Farah Kammoun is sitting on top of a table with her computer in her lap. We are at la Maison Internationale (the international house) at La “Cité internationale Universitaire de Paris”, or “La cité U” as many choose to call it. It is a neighborhood in southern Paris that is home to more than 12,000 students of more than 140 different nationalities. Farah is exhausted after working and studying all day, but she still manages to speak in a warm and fast pace, like most girls from the Maghreb region that I know. My French is good, but there are times when I have to ask her to repeat a word or two, because there is so much energy coming out of this woman that it can be hard to follow. She is very Tunisian to say the least.
”It is called Les Dunes Electroniques (The Electronic Dunes)!” she says. “It’s a brand new Tunisian festival! It is going to be awesome! Why are you hiding in Sweden? You should come! Fabrika is playing! And Pachanga Boys! If you don’t show up, you have to promise me that you will be there next year!” She says smilingly in her beautiful Parisian accent.
Farah is a French Tunisian, she is 23 years old. She is a law student at La Sorbonne, and like many other Tunisians of her age, her heart beats at around 120 bpm. Electronic Dance Music is what she listens to, and it is strictly “the finer aspects” of the genre that she is interested in.
”Go to any club in Tunis (the nations capital), it is what you are going to hear. We don’t get the commercial stuff, it is all deep house, tech house, techno. It is the music of my generation”.
As a westerner, I knew very little of the part of the world that we are discussing before I arrived in France. This is where I first befriended immigrants from the Maghreb region (parts of north and northwestern Africa). The first time I went to a Tunisian-organized techno event in Paris, the energy in the room really took me by surprise, and I am not alone to have had that feeling. Yan Degorce-Dumas of Panda-Events (one of two organizations behind Les Dunes Electroniques, the other one being Hi-Life) mentions it as well, as I talk to him about the upcoming festival.
“Tunisia is part of a different cultural sphere, but strangely enough, I have the feeling that the Tunisians know the electronic scene just as well as we Europeans do, if not even better. Not all of them of course, but a lot of them really do. You know, the country is divided… There are two different societies in Tunisia. You have the poor, and then you have the bourgeoisie… The bourgeoisie live in a very modern country, whereas the poor live in a more traditional one. Their realities are completely different from one another. During the last few decades, the country has in many ways been in a quite progressive state of mind. Now, after the revolution the people have been left with the choice of whether to become a traditional muslim country, become a modern progressive country, or to find a middle passage” he says.
There is no denying that it is a country facing great change. Following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the capital of the Sidi Bouzid region back in December 2010, this tiny nation in North Africa brought an unexpected change to the world. A series of increasingly violent street demonstrations through-out early 2011 led to the ousting of longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This was the start of what would come to be known as Arab Spring. A movement that left no country in the middle east untouched and whose effects are still being felt, most notably in countries such as Syria.
“I think that the electronic movement is important, because it welcomes everyone and it is part of something bigger. We have our local scene, but it is a global movement. The political situation in our country is not the best, but it will change in one way or another. I believe that the festival is important because Tunisia is in a situation where it has to choose its own future. You have the conservatives who want to move towards a more traditional way of life. Then you have us, the progressive movements that are trying to move the country in a new direction. We have to change somehow, and I believe that we as progressive Tunisians have to stand up for what we believe in. If we do not, what is going to happen to the next generation? We do not want a country in Ruins like Libya, and we do not want a theocracy like Iran either. If we do not stand up for our values, then who is going to do it? It is all in our hands. If the conservatives take power, a festival like this might not be able to take place in a few years.” Says Mehdi Saïd, an engineering student and an avid EDM fan based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Something that is easily noted when speaking to Tunisians such as Farah, Amine and Mehdi, is that when it comes to EDM, the focus is not on the commercial parts of the genre. I mention it to Yan, and to my surprise he seems to have the answer to why.
“It would be wrong to say that Tunisian EDM fans don’t listen to comercial music, it is more that the Tunisian approach to electronic music is not the same as in mainstream Europe. The commercial music scene in Europe and the states includes lots of EDM, but those artists do not appeal to the general public of this country. There is lots of commercial music here as well, but it is Arabic commercial music and not EDM. EDM is something these people will listen to on the side of the Arabic stuff. The electronic crowd is made up by people who are looking for something outside of the commercial sphere… And well, David Guetta is not really what you are looking for if what you want is an alternative to commercialism. They will go to Laurent Garnier, Ricardo Villalobos or someone like that. ”
The festival is the brainchild of French-Tunisian entrepreneur Ali Patrick Elouarg, owner the Hi-Life hotel group. After opening a Hotel in Nefta, in southern Tunisia, he teamed up with Yan’s employer, French event organizers Panda-events who are known for their various festivals in the French west indies and on the Riviera. Yan tells me about how it all came together.
“We did an event in Nice a few years back when we were approached by Patrick who asked us to arrange something in Nefta together with him. He is a diehard EDM fan and he really wanted to do it. The original idea was to do this three years ago, but as soon as we had everything in place, the revolution broke out. The situation has been so unstable over the last couple of years, and it was not until now that we were able to get everything working. Hopefully it will become an annual event.”
The festival has drawn support from all across the country as it is seen as an important step in rebuilding and replacing parts of the economy that were lost in the revolution. Tunisia before Arab Spring had a big tourism industry. Due to the violence however, a majority of the tourists stopped coming, but the industry is slowly recuperating. The south however, where the festival is taking place, has never been able to take part in the riches that the tourism has brought to the country. The southern regions were never major destinations for tourists, even though many of them have great potential of becoming so. Nefta is hoping to change that. Other than the festival, the region is famous for it’s beautiful desert landscape. It is also the site where George Lucas chose to shoot the desert scenes in the Star Wars movies. Some of the old film sets are still intact, and the hope of the locals is that the combination of Hollywood fame combined with the beautiful landscape and the new electronic movement, might bring the region on its feet.
“In France and in the rest of the western world, we only hear about Tunisia when there is trouble. It is always about demonstrations, Salafists, the Muslim brotherhood etc. One of our goals with this festival is to show that there is so much more to this country than just that. Now, after the revolution the project has gained even more significance. The south of Tunisia is poor, and the situation became even worse after the revolution. We are hoping to strengthen the tourism industry in the area since it has so much to offer. Half of the Artist line-up is Tunisian, and we work together with all the Hotels in the region. We really want to create activity and develop the economy here. It is much needed, and the place has such great potential. Also, since the movement is growing bigger and stronger, it is important that new segments of the population get access to it. Many of the rich in Tunisia have traveled the world, and they know what EDM is, but not all Tunisians have had the chance to do so. An important goal with the festivals is to introduce EDM culture to the parts of the population that has not really had access to it.”
Amine also has his opinions on what the festival means for the country.
“I would say that Les Dunes Electroniques is a great opportunity to show the world the real face of artistic life in Tunisia. It will shed some light on the young talent that we have in this country, may it be DJ’s, Photographers, Designers etc. Everyone has been waiting for an opportunity like this one. An opportunity to show the world what we are capable of. The festival will also show off the south of the country with its paradise-like oasis landscape. It will show that the south can handle an event like this one, and that it has a lot to offer visitors.“
“It is strange that people don’t come here more often, because it is one of the most beautiful and most authentic parts of the country. It is not westernized at all, it is still very Tunisian. With the festival, We want to show the world the real Tunisia. Then of course, the fact that the Star Wars movies were shot on the same location makes it even more attractive. Just think of it, it is more or less a festival on Tatooine!” he says jokingly.
One major reason why the region has not been frequented by many tourists thus far is that the area was red-flagged by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. French and European tourists are basically advised not to go there. Not because it is a violent region, but because it is a border region.
Yan explains in a very calm voice.
“The place is not violent at all, but it is right on the border of Libya and Algeria. Also, Mali is just right across the desert, and the fear of the French politicians is that terrorists could cross the border and cause problems. To combat the potential threats against the event, the mayor of Nefta has made several moves to help out with security questions though. The National Guard is here as well, so I do not think that there will be any problems. The local population is really happy to have an event like this one here, and hopefully it can help in getting the region off the European blacklists.”
The Tunisian scene has had strong connections to the European scene in many ways. Many of the local collectives, such as Amine’s Fabrika, are based in countries other than Tunisia, but the festival is giving them an opportunity to bring the energy and the experience that they have gathered abroad home. Fabrika has been steadily growing in the Parisian underground for the last year and a half. They have gone from small underground events in the basements of their Parisian homes, to printing hundreds of tickets for every party they arrange. Shows have been put up around the French capital, and as of last summer, in Tunisia as well. Now there are even plans of bringing it to Sweden in 2014. He is very excited about how things are developing.
Farah mentions the importance of expatriated Tunisians as well.
“Every one knows of Loco Dice! He is of Tunisian descent, and he is important for the scene as well. It’s not only to attract foreigners. It’s important to bring in international media, but I think it is just as important to make Tunisians that live in the country or abroad come down south as well. There are too many people who will most likely spend their entire lifetime in Tunisia without ever thinking of visiting the region.”
I ask Farah where she sees the Tunisian scene in ten years from now.
“This is the first edition of the festival… And it is the first event of this magnitude that we have. Hopefully it will open up the doors for others. We have beautiful beaches and a nice climate, so I think that there is great potential for the scene to develop. We are warm blooded people as well and we like to party! I’m really excited about this, and I am optimistic. I think it could become our “Burning Man”. And the drug problem is not that big here either, so I think it has the potential of becoming nicer than many western festivals. But we will see about that… We are just in the beginning of something very exciting. Next year, you have to come! There is no excuse for you not to!”
I look at Farah and her warm smile one last time before I go. During my time in France I have not met a single Tunisian in the dance music circles who has not given me a smile like that. I still have no idea of what will happen to their home country, but the people I have met during my time here have convinced me of one thing: No matter what struggle their nation will face in the future, I am sure that the sand dunes of the desert will be dancing while it happens.