The mixing of Arabic, African, and Spanish cultures brought about uninhibited music
by Damian Ghigliotty
We were high up in the Atlas Mountains and high off of hashish when suddenly an entrancing sound came through the speaker. It was tribal and untamed—certainly Arabic by the voice inflections, but also carried by a rhythm you might hear in the mountains of Cuba or Brazil, rather than Morocco. The percussion hit with a distinct tempo from any other Arabic music I had heard before; at times, the drums fluttered like it was flamenco; at times, they pounded like it was Latin jazz.
“This sounds Arabic and Spanish,” I said to my guide Mohcin, a native Moroccan who told me he was “living in the Sahara with the hippies” but knew a lot about the country’s landscape and music.
“Of course,” he responded. “We have lived among the Spanish for a long time, just as with the French, Africans, and other Arabic people, so we have come to share many tastes.”
Those words summed up the eclecticism of contemporary Moroccan music, a fusion of Arabic folklore, African drumming, Spanish dance songs, and Western pop performed by artists from Jo Amar to Abdelhakim Bouromane. Many of those artists’ recordings stem from traditional Andalusian music, a genre that dates back to the ninth century in southern Spain. The first recognized Andalusian artist was the mythic cultural polymath Ziryab, who fled Baghdad to end up as a court musician in Córdoba on the Iberian Peninsula from the early to mid-800s. That’s where he composed and sang his most influential songs, which were modified and popularized over the next two centuries. At that time, Al-Andalus (modern-day Spain and Portugal, which had been conquered by the Arabs) had grown into a cultural epicenter in the Mediterranean as xenophobia and physical conflict throughout the region had waned, and Muslims, Jews, and Christians were able to freely share their ideas, foods, and sounds.
“The music caught on and became popular for a few reasons,” says Dwight Reynolds, a professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the University of California who began to study the history of Moroccan music in 1991. “One of the main reasons is because the poets started writing with such wildly exuberant rhyme schemes, and their songs were almost always about the sadness of love.”
Over the last few decades, the music of Al-Andalus has fused with newer genres, such as rock, jazz, trance, and hip-hop, to form what are arguably some of the most eclectic sounds in the world. The other form of modern Andalusian music, which gave birth to flamenco, can be heard just across the Mediterranean, and it carries with it a significant amount of Arabic influence. While conservative Spaniards often deny their shared roots with Arabic culture, Spain’s liberal classes are known to embrace the multiculturalism of their past. Among those groups, especially the more progressive musicians, many take pride in the abundance of collective sounds that have come from the two countries that look as though they were two faces having an intimate conversation.
On the Moroccan side, there is a similar split. While many modern Moroccan musicians have stuck to the traditional Arabic rhythms and melodies often used for ceremonies, others have helped break new grounds by melding their country’s already heavily mixed genres with other new forms of music; from Spain and beyond. Among the most celebrated artists known for their innovation is Jo Amar, the late Jewish singer from Morocco who seamlessly blended Andalusian rhythms with Israeli and Western melodies in his twenty-plus records, often using saxophone and trombone.
The songs that fill Morocco’s clubs and teahouses today capture that sense of range. You might associate a modern Moroccan dance song with music you would hear at a traditional Middle Eastern restaurant when the percussion, horns, and strings become muted. But once the instrumentation kicks in, it’s impossible to not hear the hybridization of so many cultures and genres.
One night in Morocco, I went with two friends to a small dance bar in Tangier and heard similar sounds to what I had heard in the Atlas Mountains from a group of musicians performing live. The singers howled and rolled their tongues over fast-moving drums, quivering flutes and staccato violin. On the smoky dance floor, the men moved in a rhythm that looked like a hybrid between Arabic sword dancing and salsa, while the women shook their bellies, hips, and backsides. Throughout the course of that night, the songs gradually picked up in speed, reaching bpms over 150. By the time we left, it was practically live Moroccan drum and bass, and people were still dancing.
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