A Walk Through the Medina

A narrow passage in the Medina. (All photos by Derek Beres)

It's fascinating to think that a culture that produces such deep and soulful bass music could also contact its spirits via the shrieking, grating sounds of this flute, yet such is the nature of Moroccan music.

See also Pathways to Creation: Exploring Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco

While it did not surprise me to hear Hassan Hakmoun blasting from giant stereo cabinets suspended from metal chains inside Fes' medina -- the largest non-automobile city on the planet -- I was a little more taken aback to hear Souad Massi. Not that it should be odd; Algeria is a stone's throw from Morocco. It's just that inside a city playing such upbeat music -- plenty of Gnawa and Arabic tunes, as well as the occasional hip-hop and even Nine Inch Nails -- the sensual strains of "Raoui [The Storyteller]" was a nice break, especially blasting from the rooftop café near Bab Bajloud where I sat many a night drinking mint tea and soaking up bread in the broth from the couscous.

While covering the Sacred World Music Festival for PopMatters (much more detailed coverage will be posted soon), I was expecting to be greeted by a musical culture. It is true; there were plenty of stores blaring various sounds, and my petit cab drivers played music that ranged from recitations of the Qu'ran and horrible Arab electronica to Pink Floyd and some form of disco that shouldn't have been created in the first place. I found it odd that a number of them asked if I wanted to hear American music -- that was the last thing I wanted to hear in a country as sonically rich as Morocco. Cross-cultural fascination works in both directions, however.

So while my assignment was to cover performances at festival venues, my real fascination was with uncovering local music that I couldn't find anywhere near New York City. This task was accomplished, for the most part, although it proved more of a challenge than I expected. Being that I speak little French and no Arabic, communication was a problem. Fortunately, I found a great little record store just inside the medina that did not care if the plastic wrappers stayed on the CDs. They gladly unwrapped any album, playing it inside that bass-heavy cabinet that I smacked the back of my head into (twice) during my time there.

Bass is something Morocco has always gotten right. The many-named bass lute -- known as the sintir, guembri, or hejhouj -- is the heartbeat of its indigenous music. Outside the lilting strings of Arabian orchestras that dominate its pop music, this is a culture dependant on the low-end. The ritual nature of Gnawa music, which leads dancers into trance, is built upon a flurry of percussion, chants, and bass. The other prominent instrument in folk music, known thanks to the ethno-musicological work of Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles (and later Brian Jones), is the double reed rhaita. It is fascinating to think that a culture that produces such deep and soulful bass music could also contact its spirits via the shrieking, grating sounds of this flute, yet such is the nature of Moroccan music and, as I would find out numerously during my nine days in Fes, the culture itself.

While the American recording industry continues its uncertain evolution, gingerly and tentatively putting out feelers of how to stay in business, this was of no concern in the medina. Even the "legitimate" record stores (compared to the cart-pushers set up streetside with crappy boomboxes) sold bootlegs. My first purchase -- two albums that I cannot properly review because all the script is in Arabic and the CDs are burned versions -- cost me 70 dirhams ($9). The pusher asked for 40 dirhams apiece, a bargain considering one was an mp3 CD-R with 35 Gnawa tracks on it. Still, I had to haggle, since you can never purchase anything in Fes without doing so. It was only after walking 20 feet down the road to an actual store that I found out burned CDs cost 20 dirhams ($2.59), and realized I had been had.

Then again, being had is relative in a black market economy. In my mind, everyone made out in some manner, especially considering the eight albums I picked up inside that store cost me 160 dirhams ($20.72). I had known of only one: Gnawa Diffusion's Souk System, a popular reggae/electronica/Gnawa outfit from Algeria. I've had a number of their tracks from various compilations. Like this album, their songs are a mixed bag. Their electronica and hip-hop tend to be a little popish for my taste, but their traditional Gnawa sounds are impeccable, and they usually blend reggae with an astute touch of class. After sampling four of their records, Souk System appealed to me most, and after taking it home and listening to it numerously, the decision was a good one.

A group of children play in the Mellah, the old Jewish quarters of Fes' medina.

The shopkeeper tried to pimp Orchestra National de Barbes, an Algerian/Moroccan rock fusion project, but I'd had the record for years. I was excited when he pulled out Akrab, who he told me was half the members of Barbes after they broke up. I didn't need to listen; I put it into my pile right away. Yet when I got home, it didn't impress me nearly as much as the first -- it was over-the-top pop, with shiny saxophones and expectable guitar lines. When they perform traditional Gnawa music, though, they're as good as ever. I've found most Gnawa "fusion" lacking. Even with someone like Hassan Hakmoun, whose rock-based interpretations I quite enjoy, there is simply nothing like the traditional craft they were born into.

Another disappointment was L'Oud Marocain, a recording of oud playing. The first two songs were more acoustic; that's what I heard in the store. Upon returning home I winced to the rest of the album, whose artist felt it was a good idea to play this beautiful lyre over beats that sound preprogrammed on a Casio keyboard. When the calypso oud kicked in, I shut it off, and have not put it into my iMac again.

Much more impressive is Ahmed Nasr's Kanoon Bazaar #2, which is listed on the jacket as #1. The only reason I know it is by Nasr (as the rest of the cover is in Arabic) is because the songs are registered on iTunes. After seeing a wonderful performance by Lebanese singer Ghada Shbéïr and her qanan player at Batha Museum, I was inspired to find more music from that instrument. Nasr plays the edge of dangerous territory here being accompanied by a piano, a surefire recipe for New Age disaster. Yet he pulls it off, in a manner similar to Cuban pianist Omar Sosa performing alongside Nass Marrakech on Bouderbala: meditative, explorative, and beautiful.

I had to buy Mahmmoud Guinia's four-track Gnawa album due to the cover alone: he sits cross-legged holding his sintir, dressed in a vibrant pink and brown striped shirt with yellow squares and light orange corduroy pants, with a deep orange background decorated with yellow and blue Arabic script. The expression on his face makes him look like he's playing Frank Sinatra covers, but the album turned out to be very good, despite its horrible recording quality. On the back is an ad for six more albums (including another by Guinia with the same photo cropped into an absurdly bright green backdrop), four of which are by H.M. Damciri that look so insanely painful that I know the music has to be amazing.

Finally, we get to Nass El Ghiwane, perhaps the most well known Gnawa band on the planet. Formed in the late '60s in Casablanca, this outfit injected a political and social cause behind its Gnawa tradition, and has time and again been an empowering voice of the people of Morocco. Unfortunately I left Fes the day before the group performed, later told that I missed the best show of the entire festival. I made a good purchase in Essamta, but only upon returning and trading that album for a copy of Transe Music du Maroc did I really get hit with the full force of this band.

Despite poor recording qualities, there's something warm and bright about the music of the medina. While there have been great efforts to digitize Moroccan music -- Bill Laswell's bass playing and production on Maghrebika's Neftakhir and Cheb I Sabbah's La Kahena come to mind -- sometimes the muddle is part of the charm, like the analog sounds from Lee Perry's Black Ark in 1960s Jamaica. Just as you cannot simply lay social and political systems into foreign territories, the music of Morocco mimics the sounds of the street: the 15-year-old boys I kept encountering with sintir and krakebs, playing their hearts out like it's the only thing in the world that matters. To them, as many others, perhaps it is.

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