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.