The "Babel Med Music" World Music Forum

A Program Filled with Diversity

The "Babel Med Music" world music forum is a symbol of the rapid transformation of Marseilles. The port city has long been regarded as something of a street urchin. Now it is being upgraded to a cultural metropolis of the Mediterranean region within the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. David Siebert reports

Babel Med Music Logo (Photo © Dock des Suds 2008)
Photo: Hub of the Mediterranean region's live music scene - the "Babel Med" music forum in Marseille.

​​Whoever walks through the streets of Marseille will hear languages and music from every corner of the globe. Only a few steps away from La Canebière, the city's newly renovated splendid main boulevard, you could mistakenly believe you were in North Africa. In the dark, narrow side streets, Arab shops are lined up one beside the other and music blares from loudspeakers.

Sami Sadak, a Turkish ethnomusicologist and artistic director of "Babel Med Music," regards Marseille as the ideal staging ground for a world music festival.

"For centuries, Marseille has been the destination of immigrants from the whole of the Mediterranean region. No one lives in isolation here. People don't think of themselves as French, Algerian, or Moroccan, but first and foremost as citizens of Marseilles."

Concert marathon with bands from all over Europe

In the four years since it began, the "Babel Med Music" has developed into the most important European forum for world music after WOMEX in the Spanish city of Seville.

For three full days at the end of March, the forum presented more than 100 producers, labels, and concert and tour organizers from all over the world to an international specialist audience. Each evening, the doors were opened to the general public. The program was a concert marathon with 30 bands previously little-known in Europe.

Represented were a wide variety of musical cultures ranging from traditional ensembles from Egypt and Greece to DJs. The Malian Mo DJ, for instance, offers new electronic mixes of traditional Arab and African music, creating an intelligent, African counterpoint to MTV.

The focus of the festival, however, lies with the Mediterranean region. "Countries like Turkey, with its unbelievably varied music scene, will continue to gain massively in importance," says Helmut Bürgel, the artistic director of the "Stimmen" Festival in the southern German town of Lörrach and member of the selection jury of "Babel Med Music."

"We would be punishing ourselves as Europeans if we couldn't overcome the artistic divide separating us from Arabic culture," claims Bürgel. "In just a few years, the encounter with Turkish and Arabic culture will be perfectly natural for us."

The Lebanese-born trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf shows how this meeting of cultures can function. The classically trained musician stands out with his unaccustomed Arabic phrasing, and, together with his jazz-fusion band, has attracted an enthusiastic following.

Marseille as an endless construction site

The site of the three-day music spectacle is the former port area of the "Docks de Sud." All around, new buildings and gigantic office towers are being constructed. Marseille finds itself in the center of the Euromed process, a program sponsored by the European Union that aims to intensify cooperation between Mediterranean states.

At the moment, the city appears to be an enormous, endless construction site. Three billion euros have been made available for new mega projects by France, the EU, and private investors. The Euromed envisages Marseille as the "gateway to the south" and a future economic hub. This is a great opportunity for Marseille. It is already applying for the title of "European Capital of Culture" in 2013.

Catalyst for Marseille as a cultural metropolis

Sami Sadak sees in "Babel Med" an "important catalyst for the rejuvenation of the city. Its many visitors strengthen the economy. And the city's inhabitants can discover new, previously unknown music groups, who are often performing for the very first time in France!"

A highlight of the festival is the appearance of the flutist Mamar Kassey. In a round of discussions on production and working conditions for musicians, he told of his experiences in his native country of Niger. For years, he earned only 2.50 euros a month as a member of a dance ensemble.

Later on, caught up in the circus of world music, Mamar Kassey once again experienced an unpleasant surprise. During his first tour of the USA, the concert manager disappeared with the entire show earnings. Correspondingly, discussions turned to new, alternative methods of marketing world music as well as criticism over France's rigid visa policies with respect to foreign artists.

Whether it's the young hip-hop festival from Dakar, a world music label specializing in Tuareg kitsch, or the self-administered Italian grassroots music club network ARCI, the mood of the festival participants is optimistic.

As "Le Monde" recently reported, the world music scene, in contrast to the rest of the music industry, enjoys full concert halls. Pressings of world music CDs rarely exceed 20,000 copies, yet sales remain stable.

This is because alternative distribution channels are used. Specialty shops, independent initiatives, and ethnic communities play a very important role in popularizing the music.

Threatened loss of identity

The local music scene, such as a women's choir singing in the Occitan language, is also involved in the "Babel Med Music" forum.

"It is important that an international forum maintains roots in the region," says Helmut Bürgel. "There are just as many people from Marseille attending the concerts as there are professional visitors from the music industry."

Whether Marseille continues to be the ideal location for "Babel Med Music" remains to be seen. The inner-city redevelopment is rapidly altering the face of the city. Many of its poor inhabitants of North African descent are being forced to move. Instead, offices and luxury apartments are on the rise. Marseille is in danger of losing its reputation as a city with a multicultural identity.

© 2008

Translated from the English by John Bergeron

Gnawa World Music Festival in Essaouira
A Kind of "Moroccan Woodstock"
The Gnawa World Music Festival in Essaouira has steadily grown in popularity, especially among the younger generation. Islamist guardians of public virtue are watching with disapproval as Morocco's youth let down their hair and dance. Details from David Siebert

Oriental Grooves on the River Main
Under the name "Eastenders", German DJ Stefan Müller and Turkish-immigrant producer Cem Buldak look towards Asia, the Balkans and above all the orient, to find the right flavour for their global dance-music confections. Stefan Franzen reports

Musical Worlds
The Islamic world and Europe are home to a longstanding independent, modern music scene that transcends belly dance and folk music clichés. In this dossier we present some of its most important figures, styles and encounters.

Related Topics