Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959
Review by Kent Manthie
Paul Bowles, the late author and composer, was an American expatriate, who lived in Morocco with his wife, Jane, for 52 years. In 1959, a time when Tangier was one of the hippest, most mellow places to live, due, in no small part, to its being an “International Zone”, sliced up into four sectors: American, British, French and Spanish. These various colonial powers and the US, which, ostensibly, was anti-imperial and as an example, during WWII, US president FDR had aims for the post-war world that were, in many ways, antithetical to its closest ally, Britain, in that FDR did not want to see a world after the war returned to imperial, colonial rule. This was, basically, the beginning of the end of the dominance of the British Empire, probably the last remaining imperial power, after France’s colonies and Spain’s colonies were waning, if not already dead.
Tangier as one example, is -or was- a kind of gateway to the more bucolic parts of this magnificent North African country, when it was, during the middle of the 20th century, an “International Zone”, made up of British, American French and Spanish sectors which attracted many Westerners who were eager to escape the increasing ennui of the post-war Western world. Tangier, throughout the 50s, was a bedrock of inspiration for a number of authors, artists, musicians and other interested parties were drawn to write books, poetry, painting as well as seekers of adventure and an exotic lifestyle, not found in, say, Topeka, KS. But, here, I’m going to limit myself to something Paul Bowles did in 1959. Having settled in Morocco around 1947, with Jane, he, being a composer of music himself, discovered many musical groups, singers, artists, and such, who’d been practicing their native musics there, no doubt, undisturbed, for many centuries. It was around this time that Bowles, wanting to have something of this dreamy, entrancing music preserved and available for those in the West or other parts of the world, traveled all over the country, seeking out various indigenous musics, recording the various groups, singers under the auspices of collecting them for the Library of Congress. The tour to collect as much music as he could took about six months. After this trek across Morocco, he had managed to record quite a lot of music which would be new to Western ears. Bowles did quite a favor for those, say, in America or England, for instance, who were eager for discovering new and exotic art forms from a part of the world that was (and still is, in many ways) alien to the ears and brains of those in Western Europe and America.
Those who were/are great admirers of psychedelic music of the type that peaked in the mid-late 60s, who, for instance, were also turned on to Ravi Shankar, via his amazing performance in 1967, at the Monterey Pop Festival, would, I’m sure, be predisposed to the magical music of Morocco.
In the 1970s, there was a truncated version of this collection. But quite recently, the great folks at Dust-to-Digital put together this elaborate, beautiful 4-CD set of “Moroccan Music”. The whole set consists of four CDs, a 120 page leatherette-bound book which features liner notes by Philip Schuyler as well as “field notes” by Bowles. This new set also comes with an introduction written by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Interestingly enough, the box set also includes a code for downloading and streaming. Listed at around $60.00, one should expect a beautiful work of art, from the music itself, to the beautiful artwork that adorns the cover and book.
Among the many artists whose music appears in this box set, a few names include, Maallem Ahmed and Ensemble, Chikka Fatoma bent Kaddour, Embarek ben Mohammed, Abdelkrim Rais and Ensemble and there is even a minute long recording of “Early Morning Calls to Prayer”, which rounds out this work of beauty.
Paul Bowles himself has been quoted on the Dust-to-Digital website, as to this project:
The pieces with the greatest, and those with the smallest amount, of Arabic influence, are both to be found, strangely enough, in the same country: Morocco. This region’s contact with Europe has been that of conqueror: in its decline it has been comparatively unmolested by industrial Europe. By virtue of this, also because it once had colonies in Mauritania and Senegal, and thus has a fair amount of admixture of Negro culture, it is richer in musical variety and interest than Algeria and Tunisia. In the latter countries there is plenty of music, but in Morocco music is inescapable.
The four discs in this set have 30 songs in all. Some of them run as long as 27:25, but many are in the 12-14 minute range, on average, while there are also some shorter pieces, ranging from four minutes to about eight minutes. If you are a music lover with adventurous tastes, one who is always looking for something out of your “comfort zone”, Music of Morocco would be a delightful package to get. Even though this music was recorded way back in 1959, I think the music holds up quite nicely to today’s ears and it’s complex melodies and enchanting, beautiful make-up would be hard to beat by any of today’s popular music. In fact, I submit that Music of Morocco is the perfect remedy for the ennui and frustration brought on by the dwindling creativity that exists in so much of today’s music. It is an antidote to corporate commercialism which, over the past 40 or so years, has crippled the creativity as well as the idiosyncrasies which was the essence of some of the greatest music of the 20th century that has come from the “West”, especially America.
If you’re interest has been piqued and you’d like to listen to some samples of this work or purchase the box set, please visit http://www.dust-digital.com/morocco/, where you can also visit other parts of D-to-D’s website and see what else they have to offer.
Well, happy listening everybody. -KM.