Moroccan Soundscapes

I visited Morocco back in 2010 and had an amazing time.  I performed at the Gnawa Festival in Essaouira and met some amazing musicians and people.  I hope to post my account one of these days on this blog but in the meantime I came across a post by one of my former students from my American University days, Eric Schmidt.  He played in the jazz ensemble I directed and was a dedicated saxophonist.  He is now finishing up his degree in ethnomusicology and has some interesting stories to tell about his experiences in far off places like Morocco.  He visited Marrakesh earlier this year and has some insights about how we experience music in public and private spaces.  I re-posted a part of one of his blog entries, hope you enjoy it. 

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 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:

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