cb logo

Worshipping the Absurd Since 1993!!


Cool Beans!? |
Mailorder Catalog |

Online issues |

Web stats |
Links |
Mailing List

An Evening of Music in Fes by Lee Ranaldo

The events described below took place in Autumn, 1995 when Leah Singer and I made our first visit to Morocco. One of many musical experiences we had there is described below. We are currently working on a ‘Moroccan Journal’ of our visits there, to be published by Ring Tarigh in spring 1998. -LR


7 September 1995 Lr1.jpg (26517 bytes)


Leah and I returned to the hotel before dinner, to take advantage of the great tiled hammam, or sauna, which was an original part of the Palais Jamais, when it was a true king’s palace. An old Moroccan man was in attendance; he gave us each in turn a massage in the traditional style, spreading camphor oil over our bodies before rubbing us down and leaving us to steam in the great tile sauna of ancient court echoes. In a massive room of blue and white tile we spent a very relaxing hour, naked and alone, behind the heavy wooden door of the hammam, before returning to our room to prepare for the evening.


We met Abduletif, who had been our guide to the city for the last couple of days, in front of the Jamais at the appointed time, planning to thank him, pay him, and head off on our own for the evening. But he had other plans for us! He had casually joked with us, the day before, when we finally got up the nerve to speak with him about kif, hash, and majoun practices, that we should come to his home for a meal. He would invite musicians he knew, to play for us, and there would be fine Moroccan hashish if we liked. At the time we hadn’t realized that he was quite serious, and now he claimed that his wife was at that moment preparing a sumptuous meal for us. We were confused at first, still somewhat on guard around this strange dark man in his dusty jeans, crazy wall eye forever staring off into a corner of the sky, but in the end we decided that it was too genuine an offer to refuse, and, after making our plans known to the hotel concierge (just in case), we headed off into the medina with our guide.


His home was a short five minute walk from the hotel. I don’t know what we were expecting, but after navigating two dark flights of stairs we came to his apartment-immaculate white walls and beautiful brocade fabrics on the sitting room banquettes-the clean and simple nature of the place took us by surprise. He explained that he and his wife had very European tastes, and tried to maintain a neat household, often to the jealousy of their neighbors. His wife Amina came out to meet us, speaking slowly in French with Leah; a pretty dark-haired young woman. She sat with us for awhile, as did their six year old son, Sala, whom we had encountered the day before running across a crowded medina street to greet his father-our guide, who gave him a kiss on the forehead and sent him off with pride. They had various tchotchkes on the walls, a color TV tuned to some fuzzy station, a VCR-much more set up than we might have imagined. Again I had that feeling of the modern world grafted onto ancient ways.


We sat and chatted with the family group for awhile before Amina excused herself to attend to the cooking. The meal was very simple and delicious-skewers of lamb are a staple here, and these were cooked over a small clay brassier filled with coals and set right by the front door, on the floor. Sala fanned the coals with a pot lid as the meat cooked on the small grill. The entire house filled with smoke from the cooking, but this seemed a matter of course, no-one mentioning or taking any special notice of it, aside from Leah and I. The natural front-to-back ventilation kept it from being a great problem. The meat was eaten between pieces of the great flat bread that is their staple here-this was the ‘Moroccan hamburger’ Bachir had mentioned the other night. While dinner was being served, and bottles of Coca-Cola and mineral water brought up from the shop downstairs, the musicians arrived! Abdullah and Mohammed, black G’naouans, descended from Senegalese Africans, I believe. They brought a large three stringed instrument called a go-gol in with them, and large metallic castanet-like hand percussion pieces. Leah knows the G’naouan musician Hassan Hak Moon, who lives in New York City, and these fellows were astonished, saying they knew him well. Dinner was set on the table, and they began tuning up while we all ate.


All, that is, except Amina, who pretty much made her exit once the food was prepared. Throughout the long night of music and conversation she remained confined to the other end of the house, out of sight. This we understood to be Muslim tradition, the women not welcome or involved in the pursuits of the men. As westerners it is a very puzzling situation, and a major stumbling block in our ability to understand, or feel compassion towards, Islam. On the street you will see women walking together in groups, or with children, but almost never a couple out walking together. The men seem to run all the shops, while the women stay in the home. They are kept especially segregated if there are male visitors about from outside the immediate family. Leah, it seemed, was exempt from these rules by virtue of being a foreigner.


In this area Islam is ultra-conservative, traditional and behind the times of modern culture. I thought of the women’s conference being held, in these very days, in Beijing, China-another country/culture where women remain unliberated, unequal. Weird. We never saw Amina again during our visit.

lr2.jpg (13366 bytes)

With dinner over the G’naouans began to play-at first Abdullah played the go-gol and Mohammed the metal castanets. As they sung together Mohammed rose and began dancing as well, whirling around and performing dance-steps in the tiny sitting area where we sat. He was the dervish of these two-even later when sitting his arms would move sinewy and dance-like to the music they made. They each took turns on the go-gol, singing fabulous call and response rounds in Moghrebi. You could clearly hear American Blues music in their voices and rhythmic phrasing. The main difference seemed to be the lack of a straight 4/4 beat. When Abdullah would play, and sing in his beautiful scratchy, high pitched voice, Mohammed would keep up a complicated clapping figure with his hands. It was regular but not simply repetitive-both simple and complex at once. Later, when I joined in as well, clapping in 4/4 time, it all meshed and my figure immediately tied this music to rock and roll. You could feel the push and drive of rock in it once the second and fourth beats were accented.


The go-gol was like a strange bass guitar, with a long rectangular body covered in skin; a larger version of the guimbri Bachir had played back in Jajouka, days earlier. Two strings were to pluck with the fingers, with one higher pitched drone string lying beneath them, closer to skin. At the top of the headstock was a hole into which fit a piece of hammered metal, shaped like a large bird’s feather, to which were attached little rounds of wire which shimmered and rattled while the instrument was played. Similar in effect to a ‘sizzle cymbal’, the strange random rhythms created by this addition were a wonderful accompaniment to the bass drone of the strings, and reminded me of the electric crunch of distortion which overlays the tones of an electric guitar with a fuzzy coloration. This metal piece was removed for some songs. allowing the pure bottomy sounds of the instrument to resound.


I tried to play this go-gol at one point, and found the spacing of the strings a much more difficult proposition than I had the guimbri in Jajouka. Only later did I realize that I was trying to pluck the drone string as well, which they do not do. I picked out a few licks, finally using a guitar pick from my pocket which I could tell seemed odd to them-in any case they had no comment on my attempt to play the thing! From Mohammed’s deep voice to Abdullah’s whispering bluesy moans they continued trading back and forth. It was a splendid privilege to witness this African folk music in such a setting. These two played on and on all night as we sat and listened, breaking to retune and for fractured conversationsin French, Moghrebi and English-and on this one night I left my DAT recorder in the hotel!


The moment dinner was concluded Abduletif pulled out a large stone of fine Maroc hash, and proceeded to roll one bomber after another-mixed with tobacco, Euro-style-and pass them ‘round. Although Amina was forbidden to attend, little Sala stayed for quite awhile, crouched on the far side of a low wall which separated the sitting area from the living room, until his little eyes could stay open no longer. He appeared quietly fascinated by the music, which I assumed was a somewhat frequent occurrence, and by we foreigners, but seemed decidedly non-plussed by the smoke.


Soon other Moroccan friends and cousins began dropping by, to sit and join in on some of the call and response songs, which I understood to be about bringing good luck to family and friends, African tales and stories of the land, and about Berber legends and the Berber people as well, personalized by the same kind of autobiographical details as much rap music is. After a short time there seemed to be nearly a dozen of us sitting in that tiny room, and soon one friend brought out a sebsi (kif pipe) as well, which was passed around. This kif was harsh like that we’d had in Tanger, not at all sweet like the kif in the Rif. In Jajouka the kif is smoked straight, and is very mild, but it is generally grown alongside tobacco, in the same soil, with which it is cut, seven parts kif to four tobacco. As with the Europeans, the two weeds go hand in hand here. Abduletif said hash is never smoked alone, the way we might smoke it in America.


We listened to the songs, and talked about various affairs, from the Bosnian situation to Abduletif’s very personal feelings about life, which he expounded on at length. Conversation alternated between French, English, and Moghrebi. Abduletif proved to be an insightful thinker, and in the exchange of business cards which occurred later (they marveled that we had none, as it is quite a standard practice in all walks of life) it was revealed that he had been the guide for a National Geographic expedition to Morocco some 12 years ago.


Another incredible evening of music, another very personal setting which is always such an authentic treat in a foreign land. People here can be very friendly, so warm and giving, as we have found over and over; a marked contrast to the hustlers which also abound. The expression "make like your home!" is in common usage here, and we were urged this over and over again by our sweet buddy Abduletif.


It was difficult to say goodnight and goodbye to our odd-looking friend, which by now we certainly considered him, after the short walk back through the deserted medina. I gave him 350 DH for this day, which I knew to be a healthy fee on the one hand, and yet not very much at all back in our world. We promised to send on a package of western tee shirts emblazoned with logos which Abduletif favored, as well as cassettes, blank videotapes, and a new school bag for Sala, when we returned to New York City, which at the moment seems somewhere on the other side of time. And so it was farewell to our guide and recent friend, the world a bit larger for us as we entered the great doorway of the Palais Jamais to pack for our morning departure and our final full day in Morocco.



all pix: Lee Ranaldo / Leah Singer

lr3.jpg (14074 bytes)