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  • Morocco Cultural Tours-Gnawa Music Essaouira (photo: L. Yussupoff)

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Moroccan music

Morocco’s musical landscape is rich and varied reflecting African sub-Saharan influences, Arabo-Andalucian history, Berber rural traditions, Sufi religious chants, popular music of the Maghreb and folk music from Saharan nomadic tribes.

You can read more about the music below in an unedited article written for Frommer’s Morocco Guidebook and also listen to some audio clips of different regional styles.

Further down the page you will find a list of the main Music Festivals in Morocco.

Morocco - Music and Dance

written by Rachel Blech (director of SheherazadVentures)

Article First published in the 1st Edition of Frommer’s Guide Morocco (2008) © Copyright Material

Just as a country’s history can be revealed through its architecture, from imperial palaces to crumbling kasbahs, so the intricate musical textures of Morocco have stories to tell.

Tumbling quarter-tones and intoxicating rhythms beckon from every corner - be it a taxi’s radio blaring out Arabic pop or chaabi, the snake-charmers’ rasping oboe-like raita, or simply the soulful call of the muezzin from the mosque summoning the faithful to prayer, a reassuring chant which punctuates the day’s chaotic symphony. Morocco is bursting at the seams with musical riches!

Morocco’s indigenous people, the Berbers, provide the cultural firmament that gives the music a unique rustic flavor. For thousands of years the Berbers have populated the coastal plains, desert and mountains and even with the arrival of Arab invaders during the 7 th century, the Berber culture and identity has remained resolute. Berbers not only adopted the Muslim faith, but also incorporated the rich variety of musical influences brought from the Middle East. The Berbers have retained their own regional languages and traditions and there are umpteen village festivals attesting that these traditions are still very much alive. Folk music performs ritualistic, celebratory and social duties as well as providing a vehicle for broadcasting the news to generations of rural dwellers who might never have learned to read or write. In many regions, traveling poets or rwais, bring news of current affairs to the weekly souks. In small ensembles they sing with accompaniment on hand-crafted instruments including double-sided duff tambourines and the one-stringed fiddle or rabab. The context is usually celebratory and as such there is a rich stream of folkloric dance styles accompanying the music. In the High Atlas villagers in local costume will gather around an open-fire for a dance called the ahouach, in the Middle Atlas it’s the ahidous where women will dance shoulder-to-shoulder in a large circle around the seated male musicians who play hand-held frame-drums called bendir and ney flutes. Festivities are often linked to events in the agricultural calendar or religious calendar when the event is called a moussem. These take place throughout the year and across the country, each with a regional style, but probably the most famous is the Imilchil Marriage Festival in the heart of the High Atlas during September where hopeful Berber brides-to-be seek their groom.

If Berber village music represents a pastoral heritage, then the vestiges of Morocco’s foreign military history can be found in its “classical” music, known as andalous. It stems from the Arabic invasion and subsequent Islamic domination of Spain’s Iberian Peninsula from the early 8 th century. For 500 years the Moors ruled the region known as Al Andalus - a melting-pot of Spanish, Berber, Arabic and Jewish influences. The complex structure of andalous music is largely attributed to a composer named Ziryab, who traveled to Cordoba from Baghdad in the 9 th century and created a highly stylized classical system of suites called nuba, each nuba corresponding to a time of day. The music was traditionally performed in courtly settings on state occasions and, though it is still viewed as Morocco’s “high art”, it remains very popular among the general public, with concerts being broadcast every evening on TV during Ramadan. The typical andalous orchestra uses rabab, oud (lute), kamenjah (European-style violin played vertically), kanuun (zither), darbouka (goblet-shaped drum) and taarija (tambourine). When the Arabs were driven back out of Spain during the Inquisitions of the 15 th century, the music was dispersed across Morocco and today the most famous orchestras can be found in Fez, Tetouan, Tangier and Rabat.

Morocco’s position at the northern edge of Africa and at the western extreme of the Arab world gave it a key role in trade with Europe and beyond - spices, salt, gold and slaves were all valuable commodities. From this emerged another distinct type of music and dance - gnawa. The Gnawa people are descendants of slaves originally captured by the Arabs during 17 th century in Guinea, Mali and Sudan and brought across the Sahara for onward trading and to serve the sultans in Morocco. Gnawa music can be recognized by it’s call-and-response blues-like style and its instruments - the bass lute or gimbri, the persistent rhythms of metal castanets or qraqeb and the acrobatic leaps of the vividly robed dancer-musicians who form the troupe. The effect is intentionally hypnotic - tassels swirling from the dancers’ skullcaps and the cyclic groove are all designed to induce a trance-like state in the audience. Gnawa music is not just an entertainment, but it has a deeply rooted spiritual and healing purpose derived from the Sufi tradition of Islam and ancient Sub-Saharan African rituals. The healing ceremonies, or lilas, take place from dusk till dawn and are conducted by a priestess who invokes ancient African spirits, or djinn, and Islamic saints. For many years respectable Moroccans shunned the music, but now it is openly performed and has pride of place at the annual Gnawa Music Festival in Essaouira, which attracts crowds of 400,000 people.

Heading south towards the Sahara desert, the insistent rhythms of the city slow to a more reflective pace in the valleys of Ziz, Drâa and Souss and beyond to the Western Sahara. Like the mountains, the desert also yields a wealth of folkloric music. The Souss valley is the home of the guedra dance of the Saharan nomads or “Blue Men”. The word “guedra” means cooking pot and it is that pot covered with an animal hide that forms the drum. To a hypnotic heartbeat rhythm, a female dancer remains kneeling and carves mesmerizing movements with her arms and fingers while swaying her head from left to right. It’s said that the ritual can attract a mate from miles away. From south of Agadir comes the tissint or “dagger dance”which forms a central part of marriage ceremonies amongst desert nomads. To a crescendo of drums the couple perform a passionate duet in which the groom holds a dagger and circles around the girl. He then raises the dagger and puts it around the neck of the young girl before collapsing to his knees. Further north, where the rivers of Ziz and Rheris meet in Tafilalelt, is another type of desert music called al baldi which draws upon Berber, Arab, African and Andalusian influences in songs about religious and social issues.

Political and social themes find expression in many modern Moroccan music forms and towards the fringes of the long-disputed territory of Western Sahara one is far more likely to hear the yearning voice of Saharoui refugees living in exile in Mauritania than the classical strains of andalous. The music is sparse, poetic and dominated by female singers such as Dimi Mint Abba who play a small stringed harp-lute called an ardin and are often accompanied by a solo electric guitar. Hugely popular also is rai music originating from western Algeria and once rooted in Bedouin music. The word “rai” means “opinion” and Moroccans have produced their own homegrown variety which reflects contemporary and controversial views on social issues.

Morocco has a stunning variety of folk music and colorful dance traditions that can only be touched upon here. There are over 700 festivals every year to visit and each region has it’s own particular flavor. There are ancient songs remaining virtually unaltered, traditions that have evolved into other genres and there are many exciting new fusions emerging due to the ever-present influence of the Western world…jazz, electronica, hip-hop, house and rock. From the stereotypical image of seductive belly-dancers (raks sharqi), to the flamboyant balancing act of candle-tray dancing (raks al senniyya) found in the North, Morocco will never fail to fascinate the curious traveler. But don’t just leave it to the hotels to provide the staged spectacles, get out into the heartlands and witness the living proof!

Music Festivals in Morocco

Essaouira Festival Of Gnawa and World Music

Rabat Mawazine Festival

Fes Festival of World Sacred Music

Agadir Timitar Festival

Fes Festival of Sufi Culture

M’Hamid Taragalte Festival of Desert Culture and Music

Marrakech National Festival of Popular Folk Arts

Tangier Tanjazz Festival

M’Hamid International Nomad Festival

Gnawa Music - Amida Boussou

Typical music of Moroccan Sahraoui nomads

Chaabi Al’Aita Music - Fatna Bent El Houcine

Arabo-Andalusian Malhoun - Mohamed Amenzou

Popular Moroccan Music - Nass El Ghiwane

Rachel’s radio report from Nomads Festival in M’Hamid el Ghizlane 2007