Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco
World Music Network

As someone who, even now, wouldn’t guarantee he could, pulling names out of a hat, infallibly differentiate the song titles from artist names on this disc, this CD sure is pleasurable. Compulsively listenable, really.

The liner notes emphasize that Morocco’s unique sounds (and they are unique) are the result of their native Berber culture being pollinated from all directions. Located on the northwestern edge of Africa, Morocco has historically been a crossroads of the Muslim and Christian worlds, between Europe and Africa. Its culture has absorbed influences from all directions, including, for the better part of the last century, American influences from across the Atlantic. Talk about internationalism: Dar Gnawa thus rap in (if my memories of high school foreign language don’t deceive me) French to protest European border inspectors. If that’s an extreme example on an exceedingly multicultural collection, it still hints at how the familiar (to Western ears) is blended with the foreign and how, even if the styles aren’t intimately familiar to most listeners, this disc never sounds “weird” either. More “exotic”, in the positive sense that it creates its own ambiance by intermixing the recognizable and unfamiliar.

But my ability to catch bits of rapped French is only slightly better than my complete incomprehension of the other tongues. Whether, according to the liner notes, the social protest of Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala or the eroticism of Fatna Bent El Houcine, whether they’re chanted or spoken or singular or a chorus, the vocals here must function as purely sonic accompaniment to the other instruments.

But even with that cultural limitation, there sure are a lot of pleasing vocal harmonies here. They’re often sung by high, smoothly soulful voices, but they don’t sound like doo-wop. Mainly, it’s because of the unobtrusively funky percussion and, sometimes, bass (not guitar bass, I don’t think, but some sort of bass sound nonetheless) and the chanting quality of the vocals themselves.

If comparison must be made, several of the songs, mainly the first four and the last track, remind me of the numbers Bo Diddley used to do with the Moonglows. While this may well be putting the influenced (however indirectly) before the influence, it still hints at how joyous and sexy these songs can be. When Diddley teamed with the Moonglows, the latter group’s doo-wop vocals would be teamed with the sound of Diddley’s big voice and even bigger guitar. When the combination was on, the result would be a sublime mixture of the earthy and ethereal.

Here, though, even when a lead singer takes over, he or she is never as vigorous as Diddley. If Diddley and the Moonglows wove doo-wop harmonies with aggressive lead vocals and funky beats, here the funky beats are woven against intricate melodies that, combined with the high vocals and choruses, seem like they could spiral upwards and outwards and go on forever. Besides the different instruments, this still isn’t like Mozart because the melodies are quieter and not as showy (or, if you don’t care for Mozart, annoyingly precocious), opting instead for a quiet intricacy that plays off the rhythms of the beats.

But, if there definitely are beats, this isn’t a funk record, either. The beats and melodies and the way both are played are too delicate for that. It’s more like an ambiance record with a beat. In terms of its sheer listenability (despite the spoken intro by Nass El Ghiwane which, of course, I don’t understand), I’d liken this to The Best of Taj Mahal, which rides a steady but not overpowering groove on each of the songs, embraces a plethora of styles while still retaining a distinct identity, and is the sort of disc you can have playing, pleasurably but not distractingly, in the background for any sort of occasion or mood. For utilitarian purposes, this album is recommended to those who like anything from Radiohead or Coldplay to Portishead or Peter Gabriel in theory, but who, in actual practice, like their background music more upbeat. With, of course, a beat you can dance to.