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Music and dance

Music is an integral part of daily life in Morocco. Music is played at all family get-togethers and moussems and also celebrates agricultural work. Two main kinds of music coexist in Morocco: Berber music, which accompanies a range of regional dances, and Arab music, which can be classified into two types: classical (of Andalucian influence) and popular (of diverse origins).

Berber music and dance

The songs of the Middle Atlas are accompanied by a unique collective dance called the ahidous . The dancers (men and women) stand around the person leading the music in a circle and sway from the waist while singing rhythmic poems to the beat of tambourines.

In the High Atlas and the Sous , the Berbers perform an ahouach . This can be danced by men, by women or by a mixed group, but all the musicians are male. The women, dressed in long silk robes, form a circle around the musicians, sitting close to the fire which they have used to warm up their tambourines beforehand. As a general rule, the song has four parts. In the first part, a soloist performs, and the initial refrain is taken up by the chorus of dancers and the tambourine. After this, male and female voices alternate, growing gradually stronger. All the dancers begin to move in time to the melody and the steps, and the music and singing become faster and faster.

The best-known Rif songs are those of the Beni Arous , natives of the Beni Ourighel region. They can be individual or collective. The most famous troupes, the Imdyazens and Izfourn, perform with a tambourine and a long flute: the Ishrrafn owe their reputation to a form of poetry in which romanticism and spirituality mingle.

Arab music

Classic Arab or “Andalucian” music , called al-ala , was introduced into Morocco under the reign of the Almoravids (11C-12C) who were political allies of Andalucia. It consists of a variety of scales and its powerful, dense text is generally sung by men in a pure version of literary Arabic . Part relaxation, part entertainment, “Andalucian” music is mostly heard in the large northern towns, over tea and cakes, which is why it is referred to as “profane” or “bourgeois”.

The sama of the moussem , a pure form of the al-ala , is holy music. Instruments are banned and the voice is accompanied only by clapping. The sama is composed of tributes and homage is paid to the Prophet Muhammad on the day of his birth (Mouloud) .

Popular music in dialectal Arab perpetuates a rich, varied oral poetic tradition. It can be heard in towns, in the countryside and in the Western Sahara. The most famous music of this type is the ayta . In the western plains (Casablanca and Beni-Mellal) the ayta is sung by a group of women, chikhates , who mockingly and sadly relate ancestral myths and stories. In the north-west regions (Tangier, Tetouan, Chechaouene), the ayta is reminiscent of the Spanish flamenco.

Gnawa music can be heard mainly in Marrakech, Fès, Meknès and Essaouira. More up-to-date versions have spread abroad with groups such as the Barbès National Orchestra and Gnawa Diffusion. Originally from sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana and Nigeria), the Gnawa sing religious poems in a dialectal Arab mixed with expressions from their original language. The gnawi ceremony is intended to ward off the djinns, evil spirits who seek to take advantage of all Muslims. The music’s jerky rhythm sends the dancers into a trance. Every year a festival of gnawa music is held at Essaouira.

Malhûn music originally comes from Tafilalt, in the desert areas of the region of Er-Rachidia, but then spread to the craftsmen’s guilds in the medinas of the Imperial cities. It extols the highest human value, love, while evoking the Prophet in a supremely poetic manner. The singer and lute player, El Hadj Houcine Toulali, whose first recordings date from the 1950s, is the best-known representative of malhûn art.

Aïssaoua music is performed by the brotherhood of the same name, whose spirit­ual leader (sheikh) is Sidi Mohammed ben Aïssa. Every year thousands of pilgrims flock to Meknès to the tomb of this saint, who died in the 16C. Most of the brother­hood’s members now live in the towns. Those who have remained faithful to the land are better known as Gharbaoua , from the Gharb region where they come from. The Aïssaouas’ texts are based on speeches made by the Chioukhs , men who have benefited from the sheikh’s good fortune. Passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, these texts are combined with Koranic verses and tributes to the Prophet. The music, whose rhythm gradually speeds up, sends the dancers into a trance. The faithful take part in a sort of collective lamentation before identifying with an animal, which they then imitate. A famous painting by Delacroix, evocatively entitled Convulsions , depicts an Aïssaoua ceremony.

Modern Egyptian music (al-mussiqa asriyya) was imported into Morocco under the French Protectorate. The whole country became enamoured of it and regional orchestras – the most famous singers were Leyla Helmi and Mohammed Abd el-Muttalib – were established in Casablanca, Rabat and Fès. However, the artistic population, intent on preserving its national heritage, returned to the Moroccan dialect in the 1950s.

Raï , which came over the border from Algeria in the 1990s, has proved extremely popular among Morocco’s youth. A Moroccan singer, Cheb Amrou combines Arab sensuality with a techno beat.

Musical instruments

Most classical instruments , on which “Andalucian” music is played, are made in Fès and in northern Morocco. Several sorts of wooden lute exist (Andalucian aoud lute, small lute, four-stringed lute, Jewish lute). The rebab is a two-stringed instrument with a concave resonance chamber and decorated with geometric patterns; the viola with bow appeared in Morocco in the 17C; the derbouka , a percussion instrument, often in blue ceramic from Fès and covered with a tautened sheep skin; the tambourine , made from copper disks (tnaten) which vibrate after being shaken on a goat’s skin.

To accompany popular songs , musicians use a ghaita , an oboe with ten holes; a bendir or tar , a 30cm-diameter tambourine with a wooden frame and goatskin; the gimbri , a two- or three-stringed lute used by the Gnawa of Marrakech and ayta singers; the haj-houj , a lute generally made out of walnut and cow’s or goat’s hide, also played by the Gnawa ; the taajira , a brass or ceramic and goatskin percussion instrument, used by malhun singers. The Gnawa use rattles or qarabek to beat time to their dances.


In addition to all the religious and public holidays, a host of popular ceremonies which mingle religion with folklore take place throughout the year. In the countryside for example, the inhabitants regularly meet to give thanks when a crop is harvested.

The fantasia

So dear to Delacroix and other lovers of exotica, the fantasia symbolises the might and glory of the 19C Arab and Berber warriors. Riders perform movements at a full gallop in order to show off their equestrian skills, while simultaneously firing their rifles in the air and shouting at the tops of their voices. The costumes, weapons and horses’ apparel are quite sumptuous. The riders, dressed in white clothes and turban, carry a satchel over their shoulder with verses of the Koran together with a long, curved dagger in a velvet scabbard. The rifle (moukkala) is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory and has a chiselled butt. These wonderful shows can be seen during most of the main festivals and in particularly, at moussems .

The moussem

The word moussem from “mawsim” means “periodic event”. In the pre-Islamic period, a moussem was a market at the crossroads of caravan routes (such as to Mecca), where trade was combined with a number of festivals. The location was often chosen because it was close to a sanctuary and would thus receive divine protection. Nowadays, moussems are popular religious-cum-folklore festivals, which associate a pilgrimage to a saint’s tomb with the commercial function of a fair and the added bonus of entertainment. In Morocco between 600 and 700 such gatherings take place every year, of which there are two types. The first type of moussem is dependent on the agricultural calendar and over half of these festivals take place between August and October, when the time-consuming harvests are over. The second sort of moussem are those based on the Prophet’s birthday (Mouloud) and follow the Muslim calendar. Almost all moussem take place in the country and last between a day and a week.

The moussem of Moulay Idris II el-Azhar takes place in September. In tribute to the founder of Fès, all the city’s craftsmen walk in their brother­hoods to the medina. Songs and dances are performed by Koranic students and members of religious orders, accompanied by men carrying wooden sticks from which enormous dolls dressed in bridal costume hang! At Essaouira and Salé, the spring moussem of the ­Regragas lasts 38 days, during which time the descendants of seven Berber saints carry out a 44-stage tour (daour) . Near El-Jadida, the little village of Moulay Abdallah Amghar attracts almost 150 000 visitors every August. Tents are put up to accommodate the pilgrims and riders who come to perform their breathtaking fantasias. The sight of so many horses and riders lined up opposite the sea is quite magical. Guelmim is another famous moussem , in honour of Saint Sidi Ahmed Aanaro. It provides a chance to catch a glimpse of the famous blue men who come here for the camel fair, and to discover the amazing guedra dance: a musician slowly beats an earthenware tambourine ( tebel sahraoui) while a group of women sing and gracefully move their arms until they fall into a trance.

Regional festivals

The legendary rose festival takes place in the breathtaking Dadès and M’Goun Valleys between the orchards and fields of barley and corn. Every Spring, thousands of wild roses are collected to be distilled in the factories of El-Kelaâ M’Gouna and Souk Khemis, both of which were built around 1940. This fragrant festival always attracts large numbers of visitors who come to enjoy the rhythmic dances of El-Kelaâ M’Gouna. Young girls, dressed in colourful dresses and wearing long necklaces of silver and pearl, await the final verdict, the election of “Miss Rose”!

At Sefrou, cherries take pride of place. Regional ahouach dances are performed and after her election, “Miss Cherry” rides past atop a superb float worthy of The Arabian Nights .

In October, many of Tafilalt’s tribes gather at Erfoud to celebrate the date festival . Round, oval, scented, bitter or sweet, the dates are displayed in a giant souk which generally lasts for three days. After the ritual prayer at the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Cherif at Rissani, the locals return to the streets of Erfoud to watch the procession of regional folklore groups, students and majorettes.

Other fruits have given rise to further famous festivals: almonds at Tafraoute in February; apples and pears at Fès in August; olives in the Rif and clementines at Oujda in December. There is also a cotton harvest (in March at Beni-Mellal) and a honey festival (in July at Agadir).

Lastly, close on 300 camels can be seen at Agadir’s sahraoui festival . The days revolve around camel races and regional dancing and singing performances, including the famous Laayoune warriors’ dance. In the evening, the men meet in the tents to smoke the Saharan pipe.

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