by Sam Hopkins
The young Moroccan at the music stand didn’t get that I was looking for vinyl. I’ve searched for records all around the world, and been shot the same puzzled looks and second-guesses many times before. “CD?” he asked in accented English. “No, the old ones,” I countered, approximating twelve inches with my hands. “You know: big, black.”
He uttered a groan and tossed his head, returning his attention to a rack of small discs with photocopied covers that apparently deserved a careful rearranging.
“Everyone threw those away,” he said with his back to me. “Bullshit,” I thought.
Wherever I dig, I refuse to think that these stubborn digitalists don’t know at least one old neighborhood jazz cat or a parent or grandparent who held onto their clunky plastic music platters.
In Casablanca earlier this year, my persistence got me vague directions out of the port city’s ancient medina and onto its ’60s-era boulevards, then eventually to its last remaining record store. “Walk out through the gate, turn to the left, and ask someone there,” the kid finally told me as he popped in a VCD to watch.
Passing a few stalls on the main boulevard leading back to my hotel, I zeroed in on a guy who seemed about fifty years old. “Je cherche des anciens disques,” I said.
He got up without a word, took a last drag from his cigarette, put it out with his shoe, and left his wares to be minded by the guys next door. He asked in French where I was from, and when I answered we switched to English. It turned out that this Moroccan named Hassan had lived in Wisconsin in the ’80s. An old family friend of his owns a record store just a few blocks away, he told me, and after a few Froggerish street crossings we were at Disques Gam.
Gam Boujemaa sold newspapers on the street until he turned twenty. By that time, it was 1964, and he had heard enough jazz and seen enough Marlon Brando movies to know he wanted to own a leather jacket and sell the day’s best music to a cosmopolitan clientele.
The city was, and still is, a world away from Fez and Marrakech, the ancient trading hubs of the Moroccan interior where the smells of mint, olives, and live animals pervade all commerce. Casablanca had an Atlantic orientation that brought the Beatles and Otis Redding to Gam’s attention, and to his record store’s shelves years before his countrymen in the Atlas Mountains could know that rock and roll or R&B even existed.
In Disques Gam, the Beatles compete for wall and rack space with Egyptian singing legends Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez. Paintings of those Arab giants preside over the shop today, reminding you where you are even though the Fab Four also look down from a promo poster Gam got when he first opened the store.
Gam and I spoke mostly through Hassan, who translated the Berber-tinged Moroccan Arabic dialect, Darija. Gam told me how people say he looks like Harry Belafonte and sometimes Ray Charles, pausing to remind me that Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly independent United States. His rundown of the musical history North Africa and North America share reaches back to Estevanico the Moor, a Black Moroccan who arrived with Spanish explorers in the New World in 1527, and traveled from the Caribbean as far west as modern-day New Mexico.
With between thirty and forty thousand records lining the shelves of his store on Boulevard de Paris, Gam isn’t the explorer he used to be. Some locals bring him their old collections, but his main business is selling to foreigners. French, British, Dutch, and Turkish collectors dominate his clientele nowadays, but the store recalls the time just after Moroccan independence from France when Gam’s excitement brought the newest sounds from overseas to his shop.
For example, between 1966 and 1970, Gam added thousands of Bollywood film 45s to his stock. Then, in 1970, he turned the store’s name into its own music label. He released records by popular singer Naima Samih, and drafted the folk-influenced troupe Jil Jilala to his imprint.
In 1976, Jil Jilala, who took their name from a Sufi Muslim brotherhood, released their most important record, “Laayoun Aïnya,” on Disques Gam. The pressing of “Laayoun Aïnya” coincided with a government-backed march of Moroccans toward the Spanish territory of Sahara. The jacket is green—the color of the march and Islam—and it shows some of the 350,000 Moroccans who were estimated to have taken part in the mass movement to end the Spanish presence on their southern border. Decades later, Morocco controls most of what is now called Western Sahara.