A million years ago, I spent some time living in Morocco hanging out with Nass el-Ghiwane, the great shaabi ensemble that more or less invented the modern Moroccan popular song. I wrote about the experience in an article for Transition magazine:
Nass el Ghiwane debuted in 1971, when Omar Sayyed was twenty-four years old. All five members sang, often in chorus, and the group played a motley assortment of traditional instruments in untraditional combinations: the sentir, a gut-stringed bass lute; banjo; kettle-drums, frame drums, tambourines, and cymbals. The plaintive melodies and chants brought to mind ‘aita, a popular style associated with the shikhat – independent women of sometimes ill repute – but also melhoun, a medieval Moroccan oral tradition with roots in the courtly arts of Moorish Spain.
The group’s hypnotic rhythms borrowed from the mystagogic cadences of the Sufi brotherhoods, especially the Gnawa – descendents of West African slaves, whose ritual exorcisms entailed what might be the original trance music. The banjo — a grittier African alternative to the Arab zither — reinforced the sense that this music, which was unlike anything ever heard in Morocco, was in its own reckless way a summation of everything ever heard in Morocco. It was a self-consciously nationalist sound, new-fangled and old-fashioned at the same time.
Out of this ferment, the members of Nass el Ghiwane emerged as custodians of Morocco’s cultural heritage, curators of its traveling show. Their songs were full of references to old poems, proverbs, medieval saints,and mystics.The fact that they sang in colloquial Moroccan rather than Egyptian Arabic affirmed this tip- of-the-tongue familiarity.
Recently, I recorded a radio segment about the group with Joseph Braude (a writer similarly smitten by the sound of el-Ghiwane), so I thought I’d post it here along with some other worthwhile reading/listening.
- “The Rolling Stones of Morocco” (America Abroad)
- “Folk the Kasbah” (my 2003 article for Transition, with photography by Lara Messersmith-Glavin)
- Footage of an epoch-making early concert by el-Ghiwane (1972)
- Beautiful Moroccan darija
- One of the revolutionary songs discussed in my piece (al-Dabbana fil-btana)
- “Al-Hal” (Transe), a documentary made about Nass el Ghiwane.