Morocco IV

Fatigued by Marrakesh, we make our way to the bus station for a trip to Essaouira, a town on the Atlantic coast. We get in the bus. It is a "luxury coach," meaning that it is clean, air conditioned, and the seats are soft. There is no bathroom, but that is fine as there is no stink. After about a fifteen minute wait, we pull out of the station and head out of town. The further away we get from the heart of the city, the more run down the buildings. The furthest out and the buildings look like they've been through a war. And then there is dirt.

About two miles out of town, we are driving along a palm grove. Next to the grove is what looks like a resort under siege. A nice building is surrounded by a high red wall. On top of the wall is razor wire. Flood lights are mounted at the corners. The compound disappears and we are back to dirt.

The land is yellow. At times it is coarse. At times it is sandy. Every so often a clutch of sticks poke up from the ground, some times a stump. We pass a couple trees - gray, haunted sculptures, skeletal hands rising out of the earth. But most of what we travel through is dirt.

Parallel to the road runs a fence. It is short and made of wood. The construction is unusual. Thick posts emerge at an angle and at each post's top is a plank. The plank runs to the base of the next post. With the ground as the base, the fence is row after row of obtuse-angled, scalene triangles. Occasionally a string of barbed wire is attached to a post, but never is it strung taught to the next. Often the wire just hangs down, sometimes lazily draped over a plank. What this fence is trying to keep in or out is a mystery. Maybe it is a line of demarcation. Before I have time to really dig at the fence's meaning, it is gone. We are back to dirt.

I've driven this road many, many times before. It is the Highway 50 through Nevada. It cuts through the center of Wyoming. It is the road from Spokane to Yakima, from Amarillo to Oklahoma City, from Barstow to Las Vegas. It is one long black strip through dirt. Mile after mile of the same - dirt, stumps, sticks, and fences that make no sense. As soon as I start to write this land off as "we could be anywhere," I see a man jockeying a donkey cart.

Every ten miles or so we pass a village. Sometimes the village is far off, a white bump rising up from the yellow and framed by blue. Closer up, the village is a half dozen squat buildings, huddled around a dirt court yard. The buildings are utilitarian, square and without windows. What is inside could be a palace or it could be a repair shop. The outside hints at nothing. The buildings are as uneventful as the landscape, as the dirt.

We drive through Chichaoua or Sidi Mokhtar or Taffechi. I don't know where we are. All these towns look the same. Two story buildings line the street. The first floor of each building, behind a roll up door, is a shop. If it is a repair shop, oil stains the ground, mopeds and scooters are scattered about. If it is a butcher shop, blood stains the ground, hunks of meat hang, swaying back and forth. Wedged between the two is a cafe. Tables are grouped on the sidewalk, chairs turned toward the street. We slowly creep by. Men drinking tea watch us pass.

Behind the shops are homes. Because we are moving, I can only get a quick glace at town life. Frame by frame, I get a peak down each street. Frame: Kids playing soccer. Frame: Women hang clothes on the line. Frame: Moped passes donkey cart. Fade into: Dirt.

The road is in disrepair. The bus slows for large potholes. A few time it turns onto to dirt roads to bypass road construction or, more likely, stalled road construction. This two hour has turned into three and a half. The long time sitting, the swaying of the bus, the mile after mile of yellow against the light blue sky has tranced me out. The only thing keeping me awake is the faint sound of Neil Young coming through my earphones. We pull into a road stop. We get out to stretch our legs and get something to drink. Fifteen minutes and filled with sugar and caffeine, we are on the road again. Back to the dirt.

Finally after three and a half hours we pull into Essaouria. A man with a cart is waiting for us. He has a sign with Susan's name on it. We find him and through our bags into his cart and start the walk into town.

Today, you get a couple tracks from a 7" entitled "Awad Souss". I am guessing that Awad means "group" or "folk group." Souss is reference to the Souss Valley region, an area a bit south of the road described above. The sounds on this recording are generally called "Village Music" and, in this case, judging from the flute and drum combo and lack of vocals, made for a ritual of some type. To be honest, this is all educated guesswork, based on very scant resources. Unfortunately, there is very little if any information on-line in English or another European language.

Awad Souss 7" (Koutoubiaphone, 19??)


Morocco III

The mid-1960s through the early 1970s were a revolutionary time for music worldwide. Americans are acutely aware of the role of the Beatles and various San Francisco hippie bands had on our culture, as the Baby Boomers have made it their life goal to bludgeon younger generations with their self-important hype. They are nearly as bad as the so-called Greatest Generation and their rambling about how they saved the world from Hitler and the Japs. Unfortunately, the Boomers' endless self-centeredness has occluded other music movements which happened at the same time. Fortunately, as the Boomers drop dead, we are learning and hearing more and more of the sound revolution different parts of the world were undergoing.

These movements tend to have three things in common. First, first they took the established music forms of their region and mixed them with other local genres, as well as included sounds, structures and instruments from outside their culture. Second, the lyrics tended to be more social and/or political than prior musical styles. And, third, the change in sound upset traditionalists and established artists, while the lyrics pissed off the establishment.

Latin America was particularly fruitful for revolutionary sounds. In Brasil, the Tropicalia movement lead by Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and others, took over the country's music scene. A bit earlier, Violetta Para's work in Chile lead to La Nueva Cancion, an avant-garde, Leftist folk music which spread throughout Latin America, inspiring other movements. One such movement was Nueva Trova out of Cuba. Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez, working in the mind-blowing Grupo de Experimentation Sonora del ICAIC, were central in Nueva Trova, another genre which was to cross borders, inspiring even more offshoots.

Latin sounds in the United States also underwent a revolution. In New York, the salsa scene was shaken up by Willie Colon and a handful of other young musicians. Incorporating avant jazz sounds and soul in their music and playing it without any consideration for crossover success, Colon and cohorts were lambasted by their elders as being too brash, too disrespectful, and too uncompromising (though to be fair some salsa veterans like Tito Puente immediately recognized the younger generation's importance). A few years later, West Coast Latinos merged salsa, funk and rock, while peppering their songs with Chicano pride and politicial lyrics.

In Eastern Europe, various bands were creating unusual rock sounds, with edgy lyrics, and paying dearly for it with imprisonment, repression, and exile. Most famous of these bands is Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Underground. The Caribbean heard calypso, already politically charged, morph from ska to reggae. In Central Africa, Highlife was evolving and Afrobeat was coming to life with Fela. Morocco and North Africa underwent a similar revolution.

The popular music of North Africa is called Chaabi (also spelled Shaabi). Pinpointing where and when Chaabi started is difficult, mostly due to the fact that the term encompasses a number of sounds and is the result of different fusions of styles. In this way, the term Chaabi is a lot like Salsa in Latin music, it is a catchall. However what most people seem to agree on is that the first wave of Chaabi came from Egypt - Cairo is the Nashville of the North African music industry - and that the sounds that dominated Chaabi in the 1950s and 1960s are a popular mix of various North African and Arab music. In Morocco, the dominant current in Chaabi was called Al'aita, originating from the Atlantic coast, with songs about love, loss, and other life experiences.

Come the 1970s, Moroccan Chaabi was to undergo a revolution not unlike that experienced by the world's other popular music. This "Second Wave" introduced electric instruments, as well as the sounds of Berber music, Highlife, rock & roll and other Western styles. And, as with other revolutionary genres, the lyrics became more socially aware and political. Heading this revolution were three bands: Nass el Ghiwane, Lemchaheb, and Jil Jilala. Nass el Ghiwane (see last post) was the most politically radical of the three bands. Lembaheb was to become the most well known, touring and working with artists in Europe and having a more "Western" sound. Jil Jilala, though, is the best.

Jil Jalala evolved from a Sufi theater group in Marrakesh. Hanging out in the Jamaa el Fna, they were exposed to plenty of folk sounds, most prominently Gnawa music, which itself is a fusion of different styles. The Gnawa influence results in Jil Jalala's songs bordering on trance-like and thus a bit more psychedelic sounding than their contemporaries (though this is easier to hear in long form than in their short songs). Jil Jilala were also one of the only Moraccan Chaabi band at the time to have a female member. Over the years, the group has lost and changed members, and has broken up and reformed. Since 2006 they have remained active.

Here are a couple songs from a 1974 single by the band. Both of these are great songs, but "Dada Oumie" is especially so.

Jil Jilala
Rifia b/w Dada Oumie 7" (Polydor, 1974)

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