The few thousand people crowded onto the docks in Marseille at the festival Fiesta des Suds are listening to a rock band called General Elektriks and celebrating history. Over the past thirty years, this very festival has helped to change the city they love and been instrumental in Marseille’s regeneration.
In 1992, Marseille was suffering from a disastrous global reputation. It was best known for drugs and its mafia connection — this is after all where Gene Hackman filmed the French Connection in the 1970s. In a few derelict waterside buildings 27 years ago, a small collective of people, passionate about music, held a festival called ‘Fiesta des Suds’. The first two ‘festivals of the south’, thanks to a fortuitous partnership with the Port Authority of Marseille, were held in some dock buildings in a neighbourhood of Marseille called La Joliette — at the time it was a run-down area skirting the dirty water. Now this neighbourhood is part of the largest regeneration project in southern Europe. The festival was a hit and helped people reimagine anew these buildings which had once held imported fruit. Today, La Joliette is where the city welcomes its cruise ships and where people shop in the glamorous designer stores of the upmarket Terrasses du Port.
Over the years the Fiesta des Suds has gone from strength to strength and given new life to other forgotten buildings from a bygone industrial age. Fiesta had a turn in the abandoned tobacco factory which runs alongside Marseille’s largest railway station, St Charles. This was long before the factory became known as ‘Les Friches’, a cutting edge cultural hub, complete with startup offices, locally brewed beer and sunset parties on the roof. In other years, Fiesta was at the Docks des Suds, now a thriving concert venue but in those days a downtrodden collection of waterside buildings. This year, the festival has returned to another of its previous locations; a section of Marseille’s coastline called the J4 Esplanade next to where Marseille’s cultural flagship art gallery/museum called Mucem now lives (the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization opened in 2013). As the second headline act of the night, Girls in Hawaii, take to the stage, the diners worshipping at the top floor of Mucem’s white tablecloth restaurant are just finishing their main course and watching the crowd below. Fiesta des Suds is showing off the results of its hard work and the movement it quietly started.
Since Marseille was named European city of culture in 2013 (which coincided with the opening of Mucem and many other cultural landmarks), the city’s star has risen and risen. The festival director of Fiesta des Suds, Lucie Taurines, likens it to an explosion. Taurines says that Marseille has not just rehabilitated its image through this cultural lens but has also become a true tourist destination, cashing in on its physical and geographical characteristics. Ideal for a three or four-day break, tourists are now arriving for the warmer-than-average European temperatures and its beautifully rocky coastlines (Marseille is home to the Calanques National Park, a series of stunning turquoise rocky coastal inlets). Despite an increase in visitor numbers year on year, Marseille has yet to feel too crowded, overexposed or suffer from a sharp increase in prices.
Fiesta des Suds will play out over a three-night period (as well as a family afternoon to cater for 6 to 12-year-olds who don’t usually have school on Wednesday afternoons in France). Over ten artistic groups will play before 8-12,000 festival goers but it would not have been possible without its partner, the Port of Marseille. Fiesta des Suds has always been supported by public funds, as many festivals were in the early 1990s; France has a history of supporting cultural events through the public purse. The organisation behind the festival remains non-profit but it increasingly touches private sector funding, and counts itself lucky to have one of France’s largest banks, Credit Mutual as a partner.
With its nomadic existence reviving each part of this small city in it wake, Lucie Taurines says that Fiesta des Suds doesn’t compare itself to festivals such as Glastonbury as much as the Rio Carnival. And the crowds seem to reflect such carnival diversity — couples in their sixties and seventies are queuing for tacos while kids take a break from running around, collapsing on deck chairs. It’s this mix of party goers and funding which makes Fiesta des Suds unique and one of the reasons as to why, for the past 15 years, Frances’s biggest radio station France Inter has been transmitting live from the festival — it’s the only festival in France from which it does so. As the band General Elektriks shout out, ‘show me your hands’, hundreds of people lift their hands into the air, tentatively at first and then determinedly. A new city has arrived on the international scene and Marseille wants your attention.