• Print

The Hypnotic Clamor of Morocco

Moroccan musicians, 1959
Dust-to-Digital/Library of Congress
Moroccan musicians, 1959

In 1931, a twenty-one-year-old American composer in Paris named Paul Bowles visited Morocco at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein. His travel companion was his composition teacher, Aaron Copland. They rented a home in Tangier, where Bowles, a composer of svelte, jazzy music in the Poulenc mould, wrote one of his first scores, an impressionistic piano piece called “Tamamar,” after a village in the Atlas mountains. Copland was unsettled by the clamor of drums during wedding season, and thought Tangier a “madhouse,” but Bowles was enraptured. He collected 78s of local music, just as he had collected old blues recordings back home, and sent copies to Béla Bartók. “When I first heard Arabic music on records,” he recalled later, “I determined to go and live where I could be surrounded by sounds like those, because there seemed to be very little else one could ask for in life.”

By the time Bowles finally moved to Tangier, with his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, in 1947, he had refashioned himself as a novelist, and was busy writing The Sheltering Sky, the tale of American expatriates in Morocco that remains his best-known work. Yet it was in large part the music of Morocco that led him to make his life there. A decade later, on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles travelled throughout Morocco, recording traditional music of a startling variety—Berber, Arabic, Andalusian, and Jewish—for the Library of Congress. For years known mostly to specialists, the recordings from that remarkable project have now been re-edited and re-released in a meticulously prepared box set by Dust to Digital, Music of Morocco.

"Ahmeilou," by Maallem Ahmed and ensemble, Tafraout, 1959

Morocco was rich in hypnotic sounds, and in his novels Bowles described them with a composer’s precision. In Let It Come Down (1952), he recreated a scene he had witnessed at a concert in Chefchaouen, where a man went into a trance, slashing his arms with a long knife and covering himself in blood, as he danced in “perfect rhythm with the increasing hysteria of the drums and the low cracked voice of the flute.” John Stenham, the hero of The Spider’s House (1955), imagines that he can find his way blindfolded through the old city of Fez merely by listening to the sounds of footsteps and water:

taut, metallic reverberations…shuddered between the walls like musical pistol shots. There were places where his footfalls were almost silent, places where the sound was strong, single, and compact, died straightaway, or where, as he advanced along the deserted galleries, each succeeding step produced a sound of an imperceptibly higher pitch, so that his passage was like a finely graded ascending scale, until all at once a jutting wall or a sudden tunnel dispersed the pattern and began another section in the long nocturne which in turn would disclose its own design.

As Bowles saw it, Morocco’s sounds were forms of experience that had yet to be contaminated by Western influence. In his 1981 preface to The Spider’s House, Bowles explained that he had naively “imagined that after Independence the old manner of life would be resumed and the country would return to being more or less what it had been before the French presence.” To his horror, the Moroccan government embarked on modernization “with even greater speed” than the French. The Music of Morocco, a double LP featuring twenty-two selections of his recordings, was his attempt to preserve Morocco’s heritage before its inevitable dissolution: “a fight against time and the deculturizing activities of political enthusiasts,” as he wrote in his grant proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation.

To listen to Music of Morocco is to experience the shock of the old: a ritualistic art that casts a spell through repeated, cyclical patterns, rather than the harmonic development typical of Western music. The first track—a Berber dance piece known as an ahmeilou, performed by Maallem Ahmed and his ensemble—immediately throws the listener into a world where music is supremely social. Five of the thirteen men are playing small drums that sound somewhat dry because they were heated before the performance; the other men are clapping. The tempo gradually quickens, the polyrhythms assuming an insistent force as some of the men cry with pleasure. Music of Morocco features a range of singing styles—ululation, ecstatic wailing, drone-like riffs, even a kind of Arabic sprechstimme—as well as an array of indigenous instruments, including the gnbri, an Arabic lute; the kamenja, a violin played in the manner of a viola da gamba; and the rhaita, a reed whose sonorous, almost chewy tonality is somewhere between an oboe and a bagpipe. But the foundation of the music here is percussion. It can be a highly intricate affair, performed by virtuosic drummers, but it can also be as homespun as a brass tea tray being struck by two teaspoons.

"Hadouk Khail," by Maallem Taieb ben Mbarek and chikhats, Marrakech, 1959

In “Hadouk Khail,” a stunning example of the haouziya genre, we hear a group of singers—three women and one man—for nearly thirteen minutes, often in call and response, accompanied by the drone of two kamenjas and a variety of small percussion instruments. The singers repeat their lamentation—the haouziya was famous for expressing despair—but because no drum is struck twice in succession, the performance has an entrancing stop-start quality, a feeling of eternal return, until the final moments, when the drumming accelerates and the singers cry in unison. Bowles wrote in his field notes that “ecstatic expressions” appeared on “the faces of those singing and playing it,” adding that “the performers seemed finally able to reach some unnamable state which the music strives to induce in the group-psyche of those performing it.”

When the Library of Congress released Bowles’s recordings in 1972, only a few hundred copies were printed. One of its early admirers was an aspiring young ethnomusicologist, Philip D. Schuyler, who struck up a friendship with Bowles in Tangier. When Bowles was contacted in the mid-1990s by Bill Nowlin, a co-founder of Rounder Records, about reissuing Music of Morocco, he encouraged Nowlin to talk to Schuyler. As Schuyler immersed himself in the sixty hours of recordings, he decided that Bowles had chosen the best-recorded examples from the sessions, but that in his effort to be encyclopedic he had made misleading cuts, prising excerpts he fancied from longer performances. Schuyler proposed to restore those pieces to their original form, and to include eight additional tracks, roughly doubling the length of the album. In June 1999, he flew to Tangier with a mock-up of the re-release and played his cassettes for Bowles. “He was very frail and nearly blind,” Schuyler told me, but “he was gracious to the end.” A few weeks later he faxed his approval. Bowles died in November of that year, at eighty-eight.

It took another seventeen years for Schuyler to complete the project. As Schuyler told me: “I was having trouble satisfying all the people I thought should be given a fair hearing in the notes—Bowles and the Bowlesians, my colleagues in academia, and Moroccan musicians.” It was worth the wait. Music of Morocco includes not only four hours of arresting music, but a revelatory 120-page booklet, which features a preface by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and Schuyler’s erudite overview. Each of the thirty tracks is annotated by three “streams” of text—Bowles’s original liner notes; additional writings by Bowles about his trip; and Schuyler’s commentaries. Throughout the booklet, Schuyler provides a tactful, often witty corrective to Bowles’s assumptions about “primitive” music (a word he used as a term of praise), and to Bowles’s own account of how he made his recordings. Yet Schuyler also defends Bowles against those who have dismissed him as a condescending expatriate, or Orientalist parasite.

Bowles set off on his first recording expedition in mid-July 1959 in a Volkswagen Beetle that belonged to a Canadian expatriate friend, Christopher Wanklyn. He was forty-eight years old, and was making his living as a travel writer, having recently published The Spider’s House, which turned out to be his last novel set in Morocco. His two companions were Wanklyn and a Moroccan assistant, Mohamed Larbi Djilali. Over the next five months, they took four separate trips—covering a distance Bowles estimated at 25,000 miles—returning to Tangier for a few days after each journey so that Bowles could check in on his wife, who was ill. Bowles recorded 250 pieces of music, in twenty-two separate locations, with an unwieldy twenty-eight-pound Ampex 601 tape recorder. “He did it as a marathon,” Schuyler told me. “Bowles like to project this lackadaisical manner but he really worked hard, and he had to have this finished by December 31, under the terms of his grant.”

Paul Bowles's VW bug stopped along a mountain road in Morocco, 1959
Dust-to-Digital/Library of Congress
Paul Bowles’s Volkswagen Beetle, stopped along a mountain road in Morocco, 1959

The logistical difficulties were not small. He spoke French and passable Arabic but no other indigenous languages. Bowles often had to transport musicians to towns along the main road where there was electricity—in one case to a military base. He arrived in the town of Aït Ourir, east of Marrakech, with thirty-two loaves of sugar—one for each of the musicians, an arrangement he had made with the caïd, the local notable who organized the recording—only to discover that a dozen musicians had been added to the ensemble. (The caïd solved the problem by taking all the sugar for himself and dividing it later.) While traveling through the Anti-Atlas mountains, Bowles and his companions were caught in a sandstorm that disabled their car for several days. Then there was the journey through the Rif mountains, along the eastern border with Algeria, where nationalist rebels were fighting the French army. Bowles wrote in his diary: “I don’t relish being ambushed by dissident troops in the Rif or along the Algerian frontier.”

Bowles, however, did not lack for courage—or ruthlessness. “A certain amount of music I hope to be able to get by installing myself in strategic spots and capturing it without the knowledge of the people making it,” he wrote in his Rockefeller proposal. In fact, as Schuyler notes, “his attempts to record by stealth usually ended in apparent technical disaster.” He was forced, instead, to organize recording sessions as any producer would. But to do so he needed the cooperation of the Moroccan authorities, who were not keen on his project. For one thing, he was not well liked in Morocco, particularly among its elites, who accused him of casting an unflattering light on their country. He was rumored to have been stingy, an exploiter of vulnerable Moroccans, and, worst of all, a practitioner of “moral turpitude,” an allusion to Bowles’s well-known liaisons with young Moroccan men.

But it was Bowles’s passion for traditional music, more than his disregard for traditional sexual mores, that raised the suspicions of Moroccan authorities. In a 1993 documentary, he remembered being told by one official, “If you record music in that village, it’s going to sound like savages.” In post-independence Morocco, traditional music was a somewhat embarrassing reminder of a disdained rural past. Much of the music Bowles proposed to record, moreover, was by Berbers, not Arabs. Their culture was later promoted by the government (and tourism industry) as part of Morocco’s heritage, but at the time Morocco was intent on brandishing its Arab credentials, and expressions of Berber identity were frowned on. (In the middle of his third expedition, Bowles received a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, followed by a warning from the Ministry of the Interior, that he ought to desist with his recordings immediately. He ignored both.)

Bowles believed that the Berbers in the High Atlas Mountains represented the “true spirit of North Africa,” and devoted the first LP, “The Highlands,” to their music. That urban Moroccans found Berber drumming to be a bore was an indication to him that they had lost touch with their roots. Instead they had succumbed to “the influent strain”—music influenced by Arab (especially Egyptian) styles that that he considered “schizophrenic music, an ethnical monstrosity.” Yet Bowles himself did not hesitate to introduce his own aesthetic preferences as a producer. The supposedly pure music we hear in Music of Morocco was reshaped—contaminated, as Bowles might have said—at the recording sessions, sometimes in ways that would have lasting effects in Moroccan music.

One of Bowles’s dreams, for example, had been to make a solo recording of the qsbah, a reed flute. Unfortunately, the qsbah was traditionally accompanied by singing and the bendir, a frame drum whose fuzzy overtones obscured the flute’s delicate sound. When Boujemaa Ben Mimoun, a renowned qsbah player in the foothills of the Rif, refused on principle to record solo, Bowles pressured the caïd: “The American government wished it,” he said. Boujemaa relented. Bowles recorded him performing two versions of the same piece, but omitted the one with the bendir, “an instrument I can do without.” In a travel essay, Bowles imagined a “lone camel driver” listening to the qsbah beside a fire, in a “landscape of immensity and desolation.” But to achieve that illusion, Bowles had to record Boujemma in a noisy little town, surrounded by a crew, local officials, and crowds who gathered to watch. Schuyler writes: “Bowles had recorded the music the way he wanted it to sound, conjuring an image of a place that didn’t quite exist.” (Schuyler hoped to include the bendir version but found the recording “as unlistenable as Bowles thought it was.”)

Bowles made a similar—and even more fateful—request of the singer Si Mohammed Bel Hassan Soudani, a master of the gnbri, an ancient African lute. Soudani, a member of the Gnawa, a spiritual group who trace their origins to sub-Saharan Africa, attached a small vibrator called a soursal to the neck of his gnbri. A small and flexible tin with perforated sides, the soursal creates a buzzing sound when the strings of the gnbri are plucked. That “sizzle” is a reminder of the Gnawa’s West African ancestry, and makes the gnbri “a ritual instrument,” Schuyler says. Bowles, however, disliked the “loud rattle” of the soursal, for much the same reason that he disliked the bendir, and asked him to remove it. They recorded two versions of the same song, a work of stark and expressive lyricism; once again Bowles retained only the “purified” one. The soursal version, which Schuyler has restored, is nearly twice as long, more explicitly African, and riveting, almost orchestral, in its tintinnabulation. It is also the trace of a tradition that Bowles helped bury.

Paul Bowles on the roof of the Palais Jamai in Fes, Morocco, 1947
Dust-to-Digital/Library of Congress
Paul Bowles on the roof of the Palais Jamai in Fes, Morocco, 1947

According to Schuyler, gnibri performers have increasingly removed the soursal, in order to appeal to Western listeners. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Bowles was simply tampering with Moroccan music, or that his manipulations resulted in inferior, or “diluted,” forms of expression. As Schuyler argues, Bowles was often right “from a purely auditory standpoint.” It is true that he disregarded the musical roots he praised if they clashed with the sound he wanted; yet, precisely because of this, he helped to open new routes for Moroccan musicians. Bowles ended up taking part in the history of Moroccan music, and not merely chronicling it. Music of Morocco is not so much an archive as the document of an artist’s encounter with foreign traditions.

Sometimes that encounter would test Bowles’s own aesthetic assumptions. In Meknes, for example, he found “a gold mine”: a spellbinding secular Sephardic song, performed by a group of men led by a twenty-year-old hazan, or cantor. The men sing in Hebrew, but the haunting melody is a Muslim malhun, an Andalusian poem. Isaac Ouanounou, the hazan, explained to Bowles that Morocco’s Jews took their music “a little bit from everywhere” because they lacked their own melodic repertoire. There is nothing “pure” about this hybrid of Hebrew poetry and malhun, yet Bowles could not fail to recognize its beauty.

For all his talk about a “fight against time” to document traditions at risk of disappearance, Bowles was at heart an aesthete, not a preservationist. His commitment to the beauty of what he was recording was genuine, even if his understanding of Highland “authenticity” was something of a colonial fantasy. Morocco was for Bowles an old-new world that he experienced as a kind of salvation, at once cultural and erotic. Sometimes the sounds he encountered transported him back to the Harlem clubs he frequented in the 1920s and 1930s: “the Moroccan’s idea of what makes good dance music is the same as our idea of what makes good jazz, and they use the same word to describe it: skhoun (Hot).” And on Music of Morocco he presented a world of sound as evocative and intransigent as Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, which enthralled Bob Dylan with its vision of an “old, weird America.”

Notable for its expressive diversity, Bowles’s Moroccan anthology placed unmistakable emphasis on what he called the “deceptive repetition” of ritual music, the infectious, mesmerizing groove that later enchanted such musicians as Ornette Coleman, who collaborated with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It was “befuddlement music,” “music that makes you play games inside your head”—especially if you listened to it while smoking kif. Bowles, who smoked kif every day, was hypnotized by it.

Interestingly, Bowles’s own music was all but unscathed by his encounter with Moroccan music: “the musics are far too different—there’s no possible way of combining them,” he insisted. Musical pilgrims to Morocco, such as Coleman, the trumpeter Don Cherry, and the Kronos Quartet, would show otherwise. The glory of such cross-pollination would receive a related demonstration from the composer Steve Reich, who drew on another, equally hypnotic tradition of non-Western percussion after reading A.M. Jones’s two-volume Studies in African Music, published in 1959—the same year Bowles embarked on his field recordings. Yet Bowles’s repudiation of métissage was less an aesthetic stance than a typically possessive expression of respect for Morocco’s traditions, which he took himself to be shielding from the cruel forces of change.

As Bowles knew, there was no way of preventing Morocco’s modernization; he could hear it everyday on the increasingly noisy streets of Tangier. The encroachments of the machine civilization he loathed can be heard, to richly poetic effect, in the last track of the new Music of Morocco. A recording of the early morning call to prayer in Tangier, it is one of the few performances Bowles managed to capture by stealth. Ten years after Bowles’s death, Schuyler added this piece of musique concrète to Music of Morocco as an homage, a “distillation of his aesthetic.” “El Fjer (Tangier)” is the one piece for which he did not secure Bowles’s approval. It lasts only a minute and thirty-seven seconds, but it describes as well as any the world that Bowles made his own. A rooster crows, someone turns on the engine of a car, then drives away. The muezzin is faint yet indomitable, an integral instrument in the symphony of daily life. From the first second to the last, we hear the chirping of crickets, like a gentle, hypnotic blanket of rhythm.


A new edition of Music of Morocco, edited and annotated by Philip D. Schuyler, will released April 1 by Dust to Digital.