Only a few minutes into his set, Shadi Khries suddenly has to fade out his track. The Jordanian DJ and organiser of the first Wadi Rum Electro Festival (WRE) is in distress over flashing blue and red lights that just appeared on the other side of the desert valley. “We have the official authorisation to organise this festival, but I knew there would be trouble,” Shadi says, as his eyes fixate on the lights approaching in the dark.
15 minutes later, a police car pulls up with wailing sirens at the festival site, a Bedouin camp inside Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert. 50 Bedouin men then rush to the police car to show the officers who is in charge. All of them grab each other by the hand and start chanting and dancing the “dahiya” – a traditional Bedouin dance – until the sirens disappear again in the depths of the valley. Then the turntables are turned back on and both the Bedouins and the festival crowd revive the dance floor.
Jordan, a conservative country that borders war-torn Syria, is not your typical festival destination. Nevertheless, 200 techno lovers from around the world flocked to the Wadi Rum desert, a UNESCO protected area, on the last weekend of March to set up tent amidst the mystic red sandstone mountains.
By turning Wadi Rum’s stunning scenery into a stage, DJ and percussionist Shadi Khries was able to convince all of his major collaborators – which includes the Parisian duo Acid Arab, the German techno collective Station Endlos and Cornelius Doctor & Tushen Raï, a duo from Lyon – to join this untypical adventure. After all, they all share a deep appreciation for Middle Eastern music and a curiosity for fusing it with techno beats in ways beyond simply walloping samples over a beat.
“It’s an incredible experience to see Bedouins in their traditional gowns lose it to our remix of a track that we discovered a few years ago in Jordan,” says Acid Arab’s Guido Minisky and Hervé Carvalho. “This encourages us to play songs the audience may know in part, while still making people discover something new.”
Local young Jordanian Fayez al Hwety, for example, tells Huck that the festival is his first exposure to techno music – but he intends to dance to it all night. “Bedouin-style”, he adds with a smile.
For many artists and attendees from abroad, the informal lineup also adds much to the two-day festival’s allure. Bedouins in Wadi Rum, who are all part of the Zalabia tribe, are known for their mastery of centuries-old Arabic instruments, such as the Oud, Rebaba and Darbukka. However, the only occasions to witness Bedouins perform their music traditions are usually Bedouin weddings.
Shadi’s friendship with the Bedouin community of Wadi Rum goes back 15 years, to when Shadi started going to the desert to discover, record and sample their music traditions. For Shadi, now an established DJ in Paris’ nightlife scene in part thanks to those unique samples of traditional Bedouin music, the festival is a way to give back to the Bedouin community. Because of their intimate friendship, a number of Bedouins agreed to take the stage to perform their music tradition, although no one is getting married.
Bedouins in Wadi Rum are used to foreigners. One might say they have become experts in hosting tourists and showing them the desert through climbing, Jeep and camel tours. However, WRE festival is a welcome change from the norm – allowing Bedouins to share their unique, centuries-old music traditions and mingle with electronic music lovers from abroad. “It’s about sharing cultures both ways”, adds Shadi.
THE SAHARA FESTIVAL
From camel racing to falconry, the annual International Festival of the Sahara is a four-day desert extravaganza celebrating Tunisian heritage and culture.
Each year, thousands flock to the desert oasis of Douz, Tunisia to celebrate northern African Berber traditions at a four-day festival. When stumbling across videos of the festival on YouTube, British photographer Sophie Jane Stafford was instantly intrigued. “I was drawn to it because it was depicted as the biggest celebration in the Sahara of desert culture,” Stafford says.
Starting out as a camel festival in 1910, the event eventually evolved into the International Festival of the Sahara and has become an important part of Tunisian heritage, celebrating nomadic traditions. Across the four days, horse and camel racing, falconry, dancing and parades all take place in the H’naiech stadium, encircled by Bedouin tents.
Arriving at the festival, Stafford says the atmosphere was completely different to how she imagined. “Not in a bad way,” she says. “Just a more a youthful, chaotic side dominated the festival rather than what was depicted on articles and tourism websites.”
“The clear mix of old and the new make the festival something quite special to encounter,” elaborates Stafford, who was keen to document this contemporary aspect of Tunisia. “The young local youth who make it their own by showcasing their skills and making new traditions. Fearless, unpredictable amateur driving shows bringing in the crowd.”
Stafford spent five days altogether in Douz during the festival and New Year, managing to get by with bits of French and help from people she met along the way. While the atmosphere was generally family-friendly earlier on in the day, Stafford says the mood changed as the day wore on.
“One of the problems was that it was very busy with hundreds of people at the festival,” she says. “The crowd was packed into the grandstands, and at times this was claustrophobic and hard to move, let alone take any photographs.”
Stafford adds that it was actually the aftermath that was one of the more interesting parts of the festival, as “the crowd became their own entertainment and carried on the festival after the main event ended.”
One shot captured on the last day of the festival shows a row of local kids doused in sunlight, dressed in costumes. “The kids had all taken part in the final show,” says Stafford. “At this point, they were all lined up to hand back their costumes and get paid for their time. This is only a small selection of the line that was a good hundred kids waiting to get paid.”