. Now the community school and the music school educate and empower both girls and boys.

“Music isn’t a miracle,” Sbai tells me. A hummingbird can contribute one drop at a time, a child can click one set of castanets at a time. But music can open a door for development and warmly invite the world to join in.