A Look at Morocco’s Music Scene

Jan 23, 2018

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Just like an airplane, music has the ability to transport you to a totally different time and place: Shut your eyes. Take a breath. And off you go.

This year, TPG is celebrating the confluence of travel and music with the release of The 2018 Points Guy Sound Tracks, focused on artists from global destinations where TPG hopes to make a difference with charitable works and content programming this year.

We’re launching our new initiative with a private party in New York on January 23, the week of the Grammy Awards. Global-music DJ Nickodemus will take guests on an immersive audiovisual journey to some of the places that will play a role in the TPG narrative this year: Iceland, India, Mexico City and Morocco.

Leading up to the launch, we at TPG will be diving into the music from these four destinations. We’ll also share Nickodemus’ custom playlists, which will highlight several of this year’s Grammy-nominated artists.

Today, we take look at Morocco.

“From Bonobo and Nickodemus’ modern takes on Innov Gnawa Band’s Moroccan Gnawa music, to the more traditional and famous ‘Toura Toura’ song covered by the late great Cheb i Sabbah, Moroccan music is very dance-able with or without a big electronic beat. I chose these songs to represent the Gnawa music in the culture.” — Nickodemus

Listening to Moroccan music today is much like entering a trance, giving up your mind to the ululations of a circle of singers, the insistent thrum of a lute, the continuous snaps and pops of castanets, caressed both by the devotional harmonies and the hot desert winds of the Maghreb. That desert, and the countless cultures who have invaded it or called it home, are key to delving into the music of Morocco today.

The musical scene in Morocco depends on which region of the country you visit, but it’s almost all deeply influenced by its Andalusian, Berber, Spanish, Arabic and raï history. Andalusian music, for example, dates back to the ninth century and combines Arabic music with Spanish flamenco-style folk music to create a classical sound that’s commonly heard during religious ceremonies in Morocco. Some of the notable instruments for Andalusian music include the violin, the lute, and the rabāb (an Arab fiddle with either two or three strings). Andalusian music continues to thrive in major Moroccan cities like Fez and Tetouan today.

Morocco’s musical scene also includes raï music, another type of folk sound originating in the neighboring country of Algeria. Raï music dates back to the 1920s and was adopted by Morocco in the 1980s with a unique spin, adding drum machines, synths and electric guitars. Morocco’s spin on the traditional raï style has particularly resonated with young people, as the lyrics tend to revolve around contemporary social and economic issues. Outside of its politically charged lyrics, you can identify raï by its blend of traditional instruments — reed flutes and drums — and Western instruments like the accordion, violin and synthesizer.

Berber music is also common in Morocco. Though it’s not as popular as it once was, it’s survived thanks to a number of musicians and poets who have passed down their work for generations, including Ammouri Mbarek and Najat Aatabou. The primary instrument for Berber music is the bendir, a frame drum with a wooden membrane that has been a staple in northern Africa for centuries.

Originally brought in from sub-Saharan Africa, Gnawa music is incredibly popular in Morocco. It’s a form of repetitive spiritual chanting in which a single song can last several hours and induce a trance-like effect. The singing is accompanied by lutes and castanets.

Moroccan music today isn’t stuck out in the bled, of course. Witness Casablanca-born rapper Dizzy DROS and his 2011 hit “Cazafonia,” or Mr. Crazy, who was jailed at the age of 17 for allegedly disrespecting the national anthem in a song. And though Gnawa is ancient, today’s Moroccans have modernized it and made it their own, fusing the form with other musical traditions, including jazz, reggae and raï. Noted practitioners included Hassan Hakmoun, now based in New York;  Nassouli, who’s had famous collaborations with hip-hop artists; the late Mahmoud Guinia, who once taught Jimi Hendrix; Brooklyn-based Innov Gnawa, making waves in the States; and the late, Algerian-born DJ Cheb i Sabbah, who mixed Gnawa with Western music to create so-called “trance grooves.”

Morocco’s traditional styles of music are on display at the annual Marrakech Popular Arts Festival, where it’s not uncommon to hear multiple styles of Moroccan music. It takes place under the desert sun each July and attracts tourists, musicians, dancers and street performers from all around the country. Morocco also holds the annual Festival of World Sacred Music, which celebrates its 24th anniversary in June in the bustling city of Fez. The festival assembles musicians and orchestras from all around the world, from Morocco to Brazil to China.

Download our playlist, turn toward the south and hit play. Let the hot desert winds envelop you, and bathe in the trance-inducing rhythms and chants of a land both lonely and alive. Let the music of Morocco take you to this land both strange and familiar.

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