Moroccan Soundscapes

The innocuous pop song faintly heard in the grocery store, the 30-second jingle seeping into our subconscious from the television in front of us or in the next room, or the booming bass from the car driving past us—with the ubiquity of musical sound to which most of us are exposed on a daily basis, it’s easy to stop paying attention to the way in which sound helps construct our environments. This is something I spent a lot of time thinking about lately while researching Hard Rock Cafe earlier this year, and it’s been a popular topic with ethnomusicologists, as evidenced by Jonathan Sterne’s seminal article “Sounds Like the Mall of America: Programmed Music and the Architectonics of Commercial Space” (Ethnomusicology 41[1], 1997). It’s amazing to continue thinking about soundscapes in Morocco, for they are tremendously diverse and in some ways, I believe, the way they more readily overlap here than they tend to do in the US reflects more general characteristics of the treatment of public and personal physical space in Morocco. Here are a couple snapshots of what I mean.

Last night, as I went to bed around 3am after finishing suhoor (the last meal before sunrise, when the fast resumes during Ramadan), I laid in bed with the windows open for some fresh air, and listened as a half-dozen mosques within earshot all issued competing versions of the adan (Call to Prayer); it is quite beautiful, especially as I live near a large, well-funded mosque that has clearly been able to find someone with more significant training than most in the area. But the adan is more than just the recitation of words, and the calls from each mosque not only begin and end at different times, but include their own melodic and rhythmic characteristics. In other words, as I lay in bed, exhausted from my trip to Marrakesh over the weekend, I listened to a wash of sound that was both beautiful in its spiritual significance as well as confounding in the way in which the adan from one mosque would encroach upon the acoustic space of the next.

The famed Jemaa el-Fna square is another environment whose soundscape is complex and continually changing through the course of the day: from the sound of honking horns, the adan from neighboring mosques, and the occasional wail of the snake-charmer’s ghaita (oboe) in the heat of the day to the insistent, multilingual appeals by food vendors or amplified banjos, ringing kettles, and booming dafs (frame drums) in the evening, this is the place to be in Marrakesh. There are musicians, juice vendors, henna artists, and merchants selling pirated smartphones and DVDs as well as carvings, paintings, and other trinkets. And there are tourists, and where there are tourists there emerge scammers. (I didn’t have any many problems, but some of my companions unfortunately did: but this makes for memorable stories and for some fantastic Arabic practice!) It is an adventurous place to be, and although I spent only 24 hours in Marrakesh (it’s unfortunately a long 7-hour train ride from Meknes), I left convinced that it was deserving of its mythic reputation.

In the souq in Marrakesh, where I bought a lotar (lute from the Atlas Mountains) and qarqab (castanets used in Gnawa and other North African musics).

In the souq in Marrakesh, where I bought a lotar (lute from the Atlas Mountains) and qarqab (castanets used in Gnawa and other North African musics).

Next to the impressive 14th-century Ali ben Youssef medersa (Islamic school) we visited.

Next to the impressive 14th-century Ali ben Youssef medersa (Islamic school) we visited.

Some tourist in the medersa.

Some tourist in the medersa.

View of Jemaa el-Fna from a second-story café, just before sunset.

View of Jemaa el-Fna from a second-story café, just before sunset. Off on the horizon you can just make out part of the High Atlas.

Literally hundreds of these makeshift restaurants are set up in Jemaa el-Fna every night, a world-renowned tradition that is often covered in travel shows.

Literally hundreds of these makeshift restaurants are set up in Jemaa el-Fna every night, a world-renowned tradition that is often covered in travel shows.

I had been looking forward to seeing this place, so I of course went big and got a platter of various meats. Delicious, as always. My new life goal may be to return to Marrakesh and systematically try each and every one of the hundreds of food stalls in Jemaa el-Fna.

I had been looking forward to seeing this place, so I of course went big and got a platter of various meats. Delicious. My new life goal may be to return to Marrakesh and systematically try each and every one of the hundreds of food stalls in Jemaa el-Fna.

In the evening, circles gather around a dozen bands scattered surprisingly close together in Jemaa el-Fna. It is an amazing spectacle, and while the sounds themselves are quite different from the adan, this was another case where the mingling of musical sounds from separate, competing sources flew in the face of my own sensitivities about respecting boundaries of acoustic space, no doubt developed by my self-consciousness as a performer of loud instruments like bagpipes and saxophone. I did not record much of the music for a number of reasons, but if you are interested in getting more of a sense of the sounds in Jemaa el-Fna, I recommend taking a look at the documentary “Musical Brotherhoods of the Trans-Saharan Highway” (2005) from Sublime Frequencies (another documentary from Hisham Mayet, who is friends with my colleague Brian in Niger and who I cited in another post last summer). The full video is currently available on YouTube; I’d recommend the latter 2/3rds or so, as the film begins in Essaouira, a nearby city on the Moroccan coast:

Aside from the personal/public dichotomy in soundscapes that I’ve described, which itself may be an oversimplification, there’s also a rich diversity of sounds in various other spaces. I’m particularly amazed by the music I hear when I walk into Western-style locations, like Carrefour, a large French grocery store chain. Whenever I’ve visited the Meknes location in the past, the music has almost always been American hip hop or other popular genres, and it often deals with fairly risqué themes. I can only assume that the music is permitted because most people don’t understand the real meaning of the English lyrics; hearing songs about “grinding on my baby” and things to that effect aren’t really what I expect to hear anywhere or anytime in a commercial space, and especially not during Ramadan. Just today I was at Carrefour where the employees at a nearby restaurant were blasting uncensored music by Eminem. I can’t remember the last time I heard “f****t ” sounding from a business in the US. Even though the music is familiar, these minor differences have stuck out to me because they’re unusual in the US. But that’s not to say that everything is different: as I boarded the train in Marrakesh yesterday, I entered a very, very familiar soundscape crafted by the unmistakable, mellifluous sound of Kenny G playing “Songbird”:

6 thoughts on “Moroccan Soundscapes

  1. Pingback: A post from an ethnomusicologist friend of mine… | mixolydianblog

  2. Mom

    Absolutely fascinating, Eric, and so well-written! You are obviously thriving and imbibing so much of the culture; that is apparent, to say the least.

    I am curious about the musical education of children there in Morocco. I haven’t noticed any mention nor seen any pictures of them playing any instruments. Do they learn music in the school system or through traditional teaching by each generation to the next?

    Looking forward to hearing the sound of your new instruments!

    Reply
    1. Eric J. Schmidt Post author

      I don’t know much about music education in Morocco, but I have seen children playing instruments on a few occasions. According to one of my host brothers there isn’t any formal music education in public schools the way there are bands and choirs in the US, but there are music conservatories (including in Meknes) that appear to be more oriented toward Western musical training (piano, violin, etc.). My assumption is that most training is traditionally done through more personal apprenticeships, with an individual master teacher, rather than through formal curricula. It depends too on the type of music, since some music is considered more elite and demanding of more training than others, but I have seen a few children playing instruments on a few occasions. In one case it was as part of a performing group we saw in the Sahara, where a young boy was performing in the same outfit as older musicians, and he was carefully studying them as he went along, even if he made obvious mistakes (turning in the wrong direction during a dance, for example). Another group of boys I saw in Meknes were playing some drums and imitating some of the groups playing in street processions I’ve seen, but they seemed more or less to be figuring it all out as they went, without any formal direction. And last but not least, one of my host brother’s friends came over the other night with his guitar, which he has taught himself by watching videos on YouTube. So, there are a lot of options and it all likely depends on the context or genre in which you’re playing.

      Reply
  3. Dad & Margie

    We have really enjoyed being “transported” by your trips/blogs…can’t wait to see more pics and to hear more details. Your writing is wonderful, but the biggest treat is in seeing how your mind works and what you notice…..and how you convey it. Look forward to seeing more! PS…about to go insane from “Marrakesh Express” rolling between my ears!!

    Reply
  4. John

    I believe “gaita” is Spanish for “bagpipe.” Perhaps just a coincidence. It looks similar to the word you mentioned for “oboe.”

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Moroccan Soundscapes, Pt. 2 | Amassakoul n'Ténéré

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