Saturday, August 13, 2011

We made it back. Settling into life in Gainesville and growing out of those hazy memories of Morocco. As it becomes obvious that life is moving forward, I am shifting my blog to my website: and I will be leaving Blogger behind... Go check it out and leave some comments!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Youssou Ndour, Explained

The View From Fez used a few of my comments on their article about Fes Café's concert last night.

They also let me add some meat to their Youssou Ndour article, explaining a bit of the unexpected ending that highlighted the performance.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Photos from the Festival of Sacred Music

For the duration of the festival, I'm going to try to upload some of my favorite photos each day or so. Since I'm fairly lazy, and just putting up a long series of posts here of only large pictures would drag down the entire page, I'm going to go ahead and use Facebook's photo uploader. If you don't have an account or are not my friend (why would that be?), you can access the constantly expanding album here. Check back often!

Nass al-Ghiwane and Darqawiyya - great sounds from different worlds

Nass al-Ghiwane rocked Boujloud last night. Here is the article. PS: The titles of these things are not mine...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Saida Fikri @ Boujloud and Harakiyya Brotherhood at Dar Tazi

As the Fez Festival of Sacred Music gets underway, I'm going to be writing for a local blog (that gets many more hits than mine). Check out the first article here, about Saida Fikri's performance at Bab Boujloud and the beginning of the Sufi Nights afterward.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The View from Fez...

The folks at The View from Fez, a blog about life in and around the city, have asked me to write for their coverage of the Festival of Sacred Music. While I'll be posting a few things here and there, much of it will mirror what I send them, and since many, many more people read that, it's going to get my attention for the week. I recommend following the site for a while to keep up with this dense time of activity!

Leyla et Majnun: and the Festival Begins

Starting with a bang. (Sorry, I couldn't help it.)
Tonight, with the world premiere of Armand Amar's "Layla and Majnun or the Mystic Love," the 17th Fes Festival of Sacred Music opened its doors. The event began with pomp as the crowd waited for the arrival of Princess Lalla Salma. After her arrival, when the guests returned to their seats and after a few opening remarks, the newly composed oratorio began.

The piece was a setting of a classical Arabic story in which Qays ibn al-Mulawwah falls madly in for Layla, whom he met while a young man. Yet, his love overcame him, driving him to the point of madness, causing her father to forbid their marriage. He becomes known instead as Majnun, a term reserved in Arabic for the insane or possessed.

The performance opened with a reading of the story, featuring the sound of the Arabic poetry. Once the oratorio was fully underway, however, the array of solo vocalists performed in Arabic, Farsi, Urdi, Turkish, Mongolian, and French. As the movements continued, it became obvious that this was a composition about the sound and flexibility of the human voice. For a quick example, this ( was one of the included techniques, something few of the audience members likely knew was possible!

Waiting for Royalty
To be completely honest, however, I must say that it was Bruno Le Levreur who stood out among the impressive cast of performers. His contra-tenor (singing in the high female soprano range) was controlled, lyric, and graceful. When his moments approached, the bed of music around him lowered into simple, classical accompaniments. The purity of his tone emphasized the balanced melodies and heightened the aura of elegance that spread across Bab al-Makina.

The composition itself straddled that difficult line, bringing Arabic musical ideas and stylings into Western classical space. Amar negotiated the space between the melodically-driven "Eastern" elements and the harmonically-centered "Western" by often privileging the modes, melodies, and ornaments that are so common here in Morocco and elsewhere in the Arab world. Phrases were long, exercising the listeners' patience, rewarding them with beautifully rendered cadences and closures. Non-Western scales pervaded the work, but they were often underpinned by similarly expansive harmonies from the strings or pulsing rhythms from the deep percussion.

It is easy to become used to hearing vocal acrobatics in the form of high, fast, or powerful notes and sounds, but the featured performers tonight challenged, and ultimately extended, expectations. By including vocalists from unique traditions across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the oratorio focused on exploring the breath and sound of the human body. In doing so, it attempted to make concrete the connection between spirit and body, of the sacred of religious experience and the sacred of artistic expression.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

From Virginia to Fez: Maghrebi Bluegrass "Fusion"

This past Tuesday, we all went to a bluegrass concert. Yes, that's right. Bluegrass in Fez. The US Embassy in Rabat and a variety of local sponsors brought a pair of Virginians to Morocco for "une série de concerts de fusion maroco-américaine." They were joined throughout the entire tour by Abdelilah el-Miry, a Moroccan musical celebrity (thanks, in part, to his visible Simon Cowell-like presence on an American Idol recreation of sorts). Local musicians filled out the "band" in each of the three cities: in Fez it was augmented with four members of an Andalusian troupe.

As I sat waiting (the performance finally started 45 minutes late!), I was unnerved, as I usually am when concerts advertise "fusion" so readily. The American musicians were flying through a whirlwind tour of Casablanca, Tangier, Fez, and Chefchaouen. How were they to "fuse" with anyone other than Miry?

The crowd consisted of a mix of American and European expats and Moroccans. While it was not as full as other events I'd seen in the building, it was great to watch Moroccans getting down with some bluegrass. (Sadly, most of the foreigners, were less enthused about the Moroccan music... I'll get into that later.)

Just before our down-home Virginians came out, there was an introduction in Arabic and English that confirmed my suspicions, and heightened my anxiety: "echos" of the music won't sound "that foreign," and these two traditions may catch you buy surprise, even sounding like something that "you might hear on the radio." I've heard this discourse before, including at the slew of festivals that inundate Morocco every summer. The truth is, though, that sometimes these projects fail (confused musicians trying to make the best out of an awkward and hastily assembled musical opportunity), sometimes they soar (real cohesion into something you've never heard before, and may not hear again). Oddly enough, they rarely fall in between these two extremes. Our "Bluegrass Maghribi" event had a bit of both.

As James Leva and Danny Knicely entered the stage, we finally got to hear some music. They picked up their fiddle and guitar, diving right into a series of old fiddle tunes. (A quick rant, that I'm sure few of you will care about, but I need to get off my chest nonetheless: very little of what they played was actually bluegrass. These old tunes and harmonies were just as much Appalachian old-timey music, not surprising since the two musicians hail from closer to the east coast than Bill Monroe's old Kentucky.) Their playing was refreshing, it felt like home.

When Abdelilah el-Miry walked out with his suissen (a small stringed instrument used in a vast array of Moroccan genres), they took their first stab at "fusion." By taking advantage of the bluesy licks inherent in some Amazight musics of the Atlas mountains, the group passed phrases back and forth, almost playing a game of Simon Says. They met the goal - establishing a point of commonality, of similarity, of familiarity - but the high points of the song were those moments when one of the performers grew restless, took a solo, and momentarily extended that point of departure into an actual platform from which to depart. This, after all, is the point of fusion. But it was just the first kernel, an experiment, one that was probably more appropriate for the rehearsal space than the stage. It was still voices speaking at each other, not yet a conversation. The sum of the parts was still greater than the whole.

When the band grew further, with the addition of four members of a Fessi Andalusian music troupe, the concert changed course. The focus shifted to playing Andalusian songs, from the dominant classical music tradition of northern Morocco. The performers were phenomenal. This, however, was where these types of events often fall short. Instead of "fusion" as advertised, visiting musicians are asked to play other genres of music, to be part of a group and play things that, well, are foreign to them. With just a few days notice, and a packed schedule of travel and performance, how are they to effectively participate in genres that carry so much depth? How are they to do anything other than hope the remember the notes to a song that they admit to having learned that morning? They can't help but to struggle alongside their expert counterparts, hoping for some leadership and just a sliver of a chance to add something from their own musicality to the final product. Having been in this situation myself, I can't help but feel the frustration that comes with hoping to cling to the fluency of your neighbor.

On this account, Miry was really the star of the show. An American fiddle song hobbyist here in Morocco, he demonstrated an adeptness for both the Moroccan and the old-timey. He went beyond playing notes that fit the scale, harmonies that worked with the melodies. His interpretation, his musical ideas, and his delivery reached "fluency" (for lack of a better word).

While the event oscillated between the Moroccan and American, with the encore the group peaked. James Leva put down his fiddle and reached instead for the clawhammer banjo (a fundamental ingredient to the old-timey sound) and the effect was jarring. Performing a sung melody that is ubiquitous throughout Morocco, all the musicians were equally comfortable, excited, and ready to contribute. The major key and implied harmony gave space for James and Danny to add harmonies and phrases above the rest of the texture, and the banjo/'ud combination added the missing texture. They achieved their goal, they found that elusive familiarity and gave a new musical ideas to those who sat through the event. (When they heard that the final song would be Moroccan, a number of the expats simply got up and left, presumably uninterested in hearing more Andalusian music.) The real shame, though, is that just two days later, James, Danny, and el-Miry had to go to Casablanca and begin their search anew with a different cast of musicians and music.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Friday, April 1, 2011

An Evening of Malhun at Jnan Palace

Abd al-Lawi of Meknès (far left), wrapping up last night's event with a good dose classical Moroccan wit
Last night I had the honor of attending the latest event put together by the Club Khamis Tourat, a Fessi organization that works to preserve traditional music and arts in throughout the city. The concert was the most recent of the monthly events at the Jnan Palace Fès Hotêl, and this edition featured five malhun singers from the city and nearby regions.

As soon as I walked into the wide hotel lobby, I recognized a number of musicians from the official radio station, people I had only met the day before. In good Moroccan custom, they approached me as an old friend, with wide, brightly lit smiles, excited that I was able to attend the show. I sat and spoke at length with some of the violinists, oud players, and singers who filled the stage, dressed in the clean lines of traditional jallabas and deep red fesses. Also in good Moroccan custom, the music failed to get underway until at least an hour after the scheduled time. (Similarly, the concert ended after 11:00, when the 7:00-9:00 written on the ticket was fading into distant memory.) Members of the group introduced me to visiting artists, explaining the not-so-subtle shifts forced upon them for the sake of their guests. Abd an-Nabi, for example, an upright bass player from the previous morning at the studio, opted to play cello, allowing an esteemed colleague from Meknès to step in on his preferred instrument.

Mohammed Sousi and Abd al-Ali Talibi, comfortably chatting as the 'ud players prepare for the performance
The event begins with a prayer, the musicians waiting patiently on stage. Not much later, a group of singers arrives, women who are learning the art of the malhun from Mohammed Sousi, one of the featured performers. As they ascend and take their places behind the musicians, you notice their caftans (elegant dresses), hair and makeup. Their dress emphasizes the importance of events like these - they would make any bride jealous.

After a series of introductions and blessings, the music bursts from the speakers. Immediately cameras pop up from the crowd as seated spectators race to capture the moment with point-and-shoot videos or makeshift iPhone photography. The hum of conversation continues under the strength of the sound reinforcement.

Abdellah Chakroun (center, facing away), the honored guest, receives one of his many congratulations and thanks during the intermission
Malhun is a genre of Moroccan music that straddles the divide between sacred and secular, just as it seamlessly moves from popular to art music, residing in a space between these (sometimes less than useful) labels. Songs are actually poems (qasdia, pl. qasa'id) with a refrain (harba) divided into long sections and sung by the munshid. Last night's event featured five munshids, some of the most prominent in this part of the country. The poetry is in Moroccan Arabic, not the classical Arabic or Egyptian that you hear in most forms of "imported" music. Subjects range from the religious (even borrowing from sacred qasa'id), to the comedic. The munshid alternates his long verses with the harba, sung by the full group, including musicians. Instrumental solos, based loosely on the main melodic content of the song, punctuate each 20-minute performance. Like much Arabic music, all the musicians on stage ebb and flow around one melodic idea, ornamenting it freely, creating a dense, yet somehow very simple, texture of overlaid sounds. (For an example of malhun recorded just the other day, see my last post and the story that goes along with it.)

Hiya bu-Khris takes the mic and commands the orchestra through her qasida
The ensemble was quite large, filling the stage with the stark white/red of the traditional outfits. Just under 30 musicians, including singers, percussionists (darbouka, riqq, and the dreaded electronic drum pad), 'uds, violins, and cellos were joined by the more traditional ginbri, an instrument often seen in Amazigh music, different Moroccan Sufi traditions, and elsewhere. The strings held a low pitch, giving a footing to a young virtuoso violinist as he opened the second song with a taqsim, an improvisation exploring the melodic mode, the scale, introducing it to the singers and the crowd. He, like all the fiddle players, held the instrument upright, setting it on his knee. The bow is held underhand, in a grip akin to the "German bow" used by many classical bass players. While he draws the bow across the string, he actually twists the instrument in order to change which string he's playing on, a technique specific to malhun and other Andalusian violinists, one probably based on the rabab, an older spike fiddle seen across the Middle East.

Mohammed al-Nahbiwi (third from the right), featured in "Dir ma'ya l-hsan"
As Abd al-Ali Talibi wipes his forehead, removing his fes to clean the sweat from his marathon that opened the concert, Mohammed Sousi dives into the second qasida, "Zaynib." The meter shifts seamlessly between 4 and 5 beats per cycle. The 5-count has an off kilter feel to it, yet it's slow enough that you don't quite notice until you try and pay attention. Multiple percussionists and singers beat interlocking simple rhythms on small clay drums until the sum of the parts is a tightly-knit dense layer, over which the singing and string players set their simultaneous melodic ornamentations. After the qasida runs its course, the ensemble picks up the tempo, the crowd beings clapping in line with the different percussive hockets, and the energy tugs the song to a close. This is the standard ending for the malhun, and sounds familiar - it's a practice that's repeated throughout much of Morocco's spiritual music.

The evening was dedicated to researcher and author al-Ustad Abdellah Chakroun. He was the center of attention during a prolonged presentation between the second and third performers. Speeches, a short film, and awards found themselves directed toward one of the men to preserve and present the malhun, other Andalusian music, and, if I understood correctly, intellectual property law in Africa.

Those who made it to the end were treated to high energy finales, enough to get people on their feet
The second half of the concert featured two women, Hiya bu-Khris and Fatima Zahra al-Wazani, a welcome programming choice in the masculine world of Moroccan professional musicians. However, the difference between the two could not be more striking as Hiya's poise and power carried the ensemble in new directions, a diversion away from the opening (male) voices. Yet Fatima Zahra lacked the courage necessary to lead, and in the delicacy of her voice one could hear the struggle in performing malhun. Those who have listened to flamenco may recognize the raw tonal quality desired, something halfway between singing and shouting. The inexperienced singer, unable to maintain the stamina necessary for pushing out an entire qasida, falls prey to the difficulties of rising above such a large ensemble. Fatigue is audible, inconsistencies arise, pitch falls, the munshid loses control. It is an important reminder of the physical and mental strain inherent in performance.

Mohammed Abd al-Lawi of Meknès closed the performances with a qasida, "Hasan al-Kharbiti," dripping with wit. As it begins: "Have you heard the poem about Hasan? The day of his wedding was coming..." Those to stuck it out to the end were rewarded with this story, poor Hasan's trials in preparing for his wedding night.

Mohammed Sousi (center, grey jallaba) with the singers and event organizers from Club Khamis Tourat

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The afternoon's work extends into the evening

So it didn't take quite as long as I expected to get around to uploading the recording from this afternoon in the studio with Mohammed Essousi. Here's a link, although the parade of photos were at his request...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Poetry to my ears

The last few days saw a drastic change in the intensity of my work here in Morocco. Of course, this is in a good way, a sudden increase and a return to the way I remember this kind of work going in Morocco. You put in the time, then something clicks (in this case two things), and you're off sprinting.

Earlier this week, I was invited to a wedding, an American man (whom I had never met) marrying a Fessi woman (whom I had also never met). I declined the offer from a mutual friend and well-known local Hamadsha musician. Yet I did go with him as he waited for it to start. We sat at a café and he called one of his friends.

Mohammed Sousi (right) and Abd an-Nabi, the first upright bass player I've spoken with in Fez. He let me touch it. I miss bass.
Shortly thereafter, Mohammed Sousi arrived. He sings a genre of Moroccan music called "malhun," something that I had known of, but never investigated thoroughly. When he explained that many of the texts (qasa'id, poems or stories) come from religious sources, I piqued my interest. Here is a music, considered classical, that includes violins, bass, cello, yet is still sung in Moroccan Arabic. Modern forms are incredibly popular as artists add reggae-ish bass lines, keyboards, and far more electronic sounds than I'm comfortable hearing at one time. Despite my focus on the ritual and religious sounds of Fes' musical life, malhun has the potential to bridge the sacred and secular in a firm, concrete way.

The singer invited me to his house a few days later, asking me to bring my fiddle along. After a long, pleasant walk through my old neighborhood (where I lived in 2006), I found him at an imposing, shiny, oversized café. He grabbed my arm, pulled me along the road reminding me to remember the route, so I can find it again without his help next time. I had to prove my memory to him when we arrived by drawing up a quick map in my notebook. I had passed my first test.

Even in the studio, you're surrounded by the ubiquitous Moroccan tea.
After a terse introduction to his family and the obligatory tea (wasn't I just at a café?), the more important test came. As I prepared my violin, I remembered my endless promises to myself that I'd practice constantly and consistently while in Fes, making it worthwhile for me to bring the instrument along. Since buying a banjo, I had hardly even looked at the poor thing. I had pulled it out a day or two before, just to remember how it works, and hopefully that would be enough to keep from embarrassing myself. It was, thank God! As soon as he started singing and gesturing for me to follow the melodic contour, two long-forgotten parts of my brain flicked on: aural skills and faking. When you spend enough time learning to sight sing, playing in funk bands, and trying to solidify three part harmonies in a bluegrass group, that particular lobe of grey matter kicks into gear quickly. As for faking, I'm still unsure where that dividing line sits between sounding good (legitimately) and doing so because you know how to make it sound like you sound good... Convoluted, eh? Yes. C'est la vie.

Two of the four violinists (kamanji) warm up. Players set the instrument on their knees and play it upright. Instead of changing the angle of the bow to hit different strings, they simply twist the fiddle a bit with a flick of the wrist to move up and down the range.
After our sit, on the floor, of course, he told me to join him tomorrow at the ida'a. (What's the ida'a? It's the ida'a. Oh, ok.) Somehow I found it this morning without losing hours of my life. It was the state recording studio, and I was about to observe a recording of the song that I had just heard for the first time. Luckily, I didn't  have to perform. Yet.

The building had the sense of being just a nudge or two above not-quite-official. Wood paneled walls, oddly arranged rooms, and a general no-longer-white coloration consumed the place. Suddenly, though, the group kicked into gear and they were off. Everyone knew the song, no discussion of form or key, and the communication between musicians added to the lively beat. I made a recording myself, using my pocket-sized gadget, which I will hopefully post someplace useful online in the coming days. It's worth the listen.

Mohammed Sousi at his home showing of a recent gift. Someone had written a favorite poem on an animal skin and framed it.
Si Mohammed invited me back to his house, and thanks to a ride from one of the violinists and the 'ud player, we didn't have to fight for a taxi just before lunchtime. I sat with the family, they each took turns discussing the beauty of the recording, and then, just when I was starting to starve, a plate of fried sardines appeared in the kitchen. They even gave me a gift, a set of light wool pants and shirt that hang loosely and are worn with a tarboush (think "fez") and yellow slippers. The generosity was the result of a slip of the tongue from the day before, when I mentioned that I wanted a pair of pants "like those" at some point in the future.

The afternoon concluded with a return to the recording studio where Mohammed and some of the girls from his ensemble were doing a series of interviews for a local radio problem. I sat with them, understanding the words but not the context, and before I knew it, I was being asked questions about myself, working in Morocco. Yet, instead of discussing music or my work, I was thrown off-guard with a series of interrogations on my favorite Moroccan food. In the moment, of course, I couldn't think of lamb with prunes, and so I just fumbled like a fool, trying to reconcile the situation with my complete surprise. But hey, now I'll be on the radio. Luckily, it'll be at 9am on a Saturday, when hopefully no one is paying attention.

Tomorrow's another day, we'll see where we end up, yes?

As an unrelated aside, headlamps are in. Seems that were the only folks that we know who don't have them. We're stuck living with these two.. Matt and Mitch are our roommates in the new house. Say hi.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Trek to Meknès

Our grand taxi, and the kind man who supplied our tissue needs.
You may remember my summary of expectations, some things I jotted quickly before we went off to Meknès for the moussem. Well, we made the trip and went on our way, but (of course) I forgot to charge my battery beforehand. It's rare for me to be wandering around with the nice one, so I went a bit photo-crazy and ran it out before the actual moussem started. I'll give you what I got.

As for the celebration, we got to Meknès' central square, the Hdima, to find people milling around as if it were any old normal day. Disappointment set in. Then, in the crowd, we saw some flags rise above! Knowing Morocco, we assumed that things would take a few hours to get going, so we took our time and visited a café, strolled through the food market, and Annie even got herself a towel/hat for coming home from the public bath.

Then the crowd got itself going. For about 45 minutes we watched some kids and old men team up to try and lift a giant rug with a 10-foot business card pasted to the front (think of the signs that you sometimes see leading a parade, announcing just which fire department you're watching walk by). The wood-braced carpet followed the six flags and a fella carrying a two-foot wide incense burner. Then you had the 'Assawis who formed a circle and performed their "hadra" ceremony (lots of jumping and swinging, looked pretty fun), and 6 ghaita players sitting atop horses. The ghaita is a double reed, much like an oboe, but far, far, far louder, made for playing in large outdoor spaces such as this. The players maintained winding melodies that cut through the noise of the crowds and reached us as we attempted to snake toward and away from the activity. We retreated to a café sitting along one of the city walls so we could watch from a better viewpoint as the group slowly progressed under us and around a busy corner. Shops and salesmen pulled in their goods, waited for the spectacle to pass, and reset themselves as before as a more typical stroll overcame the streets.

We saw a good friend of mine leading the group, and I need to get a hold of him now that things are settling back down. I have questions, he has answers. PS: no one tried to eat our clothes (we were worried, since a few from our group wore black!).

It feels good to get out of the city every once in a while.

Annie and Carol enjoying the ride out.

The best part of this moderately ridiculous museum was the sunshine.

This was the last photo I took before the battery died. But isn't it a beautiful coffee?

Memories of the Old Place

As of this afternoon, we no longer reside in one of Fez' most prestigious abodes. We moved from one palace to another. We only had to go a short 5-minute walk away, but with the windsucking uphill battle against incessant (and uneven) stairs, hot damn...

So just to get back into the habit of posting, I'm going to toss up a few old photos that had no proper place before. Think of it as a small ode-to-the-old-house-slash-taking-care-of-business-so-we-can-all-move-on-with-life post. We're close to being settled, classes are over, and it's about time to roll up the sleeves and do some research.

(Speaking of...) I just returned from a trip out west and down south to Sidi Ali, Marrakech, and Tamesloht. I was interviewed for a film that a French group is making - suddenly I'm a resident 'Gnawa Musicologist Expert.' Not sure exactly when that transition happened, but I'm glad to have made it. More on that soon, God willing.


Brunch for the first (probably ever) Fez "Stitch and Bitch"

While Annie and friends were stitching and bitching, us men went back to the Mellah (the old Jewish quarter, now filled with antique shops and goods likely taken from those Jews who left Morocco) to pick up her new writing desk. The new prized  possession...

As part of the negotiations, I got myself this little something. I have yet to get it fixed, though. But once I do, I'll be the coolest guy around.

Check it out! I made a banjo case! With a sewing machine! It even has a secret pocket.
I've spent a lot of time lately just sitting around playing the new banjo. Eric (the one making the absurd gesture here) got himself a mandolin and has been joining in. Except for those nights when we've had a bit too much gin and he loses his pic... Then we gotta get down to the difficult business of finding it on those pain in the neck tiles.

Just before we left, we took one last day for a good, old fashioned barbecue and some bluegrass on the roof. Winter has left us, and the comforts of spring are making their way across the city.

Friday, February 18, 2011

FW: Egyptian Riot Gear

 This is from an email that my pops recently sent my way. These photos were too good to pass up.

Your classic 1979 "Tribottle Rag" helmet - a must in any type of combat
Textbook saucepan with lifejacket combo.

The "boxhat" - The guy next to him doesn't appear to be sure of its effectiveness.

The brick/scarf outfit.

Old school broken bin helmet. Downside is that it needs to be held up in order to avoid walking into things.

And the winner: This fella is going to war with two baguettes strapped to his ears and a loaf taped to his forehead. Check out the confidence...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The 'Aissawis of Meknès

Today we're heading to Meknès, a nearby city, for the moussem. Yesterday was the Prophet's birthday, a holiday that sets off a long series of celebrations across the country. The first, and in some ways, most well known, is only a few hours away by taxi. It began yesterday and will continue through tomorrow, so we'll be just in time to catch the height of the celebrations.

Meknès is home to the major shrine to Sheikh al-Kamil, the "patron saint" (if you will) of the 'Aissawa brotherhood. The 'Aissawis are one particular sect of Sufis who I have had the pleasure of working with in the past. Their music is incredibly popular, and the presence of a large group (15 or so  members) is a staple for weddings, naming day celebrations, and other life celebrations. They also perform layla rituals, not completely unlike the Gnawa (the sub-Saharan group that made of the bulk of my past research). They foster relationships with some of the same historical figures, saints, and spirits. Further, the ceremonies heal inflicted individuals (spiritually and physically) and provide baraka (blessing) to the families that are present.

During this moussem, I have been told a bit about what to expect, but of course, when you're dealing with religious topics, foreign languages, and multiple perspectives, you really can't get a grasp on what's coming. It will all be a bit of a surprise.

'Aissawa groups, led by flagbearers, will process from the central square to the shrine of Sheikh al-Kamil. They will be performing segments of the ritual, songs that are known to the crowds, and potentially a few things that invite adepts to fna, literally extinction (of the self into Allah). The groups are large, percussion heavy (mostly hand drums of different sorts), and include a few wind players. They usually have two or three 6-foot long trumpets that play complex and coordinated rhythms between them, creating an unexpectedly tight stereo experience. The ghaita, a relative of the oboe, plays long, winding, ornamented melodies alongside the chanting. Each group, I am told, will have a cow. Upon entering the shrine, there is a sacrifice, and celebration ensues once again.

We were warned that if we wear red or black, people who are trancing might try to eat our clothes. Not sure yet what to make of it, but I'm wearing brown.

After this, the mawsim (moussems) continue in two other cities, taking me on a trek across Morocco as I jump full steam into research. Classes are pretty much finished, and now the real work clicks into gear.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

We got lost this morning. Walking around with no idea which way was which. It only happened for a few minutes on a few roads, but man, it was embarrassing. (We did, however, keep from having to retrace our steps, so no one knew but us... I trust you'll keep our secret.)

The walk that so threw us was from our taxi to the Fez Café, a somewhat new restaurant in the Batha area of the old city. The place is physically huge - another reason for our inability to grasp the possibility that we couldn't find it - thanks to a giant garden that consumes most of the space within the walls. It's open air, very French, and they feed you food fresh out of the dirt. Today was our Valentine's Day, and the Fez Café's chalkboard full of today's options (which, unlike much Moroccan cooking, did not come out of a pressure cooker) was the proper choice. I even enjoyed my simple cup of hot water with orange flower water.

In other Valentine's Day weekend news (we like to spread our celebrations out as much as we possibly can) we got tickets to go to Paris in March! While it seems gluttonous to head to Paris less than a month before a trip to London, we have to. I promise. It's all about the visa (we have to leave and return every 90 days, and the trip to London is 95 days from our Italian excursion). Any recommendations?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Poisoned by the Cold

With all the blankets, I guess I just looked like a cozy seat.
It's cold. During one of my classes a few weeks ago I learned four different ways to say that I'm really, really cold (ranging from "the cold is poisoning me" to other less politically correct phrases). It's a constant battle, keeping our fingers and toes intact. The funny thing is, like in Florida, winter is not that rough during the day and in the sun. Temperatures regularly sit in the 60s. But the old city, where we live, was made for summertime. Walls are high, windows are conspicuously absent, streets are narrow. The world sits in the shade while cold breezes settle into the valley. And the kicker - no central heating. 35 degree mornings become a battle of wills. Recently, I've been losing.

In fact, we have it better than most. Our house has two radiators that we can wheel around. But electricity is expensive, as expected. Some folks get propane tanks and light them on up. There's a certain vivacious living-in-the-danger-of-my-heater-exploding that really adds a zest for live into those particular solutions. Aside from wearing (all) our clothes throughout the day and night, covering in blankets, and occasionally placing the cat on cold feet (she's a very warm little animal), the hot water bottle has been a boon. But we're getting by, day by day. And when the sun is out, there's always the roof, where you run the risk of simultaneous frostbite (from the wind) and sunburn (from, obviously, the sun).

There may be some insight to the Moroccan (complete and absolute) fear of the "winter sun," but for now, we'll take whatever heat we can get.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Perspective from Morocco

It's been surreal looking at the pictures of protests in Egypt. Having spent a few months there a while back as a lowly study abroad student, I've been to all of those places. They were part of my daily life - especially crossing the bridges to get to school and back every morning and afternoon.

The other day my father asked for my take on the "situation" in North Africa. As a number of commentators from across the range of press outlets have been keeping the world up to date, I'd rather not hinder everyone with my own rehashing of events. Rather, I have a few short comments and I want to point people in the direction of some good coverage, a handful of interesting articles that have popped up. Some are from a few days ago and, since events like this develop so rapidly, they are out of date, but may give some interesting background for anyone interested.

Tunisia's situation is special since Ben Ali pushed literacy so hard while keeping an ironclad policy of censorship. People learned long ago that they were getting a lousy deal. In Egypt, the "successes" of neighboring Tunisia has just been a trigger to a rumble of discontent, most of which was in place well before I was there. Check out this article in the Economist with some background on where the protests in Tunisia came from, what they are reacting against.

There was a great article in Al-Jazeera English on how people are finally feeling that they can control their own political fates (thanks to watching the successes in Tunisia). Another from the Economist (again, from a few days ago, read to the end) highlights the idea that foreign governments should not "fear" Islam and Islamist parties, noting that there is a range of opinions even withing the infamous Muslim Brotherhood.

The response in Fez has been surprising, unexpected, and a real problem.

There has been a rise in crime here and some of our friends have been robbed. Taxi drivers and shopkeepers are telling me that young, unemployed Moroccans, bolstered by the confidence oozing from these other countries, are coming to the cities (Fez) and robbing passers-by at knife point. The threat of violence is obviously there, but even though three or four people I know (both Americans and Moroccans) have been robbed, no one has been hurt, as long as they did not resist. We have heard about one person (the brother of one of our close Moroccan friends) who was seriously injured after refusing to hand over money. The moral that we all are learning is just to carry less and give them what they ask for. Thankfully, the police presence is rising swiftly as a result, I've watched one person be arrested and others severely hassled already as officials assert their authority in the streets of the old city. It's a scary time to be here, but not in the way that you see on the news.

As of now, there's not a real threat of widespread problems. Friends have relayed stories to me of their conversations with families and youth. Most interesting, perhaps, was a comment that a president is expected to step down when he loses an election, but a king has no reason to move aside. While Mubarak has been holding his high stature dubiously for 30+ years, and is now reaping the rewards of that stagnancy, leadership here is supposed to remain "stable." A long tenure is not seen as some vast injustice against government, the constitution, or society. Also, there isn't the high degree of education and literacy in general that you have in Tunisia (I believe that it's at 99% or something impressively ridiculous there). The media, therefore, is much more powerful. I hear of Moroccans complaining about why protesters aren't happy with what they have - a depiction that pervades state run news networks.

It's been a fascinating time to be here, aside from the fear of being robbed, of course. I remember when I was in Cairo, they had some major protests for the first anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Watching from a nearby building I was astonished at the efficiency and sheer size of the riot police force there. They vastly outnumbered the protest making it look somewhat comical. Huge lines of black-clad and shielded officers sometimes two or three deep formed perfectly organized squares around any sign-waving screamers. It was a demonstration of Egypt's experience, something that I remember as I see these photos of chaos and destruction that flash across the front of the New York Times and Al-Jazeera each day. This is a country that knows how to "handle" its population, which just lends a bit of scope to the events as they are playing out right now, in front of us.