Improvisational and Imaginative Soundscapes of Rural Morocco

Paul Bowles' attempts to describe what he encountered and became involved with during more than fifty years that he spent in Morocco cannot begin to convey the experience of liminal attitudes and spaces, or soundscapes. Yet, prominent in his writing are descriptions of collective ecstatic experience by which Bowles is both bewildered and at sometimes a part of:

There they were, several thousand people near Bab Mahrouk , stamping, heaving, shuddering, gyrating, and chanting, all of them aware only of the overpowering need to achieve ecstasy. They stayed there all day and night; I could hear the drums from my room, and during the night they grew louder. (Bowles, Without Stopping)

Bowles’ description of such a collective ritual resonates with my own experiences of  music of the Sufi brotherhoods, particularly the Gnaoua, and the spaces this music inhabits in Morocco. Gnaoua is a hypnotic, trance-like drum and song-based music, which is commonly associated with the ability to cure psychological illness. When gnaoua musicians play, those surrounding the musicians, often enter a state of frenzy and encircle the musician in their dance, which can be attributed with dramatic rolling of the head and convulsions of the full body.

Gnaoua has origins from Subsaharan Africa but now is heavily practiced throughout Morocco. Unique to the north, however, is the music of the ghaita - trance music led by a strong pipe instrument. One such group of Sufi trance musicians in a village in the rif mountains by the name of Zahjouka that caught the attention of many foreigners, through the connections made between Mohammed Hamri of Zahjouka and Brion Gysin, then living in Tangiers. Perhaps the most enchanting characteristic of the music that came out of Zahjouka was its spontaneity – only existing in the moment of its conception and its mystical inclusive, drone-like nature. The village’s music cannot trace its roots to any select individuals, but rather the atmosphere at large. Mohamed Hamri’s The Tales of Joujouka portrays a village that comes to life through the music created by all of its residents. Lacking a structure, the differing rhythms and melodies merge and harmonize to dissolve any self-conscious emergence of the ego. “The Legend of Boujaloud” tells of Zahjouka’s confrontation with a mystical creature that could have posed harmful to a villager because of a broken promise. The entire village shares a common consciousness, illustrated through their adoration for playing music and dancing together each evening.

The Hamatcha brotherhood, less festivalized than the Gnaoua, originate from the towns surrounding Meknes (the holy cities of Sidi Ali and Moulay Idriss Zerhoun) in the North of Morocco, but regularly hold lilas and festivals all throughout the north, particularly around Tangiers, Asilah, Larache, and Meknes. The Hamatcha seldom play music in the form of a concert, though individual musicians may be hired to perform in weddings. Yet, when the brotherhood comes together to create music it is music that lasts a long time (from one night to several days in the case of moussems in the country side). As with the Gnaoua, Hamatcha lilas are instances of healing from bad djinn and/or abandoning fear in order to experience the divine.

The music that came out of such a shared experience was then not about individual pride or ego, but instead experiencing the moment of becoming with others, nature, drones. Ornette Coleman, who later played and recorded with the Musicians of Jajouka, describes these sounds as “a human music." (John Litweiler, Ornette Coleman, The Harmolodic Life, 136).

            The aesthetic and spiritual practices of the Sufi brotherhoods embody a raw form of human freedom – one based on the body, the poetics of sound, and a conception of the world of human relations that is rooted in Sufi conceptions of love and fana.  This parralels the all night music ritual (lila), which consists of an improvised, open-ended trance inducing rhythms using drums, lutes, and iron instruments and ecstatic circular dance (jedba) and constitutes a certain politics of being that instigates an aesthetic freedom brought on by these people’s own sense of faith and perception of themselves and the social order. What struck me most during my past encounters in Morocco was the widespread affirmation of total improvisation as a way of life – an attitude shared by the musicians, vendors, men, women, elders, and young people that I became close with. Such an atmosphere embraces the magic of each moment, revering coincidence, improvisation, and error as natural and perfect happenings that flow from and with each moment.

What transformations are taking place in these very forms of life as this sufi music itself becomes translated and mediated through alienating technologies, and ritualistic spaces of the lila are gradually converted into “rationalized” urban spaces of the musical concert? What form of democracy, or more radically – freedom – is sought in recent uprisings in Morocco that parallel the movements in Tunisia and Egypt? Does this freedom take the form of reasserting pre-colonial forms of life as embodied through the rituals of the Gnawa as maintained in rural areas, or does it assert an entirely new “imaginative geography of liberation” [a term coined by Hamid Dabashi]? In the case of the latter, what are the circumstances of this new geography and its aesthetic expressions that inform a new politics of being in postcolonial Morocco?

 

**Disclaimer as of December 2011:: My postings and writings related to music from the village of Zahjouka (how the Moroccan postal system spells it), though also referred to as Joujouka and Jajouka by different groups, serve to contextualize the global interest in this form of ritual and music practiced in the North of Morocco. Yet, the contemporary activity of musical groups from Zahjouka are not central to my field research in Morocco. I apologize to all parties confused by my postings of ritual taking place in Zahjouka led by the Master Musicians of Joujouka. This relates to my work only in so far as it is an instance of improvised sacred music in Morocco's rural context, but is not the space of the lila ritual as initiated by the Sufi brotherhoods (Hamatcha, Jilala, Gnaoua, Derkaoua) which is central to my work.  

Location

Morocco
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | July 24th, 2013
    Omar is the only remaining lira player in his village. The town is very endeared to him and finds ways to support him - he currently works part time as a janitor at the elementary school. Each afternoon, Omar returns to his favorite spot on the edge...
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | December 31st, 2011
    As Meloud approaches this year at the beginning of February, enjoy this footage from the private collection of the Hamatcha Muqaddim Mohammed filmed outside of Meknes (en route to Sidi Ali and eventually Moulday Idriss Zerhoun) in 2004
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | December 9th, 2011
  • natasha pradhan | December 9th, 2011
    Recorded at the Mausoleum of Cheikh-el-Kamel on December 5, 2011 in Meknes
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | November 13th, 2011
    a Hamatcha Lila in my home on October 31, 2011   Tangiers
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | November 6th, 2011
    a gathering at my home in the Socco Chico with members of the Hamatcha Sufi brotherhood blowing their ghaitas until dawn   on October 31, 2011, Tangiers
  • aissoua trance
    natasha pradhan | October 11th, 2011
    the Aissoua Lila on Thursday night in the home of the Muqaddim in the medina recorded in Tangiers, Morocco 2011     An excerpt from Paul Bowles' notes on a similar experience in 1959: “When music lacks development of any kind it is...
  • hamatcha woman holding knife
    natasha pradhan | September 22nd, 2011
    Captivating sounds of the rhaitas and bendirs of the Hamatcha played all night long under little tents as women and men physically dissolved into this music - -
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | September 22nd, 2011
    At the Moussem of Sidi M'hajj, September, 2011 in Morocco Hamatcha music and women in gheibooba parts of the footage are cut for some of these images are not to be publicly released/understood out of context. please don't hesitate to write if you...
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | September 20th, 2011
    the beginnings of a moussem that lasted throughout the night at Sidi M'hajj, near Souk el Arbaa in Morocco September 17, 2011
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | September 4th, 2011
    The initiation of the Gnaoua Lila at my neighbors' in the Petit Socco (Souk Al-Dhakl) of Tangiers   July, 2011
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | September 4th, 2011
    The sounds of the Aissoua brotherhood's Lila (night) tucked away in the home of the Muqaddim {visuals not of Lila} in Tangiers, July 2011
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | August 1st, 2011
    It turns out that I am next-door neighbors with the house of the Gnawa. Here, the more performative element (and only part possible to photograph) as the Gnawas inaugurate the Lila (a collective trance that lasts far beyond sunrise).   shot in...
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | July 29th, 2011
    Amazigh [Berber in the Tamazight tongue] means free man or noble man, as opposed to Berber which traces to Latin barbaria//land of the barbarians   at the Tifawine festival for Amazigh Sounds in Tafraoute in the Moroccan Anti-Atlas, July 2011
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | July 29th, 2011
    Gnawa music performed on stage at the Tifawine festival that celebrates Amazigh musical traditions, held in the desert in Tafraoute, Morocco in July 2011
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | July 20th, 2011
    took a trip out to see Dia in her hometown of Ramallah in the West Bank - the landscapes and vegetation are quite reminiscent of the Rif in Morocco
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | July 7th, 2011
  • Watch this video
    natasha pradhan | June 30th, 2011