From the ancient folk pieces of the Berber mountain communities, to the Arab-Andalusian music of the cities, to the roots-fusion that you’ll hear blaring from taxi radios and café ghetto blasters, music is the ultimate expression of Morocco’s culture.
The Berber are the first known inhabitants of Africa’s north-western corner. Over centuries they
Monopolized the Saharan trade in salt, gold and slaves and spread their culture throughout the region. There are three main categories of Berber music; village, ritual and professional music.
In a typical scene of village music-making, an entire community may gather in the open air to sing and dance in a large ring around an ensemble of drum (bendir) and flute (nay).
The best-known dances are the Ahouache and the Ahidus. Over the past twenty years several masters of bumzdi and Ahouache have become very well known nationwide.
Berber ritual music often features drums and rhythmic hand clapping. It is used in the rites of the agricultural calendar – such as moussems – as well as on occasions such as marriage. Ritual music is also performed to help deal with evil spirits.
In the Atlas Mountains professions troupes of musicians, called imdyazn, travel during summer and perform in village squares and at weekly souks. A leader improvises poems telling of current affairs. Drum and clarinet accompany the singer. The clarinetist also acts as the ensembles’ clown.
Morocco’s Arab-Andalusian classical tradition evolved 1000 years ago in Moorish Spain and can be heard, with variations, throughout North Africa. Its invention is credited to Ziryab, whose greatest innovation was the classical suite nuba, which forms the basis of al-ala (Andalous music). Although somewhat elite, Andalou music is still very much alive and is regularly performed on national TV.
Melhoun is a semi-classical sung poetry associated with artisans and traders. It makes use of the same modes as al-ala orchestras, but is more lively and danceable. A Melhoun suite consists of two parts:a-metrical Taqusim played on oud or violin, which introduces the mode, and the Qassida, sung poems with words of folk or mystical poetry, or nonsense lines. The Qassida has three parts: al aqsam (verses that are sung solo), al-harba (chorus refrains) and al-drîdka (a chorus of accelerating tempo). The melhoun orchestra generally consists of oud, kamenjah, swisen (a small, high-pitched folk lute), the Hadjouj (a bass swisen), taarija, darbuka and Handwa (small brass cymbals), plus a number of singers.
Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam. The Sufi brotherhoods or tarikas, use the hadra – a private ritual of music and dance – as a means of getting closer to Allah. Sufi music can also be heard at moussem (festivals devoted to the memory of a holy man), and some brotherhoods play for alms in households that want to gain favor with their patron saint.
The Gnawa are descendants of slaves brought across the Sahara by the Arabs, who claim spiritual descent from Sidi Bilal, the first muezzin. Their musical rites (lilas), in which a leader plays the gimbri/sentir (long-necked lute) and sings, accompanied by Garagb (metal castanets), last all night and are performed for the purpose of spiritual and physical healing. The music, which has sub-Saharan origins, is remarkably adaptable, having been blended with jazz, rock, funk, hip-hop and drum & bass
Chaabi and Fusion
The oldest form of chaabi is Al’aita, the music of rural communities on the Atlantic coast. It is performed during private and public celebrations and is usually sung in Darija (Moroccan colloquial Arabic), telling of love, loss, lust and daily life.
Alaita has two parts. The Lafrash is a slow instrumental prelude (usually on violin) followed by several verses sung in free time. Then comes the Lahsab, a syncopated dance that lasts as long as the audience desires. Traditionally it uses a male or female lead singer, violin, some percussion and backing vocals, but today a “synthetic” version is popular, that adds keyboards, electric guitars and drum machines to the mix.