Music in the Desert

Liza here. Greetings from Rabat!

This summer, I’m spending two months in Morocco at an intensive Arabic language school called Qalam wa Lawh. Although my primary reason for being here is to improve my Arabic speaking abilities, as an ethnomusicology student, I can’t help but follow the music.

Photo by Teresa Barros-Bailey

Photo by Teresa Barros-Bailey

Morocco is quite a diverse place – ethnically, culturally, and of course, musically. One instructor at Qalam told me at dinner one night that almost every Moroccan city is known for a particular type of music, and each is situated in a country of cultural crossroads. France and Spain left quite visible imperialist legacies here, from the graceful ironwork shading Rabat’s old souk to the French cafés in my neighborhood. Regardless, there’s certainly no mistaking Morocco for a European city. Last night, for instance, I woke up at about 3:30am and heard the low chanting of my neighborhood call to prayer. If the East-West elements of Morocco aren’t enough for you, however, I’m adding another variable. On a recent trip with Qalam wa Lawh to the Moroccan Sahara, I started wondering about the West African influences on this country as well.


Photo by Teresa Barros-Bailey

Highlights from my Sahara trip included: trekking by camel through the desert, a night sky (sans light pollution) absolutely bursting with stars, and watching the sunrise over the dunes. Before all of that, however, we stopped at a tourist trap restaurant in Southeastern Morocco, featuring live Gnawa performances after the meal. We sat on cushions on the floor, ate Tagine, and after a round of ever-present Moroccan mint tea, sat across a small ensemble to hear their music. Four or five young men in long white cloaks stood in the front, playing qraqub (similar to finger cymbals), singing in low tones, and dancing, accompanied by drummers and one man on the hajhuj (three stringed lute). I felt like two people as I listened to their repetitive, high energy rhythms ­– part tired tourist, clapping and dancing along, and part ethnomusicology student with a quizzical expression, thinking about concepts like cultural commodification. I wondered what Gnawa music would be like when played for its own sake, rather than to make a profit. However, without an explanation, the music ended, and we moved along to our next destination.

A few weeks later, I chose Gnawa as the topic for an upcoming Arabic oral presentation. In preparation, I read Deborah Kapchan’s article, “Moroccan Gnawa and Transglobal Trance,” and learned about the rituals of spirit possession associated with this music. The term Gnawa itself also refers to an ethnic group, and I was fascinated to learn that this music found in restaurants and on stages has deep ties to religious ritual.

As a soon-to-be graduate student, I have not conducted fieldwork on Gnawa or any other variety of Moroccan music or culture. I claim no authority to speak about this group. Still, in reflecting on my small musical moment – a performance at a rural restaurant – I find myself with questions and conflicts that I sense are important in ethnomusicology. Was the music I heard authentic Gnawa music, if such a thing exists? Does performing ritual music outside of its ritual context affect its validity? How do the musicians and employees themselves feel about their performing roles? I could go on. It’s possible that the group consciously constructed the entertainment, offering music based on what they think their customers want to hear. I’m seeing potential connections here with Rasmussen’s article on Middle Eastern nightclubs in 1960s and ’70s America; there, the musicians chose “to present only a selection of the indigenous characteristics of musical sound for their uninitiated audiences” (69, 1992). Maybe ritual Gnawa music too is quite different, and protected from such contexts. Regardless of my many questions and few answers, Gnawa succeeded in a major way. I’m captivated, and want to hear more.

Readers, have you ever found yourself in a similar situation – listening to live music you know nothing about in a faraway country? I’d love to hear your stories and reflections as well. Until then, ليلة سعيدة  (good night!)


2 thoughts on “Music in the Desert

  1. Pingback: A Year in Review | SEM Student Union

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