This compilation could be subtitled Groups of Men, since everyone on it is a man and almost all the men are in groups, and almost all the music is group-music, reminding itself of its groupishness with regular shared moments of mutual clapping or standout noises. Then there’s a flyaway moment when things get more complicated, perhaps one person sings a few lines of lyrics, and then it’s back to the regular timekeeping reminder of the mass again, a dipping in and out rhythm that accumulates and releases, accumulates and releases, always driving forward but never needing to get anywhere specifically, or stop, unless everybody decides to drop it. And then, you can imagine, things will trickle off, one person will leave, two will go to bed, another one meanders into the street for a coffee, and so the thing decays. Of course this never happens on the Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco, because these are professional musicians making professional songs with clear and professional endings, but the possibility of that natural terminus is always present, whole song crumbling gently apart like a tree.
“Mal Hbibi Malou” by Samy Elmaghribi is more Andalusian than the rest, by which, long story short, means more Spanish, more inclined to give space at the front of the stage to a single man. Even then, he humbly pauses for the violin to issue its stir of noise: remember the others, it says, remember us. Elmaghribi is one of the album’s older musicians, a Morocco-born Jew who moved to Canada in the 1960s and began to specialise in Sephardic music. Speaking of Andalusia, the former lead singer of Radio Tarifa died the other day, which is bad news. Sick, apparently. Long illness. Benjamín Escoriza. Sorry to hear it. Anyway, Elmaghribi, or el Maghribi, was a cantor, and “Mal Hbibi Malou” is one of this Rough Guide’s more traditional and acoustic tracks, on a compilation that spends about half its time on the new and the crossover and the DJ’d, on the “rap traditionnel” of Fnaire’s excellent “Sah Rahaoui”, and on H-Kayne’s “Jil Jdid”, a song about the internet, with the words “facebook” and “email” jumping out of the lyrics in adopted English, and on U-Cef’s “Boolandrix”, “the result,” says a liner note, “of an imagined collaboration between Jimi Hendrix — who spent several months in Morocco in the late 1960s, hanging out and jamming with gnawa musicians — and the contemporary gnawa master or maalem, Said Damir.”
Faux-Hendrix doesn’t get a lot to do on “Boolandrix” except mark off a run of chords at preordained intervals and it was this locked-in, obedient un-Hendrix sound that made me think in the first place, “This music is really about groups.” Gnawa and its offshoots are not the musics you’d go to if you wanted to stun everyone with your majestic go-to-hell freeform solo moments, or that’s the impression this compiler leaves me with. And my limited exposure to other music from north-west Africa — from Mauritania, from the Western Sahara, from the Sahara — makes me wonder if this isn’t a primary characteristic of that region’s desert music, country music, music you make when your tent-living group out in the sand comes together in the evening and wants something to do to amuse itself. The supporting struts of the songs stand out — the handclaps, the regular smiting noises, sampled noise, stormy fuzz — and that bareness, that forceful exposure, has the appeal of a ceiling strut, wooden and naked, striking overhead, strong architecture.