Rock the Kasbah
On a Moroccan roll
Fly-on-the-wall vision of an ethnic recording expedition
Communications breakdowns, impossible levels, uncontrollable background noise, headbanging dancers... It's all in a week's work for location-recordist Martin Gordon, just back from Morocco with a DAT box full of stunning (and rare) ethnic grooves. This is his story...
While 'world music' now commands a bigger audience than ever and remixers with an ear for something distinctive will often plunder the archives for a sample of something 'efnick', relatively few westerners ever venture onto the home territory of these acclaimed folkloric musicians. But earlier this year I was lucky enough to do just that.
I was part of a small group that travelled to Morocco to record various musicians who are coming to the UK this summer for the Music Village 'Hafla!' festival of Moroccan music and culture. My brief was to record the various ensembles for a CD release to tie in with the festival. My travelling companions were to be a photographer and two journalists. No obvious conflict of interests, I thought, but that's right folks - don't touch that dial!
The Music Village has been organised by a group called Cultural Cooperation for some 15 years - they've been around and know the ropes, so when they told me they'd already made a preliminary recce and that the musicians and their representatives were all briefed and expecting us, I felt (naively, as it turned out) relieved. I took with me a portable Aiwa DAT with NiCad batteries and a switchable transformer, a Sony D3 cassette recorder as back-up, a couple of stereo mics (a Sennheiser MKE88 and a Sony ECM929), an AKG D310 for those interview situations, (I was also doing a piece for the BBC World Service), and a mic stand kindly loaned to me by Music Lab of London.
Our first port of call was a place called Chefchaoen in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, where we found the Hadra singers. There were seven of them in total, and they obligingly assembled in the courtyard of their leader, Ali Raissoni.
I turned the fountain off and asked them, with the assistance of an interpreter, if they could sing a little for me to get a level. This they did willingly, but something had got lost in the translation and once they had started I found I couldn't stop them. When they came to a halt of their own accord, I started the recorder. The next song was absolutely deafening, at least twice the level of the first piece, so some hasty adjustments had to be made. By the end of the third piece, I had something.
This difficulty with rehearsing was a recurring problem in Morocco. On the occasions when I had actually managed to make myself understood, the musicians would be so keyed up for my signals that they would start halfway through my "OK, we're ready". As you can probably imagine, this made subsequent editing quite a challenge.
The next day we were in the Kasbah of the same town to record the Taktouka musicians. Taktouka music is from the Rif mountains and, like most Moroccan music, is played by farmers and village people - the notion of playing music professionally is still rare in this part of the world. This meant, however, that the Taktouka players had been working all the previous day and were apparently rather tired. So tired, in fact, that they didn't show up at all. Our local agent, the forbiddingly-named M Rien, threatened them with dire punishments (in their absence) and claimed to be organising a second Taktouka group for the next morning.
We duly turned up the next morning, only to find that the second group had also decided not to turn up. Feeling rather despondent, we broke the gear down - whereupon yesterday's group appeared and showed every sign of being willing to play. We rigged the gear up again, and within a few minutes they were beginning to get loose and seemed to be enjoying what they were doing.
A small crowd had assembled inside the Kasbah, eager to see what was going on and, in the manner of musicians the world over, the Taktouka responded by playing to the gallery. And why not? One of them, the band's oldest member at around 60-ish, burst into a high-pitched falsetto, began balancing a large tea tray on his head, and started to hurtle around the Kasbah. This went down very well, and our photographer, Richard Waite, quickly unpacked his lenses.
It was at about this point that Richard and I had soon realised our interests were not especially compatible. I really needed to record everything the musicians played, and it became obvious that each group would only play one or two tunes. Equally, Richard wanted to take pictures all the time, and images of mic cables and stands (or me wearing my newly acquired djellaba) were not really what he wanted. Eventually we arrived at a compromise: he'd set up, photograph; then I'd set up, record, and he'd do close-ups around me. It still wasn't ideal, however, as the musicians needed time to warm up both musically and in terms of any physical accompaniment to the music, and whoever went last got the better deal. Still, being good-mannered English chaps, we arrived at a modus vivendi.
"The oldest member of the band, a man of around 60, burst into a high-pitched falsetto, balanced a large tea-tray on his head, and started to hurtle around the Kasbah"
Back in the Kasbah, and with the tea-tray dance now being over, I invited all our helpers and assistants to have lunch with us before we set off for the city of Fes. There was a shuffling of feet until I realised that there were females present, and under Islamic law females are not supposed to eat in public. We reached a compromise whereby the Kasbah would be closed to the public, the food could be brought in from outside and thus we could all eat together. Which we did, and a splendid time was had by all...
All the gear went into a large taxi and we set off for the 220-kilometre drive to Fes. This took some time, not least because at one point our cabbie started to go to sleep. I took over for a bit, but he objected strongly to my gear-changing, and tried to get out. When he took over again, Adrian in the front passenger seat thought he could keep the driver awake by making sudden random movements and by clapping irregularly. I explained that this was a traditional English car dance, but this annoyed the driver no end. "It is not a real car dance, you are just trying to keep me awake!" he shouted, feeling unjustly put-upon. He subsequently managed, while driving along the main road, to get lost inside a quarry...
Fes was quite a relief. One of the leading exponents of Aissawa music, Said Kissi, lives here and it was to his house that we headed. The Aissawa are followers of the 17th-century marabout (patron saint) Sidi Aissa, and their music is used at important ceremonies (weddings and circumcisions) and also is to be heard at football matches - Moroccan football chants are sung to the Aissawa music.
Said Kissi was due to appear at a large circumcision ceremony, and we were invited. His band consisted of two raits players - the raits is a reed instrument akin to the shenai or oboe - a host of drummers, including the great man himself, and the instrument which provides the trademark sound of the Aissawa group, the three-metre long naffar trumpet (conveniently for the player, these enormous trumpets break down into four sections). The musicians set up in a nearby house, as there was too much commotion at the site of the circumcision, and began to play. It was an extraordinary sound - like a cross between James Blood Ulmer, early Santana, and a car crash.
For the first piece, which was being photographed, the two naffar players stood left and right - a nicely symmetrical stereo arrangement, I thought. When we came to record, however, they both stood on the right. I asked why and was told that this was where they traditionally stood and, as time was pressing, that was how we did it.
Said Kissi had his own assistant, who carried the tan-tan bongos that Kissi would play in his featured solo. The bandleader manoeuvred his assistant into position by poking him with his small drumsticks, and in fact continued to poke the unfortunate man throughout the performance. In addition to being poked, the assistant's job was to hold the leader's drums in the appropriate position for the solo, and also to tune the other, larger drums over the flaming brazier which was conveniently at hand.
One of the signs of a healthy culture is its inability to absorb foreign influences without losing its own identity. This was precisely what we found when we were privileged to see and record a performance by the Berber Sheikh Ben Tahar El Hassan. His group of Berber musicians are the only Moroccan Berbers to regularly travel abroad - when we met, they had recently returned from a tour of Mexico and the US. Their preferred mode of transport was a stretched Mercedes limousine, which rather confirmed their stature.
The line-up was eight: four musicians playing kamanjeh (Arab violin), lotar (a form of flute) and a bendir, a drum with two strings stretched across the underside, producing a distorted, buzzing sound, and four girls who sang and danced. The girls also wore intricate chain jewellery, which provided effective percussion for the quiet passages.
"In Essaouira I was attacked by a small boy weilding a large wooden box because I didn't want my shoes cleaned. He hit me with his box and tried to rifle my rucksack. I bashed him with a mic stand, and we agreed to differ"
We recorded outdoors at the Ministry of Culture - the only negotiable issue here was one of encouraging the girls to remain in the same place while singing, but these people were professionals! After we'd finished, we adjourned to a local cafe for a chat, and I mentioned to the Sheikh that some of the dance movements seemed curiously familiar to me. Did he by any chance watch American TV during his stay there? Yes, he said, and also there was a satellite TV in his village, and MTV was one of his favourite stations. That explained it - at one point the girls began a movement which I could only describe as headbanging. The Sheikh agreed that he had found this on MTV but, as he said: "You might find a heavy-metal guitarist doing this movement for a few seconds during a solo, but we have taken it into an extended 10-minute section!"
After Fes came Rabat - a splendid city, but not a place for getting things done. After two days, we gave up and took the Marrakech Express. In Marrakech, we found a splendid venue in the shape of the harem of the El Glaoui Palace, strangely unoccupied when we were there. It was built earlier this century by 'The Lion Of The Atlas', Thami El Glaoui, a former governor of Marrakech and generally controversial historical figure.
The harem consisted of a number of rooms (a large number) surrounding a tiled central courtyard, with orange trees and a fountain. Here we met the Chaabi and the Melhoun musicians of Moulay Tahar — they were in fact one and the same ensemble but were going to play in the two different folkloric styles of the area. Their line-up was two kamanjeh violins, oud, tambourine, and derbouka, a clay drum.
We ran a bit for level - the singer was sitting centrally and everything was fine. Off we go, I said, and the tambourine player sitting on the far left started to sing - they were playing a different tune. It was late afternoon, still hot and sunny, and apparently very peaceful. It wasn't quite peaceful enough, though. The first recording was accompanied by birdsong from various local swifts who had turned up to watch, and the second by high-pitched squeaks from the pipistrelle bats whose sanctuary we were obviously invading.
A four-hour cab drive ride along the edge of the Middle Atlas mountains, accompanied by Leonard Cohen, Daryl Hall and the Balinese gamelan orchestra of Cucukan, brought us to Essaouira, where within five minutes I was attacked by a small boy welding a large wooden box. I understood his grievance to be that I didn't want my shoes cleaned. He hit me with his box and tried to rifle my rucksack. I bashed him with a mic stand, and we agreed to differ.
As well as being a favourite haunt of Jimi Hendrix (he wrote 'Castles Made Of Sand' about a piece of ruined palace sticking up out of the beach), Essaouira is also home to a number of Gnawa groups. None of them were in, apparently. We prevailed upon a local expatriate artist to assist us in our quest and she kindly tracked one of them down.
Gnawa music is derived from that of black slaves from Guinea, brought to Morocco in the 15th century by the Arab king Masoor. In the evenings, so the tale goes, the slaves would bewail their fate, hence the rather dark style of the music. The most identifiable instruments of the Gnawa are the hajoujouj, a three-stringed bass lute, and the garagab - large metal castanets.
"The band made an extraordinary sound - like a cross between James Blood Ulmer, early Santana, and a car crash"
Like much of what we recorded in Morocco, Gnawa is essentially trance music. It revolves around a seven-movement musical cycle, each step of which induces a trance of a different quality. The leading hajoujouj player in Morocco is one Omar Baqoue from Casablanca. The story goes that he awoke one morning to find a hajoujouj stuck to his wall. Despite never having picked one up before, he began to play like a virtuoso, and today his performances regularly last up to 12 hours.
We recorded our Gnawa group in a local house. They gave us renditions of three songs, one in praise of Allah, a hunting song, and what was in effect an introduction to one of the longer trance pieces. The volume, in such a confined space, was extreme, with the garagab coming into their own and posing a serious challenge to the input meters on my DAT recorder.
And that was the end of our quest. We had achieved most of what we had set out to but, as is so often the case with location recording, flexibility had proved to be the key word.
Various Eurocentric notions had been challenged. Why, for example, should the lead vocalist always be in the middle? Why should musicians not change their positions as they play? If the small horns are inaudible behind a battery of percussion, is this not the way the musicians have arranged it? And, in the face of these long-established traditions, who were we to suggest otherwise?
The Moroccans have a proverb for all occasions. Suitable for our adventures would be: "Slowness comes from God, haste from the Devil". Or possibly: "He whom you hate in the street will show you his bottom in the hot bath." I haven't quite worked it out.
Feature by Martin Gordon
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