Housed inside a cigar box decorated with arabesque print, Dust-to-Digital’s Music of Morocco offers what is perhaps one of the most definitive experiences of North African music yet recorded. This is the North Africa of novelist Paul Bowles, and the music of these four discs strangely captures a very close and intimate feeling of traditional Moroccan sounds while engaging in the music at an observational remove. Recorded by the writer between the summer and winter of 1959 in Morocco, what can be heard on this release are the clandestine sounds of a culture completely in tune with nature. Music of Morocco is the sound of the many diverse ethnic and regional styles of Moroccan music, and it is a fully rounded overview of what this part of North Africa has to offer. Here, there is a wealth of stories to be told by hand in the rough and raw drumming of the bendirs and tabls (Berber percussion); the landscapes are arid and the sounds feel caked with the dust rising in the fervour.
There is an exhaustive amount to listen to here, but taken in one sitting, there is also the benefit of a deeply hypnotic absorbing of culture. The first and second discs focus on the Berber traditions in the highlands of Morocco. Filled with intense drumming and passionate singing (of either single voices or mixed choirs), the highlands reveal the musical life of intimate family affairs. Certain tracks stretch well over the 13-minute mark, working a mesmeric, circular rhythm. Some cuts are really nothing more than just the airy reed work of woodwinds and the notes are pressed intensely into the atmospheres before they disperse. In contrast, the third and fourth discs concentrate on the lowlands (subtitled “Influent Strains”) and explore yet another facet of Morocco’s musical culture. The sounds feel even dryer on these recordings, and there is the sensuous warmth of an afternoon’s sun filling the air. Together, these discs provide music that’s never lush, but rather earthy and parched; there is the inbuilt soul of African colour within these scales and they glow with the heat of desert reds and sky blues. Even with the sometimes harsh and fevered turns of melody and rhythm, it is never difficult to drift upwards on a contemplative cloud when listening.
Also included in the box set is a leather-bound booklet of 120 pages, which details the history of these recordings. Compact but lovely, the booklet is filled with essays from Bowles himself, Lee Ranaldo (singer and guitarist from Sonic Youth), and essayist Philip D. Schuyler, plus in-depth reviews of a number of the tracks that are featured in this collection. In addition, there are plenty of black and white photographs that accompany the writings in the booklet—including photos of Bowles and his many literary friends during their time spent in Morocco, as well as native Moroccan folk and musicians.
While the music in this box set can certainly be enjoyed simply for what it is (solid, compelling musicianship), it seems to serve more as a portal into understanding cultures outside of Western social doctrines. Music of Morocco, therefore, proves a most valuable and edifying artifact of cultural experience and immersion. For those adventurous sorts willing to dive headfirst into one of Africa’s most fascinating cultures, this little glory box of sound will provide ample gifts of the Maghreb, imaginations fully arrested in the hours of contemplation.