By DAVID FUCHS
MARRAKECH, Morocco — On a spring afternoon at the Four Seasons Resort, the ballroom is packed wall-to-wall with wedding industry professionals attending an invitation-only trade show. A group of women circulates amongst the booths, belting Moroccan weddings songs. Veil-like like drapery hangs from the ceiling, covering the view of the courtyard where M’hamed el Menjra is arranging the final details of the night’s musical performance.
El Menjra is busy: in the span of five minutes, he chats with the band in French, coordinates with the stagehands in Arabic and offers a journalist a statement in flawless English. He conducts himself with the casual ease of a jazz musician and the professional touch of an American businessman—a demeanor he developed during a past life overseas.
Five years ago, the guitarist from Casablanca was living in Los Angeles where—after earning a degree in music industry studies from the University of Colorado and working as a jazz musician in Denver—he had been offered a position with a big entertainment company. Before he could accept, the United States reached its annual allotment of work visas for Moroccan citizens, forcing the then-26-year-old to return home and start over. Now 31, el Menjra is the founder and general director of Maroc Live, a live entertainment company, and Coda, the company’s affiliated music school in Casablanca.
In part, el Menjra said he owes the success of his business to lessons he learned while living in the United States. “What I learned mostly in the U.S. was how to handle my business and how to handle myself—more so than the university education I got, so to speak,” he said.
The entertainment company and music school operate out of the same building in Casablanca, which contains live performance spaces, a recording studio, practice rooms and lounges where musicians can mingle and relax. One of the benefits of the shared facility is that it creates opportunities for professional musicians and students to overlap, said el Menjra’s younger brother Boubker, who runs the logistical side of the company.
“If you come to Coda in March or April before the festival season in May and June, you’ll see a lot of confirmed musicians coming to practice,” he said. “Having the kids see their idols—that’s what we live for at Coda.”
The company started with a stroke of serendipity, el Menjra said. Six months after returning to Morocco, he received a call from somebody looking for help with artistic direction for an upcoming event.
“They had artists coming from all corners of the world and they wanted somebody who could serve as the link between them all,” he said. “So I served as that link.”
As a musician who speaks English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Italian, el Menjra was a natural fit for the job. He started his live entertainment company only a few weeks later—and the calls, he said, just kept coming.
Now, his company books events all over Morocco and his school has over 120 students.
El Menjra said one of his next goals is making music education more accessible to young people in Morocco. Public music education is currently nonexistent in the country and, according to el Menjra, that’s a big missed opportunity.
With its geographic position at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and the Middle East, he sees Morocco as a country with rich potential for the next generation of musicians. This richness is already reflected in other aspects of the culture, he said.
“Moroccans speak a lot of languages, cook with a lot of spices and can live in all kinds of climates,” he said. “It’s a very particular population with a lot of potentiality.”
But, for the moment, the high cost of private music education is a challenge for many Moroccans.
According to The Economist, the average minimum salary in Morocco is only $250 per month. Coda’s monthly tuition is $100, which, as el Menjra acknowledges, makes the school prohibitively expensive for most Moroccan families.
That’s why, in the future, he said he hopes to work with the government to make his school accessible to all Moroccans, no matter their background. “To be able to teach music to kids with less money, with different upbringings that have less means, but have just as much interest to learn music, if not more—that’s my main goal.”