FEZ, Morocco—The taxi hurtled through the ancient, labyrinthine streets around Fez’s old city, and we had no idea where to tell the driver to stop.
It was nearly midnight and we were meeting some Moroccan musicians from my traveling companion’s hometown along the Algerian border. They spend every summer lounging in Fez in a rented stucco home in the heart of what once was a Jewish district of the medina.
We heard a shrill whistle come from three shadows perched on a medieval wall—thank goodness our acquaintances had come to guide us through the medina’s maze of more than 9,000 alleys.
Rita, the host’s precocious 9-year-old daughter, took our hands and led us through dark, trash-strewn passageways to her home. Children know the paths best, we were told. The musicians joked that if we ever get lost in Fez, we should just yell, “Rita!” and she’ll come to the rescue.
Even before we reached the house, gnawa songs echoed through the narrow, cobblestone alley. I turn to Wikipedia for a better description of the music than I could come up with: “Gnawas play deeply hypnotic trance music, marked by low-toned, rhythmic sintir melodies, call-and-response singing, hand clapping and cymbals called krakebs.” It’s a fusion of classical Islamic Sufism and pre-Islamic African traditions.
Our hosts were Moroccans from Oujda, not ethnic gnawas. They had learned the songs from gnawa musicians in their hometown and were so hooked on it that the entire family now plays the sintir, or hejhouj, the three-stringed bass lute that is the foundation of gnawa music.
The home was a traditional whitewashed villa that still boasts the original mosaic tiled floors. We all sat in a carved-out nook with plush cushions spread around a low-sitting round table. The family had decorated their summer place with a spray of peacock feathers in a vase and crayon murals Rita had created on the white interior walls. All of her drawings were of the hejhouj.
The father is Rashid, a gnawa devotee who was wearing a denim shirt and baggy yellow pants emblazoned with maps of Africa. Naeema, his beautiful wife, sang along to the music as she shuttled to and from the kitchen with silver trays of mint tea. Hamid, their spiky-haired son in a Muhammad Ali boxing T-shirt, was on summer vacation from a French university where he’s majoring in finance. And Rita is their prodigy, a little singer/dancer/actress who shares her father’s passion for gnawa music.
The only other guest was Bouzidi, a tall, good-natured man who spent the night either playing various musical instruments or taking hits from a long, thin hashish pipe. He washed down potent arak, an anise-flavored alcoholic drink. Rashid said he was once so drunk on arak that he had the sudden urge to ride through the streets on a donkey.
“I went to the donkey and told him, `You’re going to carry me,’” Rashid said. “We went on the ride and I was still drunk. I told the donkey thank you, and he kicked me.”
Naeema set out ceramic dishes of dates, pistachios and peanuts, and the family settled in for a jam session. Rashid tuned his hejhouj and began to play. Bouzidi picked up a tambourine-style instrument called bendir. Rita clicked plastic cassette tapes together for percussion. Naeema sang from a cushion in the corner. Hamid, the college student, filmed the scene on his cell phone.
Some of the songs were classics, while others were improvised. For example, a central figure in gnawa music is the poor, hapless Bambara. The proverbial Bambara never gets ahead and is always broke. Nevertheless, he has a great sense of humor, is deeply spiritual and is a gifted storyteller.
Rashid told his daughter to think up funny verses to sing about Bambara. He plucked the hejhouj while Rita riffed that lords and ladies drink mint tea, but poor Bambara gets only coffee. Lords and ladies get apples, but poor Bambara eats only cactus fruit. Lords and ladies drive cars, while poor Bambara gets by with a bicycle.
The chorus of the song goes, “This is the fate of Bambara. This is the fate of the poor man.”
The music was indeed entrancing; two hours had passed before we realized how late it had gotten. We left the family’s home after 2 in the morning. We could still hear their music as we walked back through the alleys leading out of the medina.
Hannah Allam covers the Middle East as a correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.