Few ethnomusicological studies are as broad in scope and bold in execution as this one. Conducted in 1959 by American expatriate novelist and composer Paul Bowles; the aim is no smaller than a cultural summation of the entire country of Morocco. Bowles noted shortly after decamping to the then colonial expat haven of Tangier (home to Bowles’ contemporary and friends, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg) that: ‘The most important single element in Morocco’s folk culture is its music. In a land where almost total illiteracy has been the rule, the production of written literature is practically negligible, but the Moroccans have a magnificent and highly evolved sense of rhythm which manifests itself in the twin arts of music and dance.’ Also increasingly aware that many of the distinct and separate cultures of Morocco were threatened in their untapped uniqueness by the technological advances of modernity; Bowles took it up on himself to preserve for posterity these cultures on a self-imposed mission with the backing of the American Library of Congress. When it came down to the question of what it was that ought to be preserved in order to protect the Arab, Berber, Jewish and Andalucian cultures that existed in the country; there was no doubt that it had to be music.
The logistics of Bowles’ trip were nightmarish – much of the country did not have electricity, requiring musicians to come to Bowles’ in some parts of the country, his wife was forced to remain in Tangier owing to her fragile health and the Moroccan government kept a perennially watchful eye on proceedings, mandating precisely what and where Bowles could record. One anecdote tells that Bowles found out from his wife; well into his recording forays from Tangier to other parts of the country; that he had in fact been sent a letter saying he was in fact not permitted to record, however as was his want, ‘Bowles reasoned that since he had not seen the letter himself, he could plead ignorance of this restriction, and so he decided to continue to record’. Using a borrowed Volkswagen Beetle, Bowles made 4 forays in total around the country, recording at an immensely prolific rate to create a ‘panoramic’ view of Moroccan culture and history.
Morocco as a country served as an interesting snapshot – different regions of the country contained different intertwinings of societies and the differences and fusions of these societies were made manifest in the music. Thus, the Northern coastal regions of the country tended to, by and large, carry more of the placidity of the Arab influence which had arrived after the Arabic invasion of the region in the 16th century and as a result of its intrinsic Islamic religiosity had ‘the property of inducing a state of philosophical speculativeness’. In contrast, the more isolated, older Berber cultures of the south and the Atlas mountains maintained a more energetic, aggressive use of drums in the music. However, both styles are undoubtedly hypnotic; so much so that Bowles debated calling the first LP release of this music Trance Music. The melodic circularity of the music; the reliance on modes rather than chord progressions (as was first seen in Western music truly in Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue); disavows any notion of that ‘worst of all… a predictable end’ that Bowles so despised in Western music.
However, The Berber and Arab cultures have not historically enjoyed an entirely peaceful relationship. Though the Moroccan government has lately taken active measures to promote Berber culture and language, in the past they were a marginalized group of society consigned to economic insignificance, abuse and even a state of borderline persecution. To this day the topic of the Berber/Arab divide is so controversial that when a group of Moroccan Arabs came to my friends and I asking our opinion; we were told by our guide to stay silent. However, even though this divide is often recognized as the principal cultural schism of Morocco, there exists – or existed – yet more cultures within this incredibly historically rich country.
Most notably, also contained within this collection are recordings of the old Moroccan Jewish music and of the Andalucian. Nowadays, one is more likely to be familiar with the Moroccan Jewish culture through either cuisine (such as shakshouka) or through the Moorish designs of many synagogues, most notably Park Avenue Synagogue, New York. However, until the 1950s and 1960s (when 200,000 of the 265,000 Jews of the country left, mostly for Israel), this subsection of the Moroccan culture was still highly visible and active. This Sephardic Jewish music was entirely vocal, as instruments were banned in the synagogue in which the two tracks were performed and recorded. Therefore each singer sung in a very different style as many aimed to mimic the instruments which were absent. In this reviewer’s opinion, these two recordings are amongst the most unique and objectively beautiful of the entire collection, the voices containing a clarity and a smoothness to the timbre lacked elsewhere, while the acoustics of the recording greatly facilitate the range of vocal styles used in it. These are tracks that linger in the memory because of their haunting beauty.
Elsewhere, Bowles himself registered his considerable surprise at being able to find the Andalucian music in the form that he found it, ‘The Andaluz repertory—a consciously preserved genre, the unvarying rules of its esthetic long since established—is the last living folk memory of the seven-century Moroccan occupation of Andalusia. It is extraordinary that medieval Iberian music, as it was heard and transformed by Arab musicians of the era, should have survived into the 20th century.’ The genre is intensely repetitive; using strictly circular rhythms and melodic lines. The recordings found here, however, were performed by the wealthy, aristocratic but crucially progressive Ouezzane family. This was a family wherein, much to Bowles’ conservative chagrin, many of them were aware of how to play Western solfeggietto. For Bowles, this represented much of what was going wrong with the advance of modernity, and provided an example of why he needed to act to preserve these musical forms as soon as possible – soon, he perceived, music such as the Andalucian Moroccan strain would become defunct at worst, or diluted at best, by Western (or yet more pernicious, in Bowles’ view, Egyptian) influences. This influence can be heard in the second of the two Andalucian tracks recorded by Bowles, where not only can the traditional instruments of the genre be heard, but also the piano and other Western instruments.
This particular track represents to the modern listener a culture that was on the cusp of change. In 1959, Bowles was lucky enough to be there among a culturally rich expat elite in the colonial hub of Tangier, while also being able to record ancient forms of folk music which can be seen to define the history of Morocco before those forms became excessively corrupted by outside influence. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the contrast between the Zagora as seen, imagined and recorded in the ‘Third Sqel’ and the Zagora that can be seen today. This track offers musical backing to what essentially amounted to a choreographed swordfight. Indeed, one can even hear the clanging of the swords in the background and in the instrumental credits Bowles names ‘two swords’. Yet the modern Zagora reflects little of this ancient heritage. Going there now, one only sees the sights and sounds that, on some level, one would expect. It is as if the implicit expectation of tourism has forced the local culture into selling itself short, offering snake charmers and counterfeit saffron where they should offer the sqel and the brotherly, communal, touch-based dancing which would have gone on during track 4, ‘The Second Aqlal’. Maybe I was simply looking in the wrong places, and these kind of artifacts are not artifacts yet; still lingering behind some ornate dusty door. But somehow I feel that Bowles’ suspicions were correct – when you listen to this 4-disc collection, you are not just listening to music. You are listening to a set of cultures which have faded, from living memory, into recorded history.
Dust-to-Digital have just released this awe-inspiring project; included are four CDs in a silkscreened box with 120-page, foil-stamped, leatherette book, featuring extensive liner notes by Philip Schuyler; field notes by Paul Bowles; and an introduction by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo.