Morocco’s Fantastic Folklore
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
The first time I was introduced to the folklore of Morocco was by way of North American television. After showing country scenes of great breathtaking beauty and others of haunting architecture, the narrator came to the epitome of his travelogue, a festival held in Marrakesh, one of the most fascinating cities in Morocco.
Highlighting the event was the legendary fantasia – medieval pageantry of horsemanship. I watched spellbound as a band of turbaned horsemen in flowing robes charged across a plain toward the spectators. Their ancient muskets twirling in the air and their battle cries echoing above the thunder of hooves gave me an eerie feeling that I was back in the age of misty legends. Suddenly, a few feet from the crowd, they fired their flintlock rifles in the air, then retreated as quickly as they came. It was my dramatic introduction to the world of Moroccan folklore.
In the ensuing years, I made a good number of journeys to the modern land of the Moors and saw half a dozen fantasias. Yet, I never tired of watching this breathtaking performance with its brilliant display of horsemanship in the opinion of many experts, the finest of all Moroccan folklore.
Nevertheless, the fantasia is only a very small part of the rich entertainment in Morocco’s world of popular arts. The historic Andalusian melodies and the colorful dancing of the countryside are the true basis of this captivating folklore.
Andalusian music and song, developed in Muslim Spain, stand at the top of Moroccan pride in their musical heritage. Once the trademark of the Arab courts in the Iberian Peninsula, these tunes, still known as royal music, are very popular in northern Morocco, especially in the cities of Fez, Rabat and Tetuan.
The orchestras are composed mostly of stringed instruments that are plucked or bowed. The accompanying melodies, many composed in Muslim Andalusia, are sung in classical Arabic or in the Arabic Andalusian dialect. This haunting poetry set to music is a rich heritage bequeathed to Morocco by the Spanish Arabs. Played at the beginning of every festive occasion, especially weddings and other important events, it is a historic type of diversion unique to Morocco.
Better known to visitors is the Berber or rural music, influenced by African melodies. Inspired by the enchanting scenic countryside, the countless varieties of Berber songs accompanied by the resonant rhythm of the bendir (large tambourine) are the most familiar to tourists. Performed with a variety of different dances by both men and women dressed in breathtaking national costumes, they are magnificent spectacles full of poetry and striking beauty.
Along with these authentic and venerable tunes from the past, there has developed in our times a type of popular modern music and song. More varied and imaginative, it has borrowed from eastern Arab and western melodies. Light music accompanied by a local dialect of Arabic, it is intended mostly for the man in the street.
In the field of dancing, Morocco has by far the most picturesque and varied performances found in any Arab country. Topping all is the Guedra (cooking pot) a provocative, almost erotic, strange and mysterious southern Moroccan dance. The women appear on their knees completely covered by black or blue veils. The whole dance is performed from a kneeling position, sustained by the spellbinding rhythm of the Guedra. The movements of the hands, arms and snapping of fingers, filled with gestures passed down through the centuries, seem to mesmerize the dancer and to entrance the audience.
As the spectators join in by singing, increasing the intensity of the performance, the dance reaches its climax when the dancer collapses. Known to some as a seduction dance, it is now staged almost exclusively for foreign visitors and tourists.
In the folkloric entertainment of the tourist hotels, more than the Guedra, the Ahouach and Ahaidous dances are the star attractions.
Originating in the Great Atlas valleys, the Ahouach is danced only by women dressed in glittering robes. Forming a large circle, they move shoulder to shoulder to the music of the bendir, played by men in the middle of the circle.
The Ahaidous is a dance from the Middle Atlas. Alternative circles of men and women sway slowly shoulder to shoulder to the rhythm of the bendir and the lilt of poetic songs. They mark the beat progressively by stamping on the ground and undulating at the same time.
Another dance which visitors find very thrilling is the Rouoisse. It brings out more rousing responses from tourist audiences than any other folkloric dance. The women in colorful attire undulate their stomachs as they perform lively steps with the men dancing along and at the same time playing string instruments. Every once in a while both men and women break out into a fit of stamping their feet in a frenzy. A number of historians have said that the steps of this Berber dance are the basis of the fiery Spanish flamenco.
The Guedra dance
In addition to these performances, there are legions of others. Some have religious connections; others are purely fun celebrations. The Aissawa, a religious dance performed by members of the Sidi Aissa sect incorporating snake-charmers and music-induced trances; Dekka, danced to an orchestra of tambourines; Ghiata, a battle dance culminating in the thunder of flintlock rifles; Gnaoua, a lively and exciting pure African dance with drumming music and chanting; Houara, a dance from near Agadir performed by a woman transferred into a human whirlwind in a circle of men; a wedding dance by heavily jewelled women dressed in rich costumes with men playing the bendir and singing at the same time; Taskiouine, a powerful and virile warrior’s dance from the Great Atlas performed by men to the rhythm of the bendir; Tissint, a dagger dance put on in the Agadir region by men and women dressed in indigo blue; and Togtocia, an Arab type dance found in the northwest area of Morocco, are performances which can be enjoyed by inhabitant and tourist alike.
The mousses (religious gatherings held in honor of a saint around his tomb) is the time to see the Moroccan folkloric dances at their best. The most original and longest surviving peoples’ festivals in the country, they draw huge crowds and reach their utmost in colour and enticement in the Atlas Mountains.
Whole towns come alive overnight near the saints’ tombs. Day and night, goods are traded, food sold, friends meet, but above all, there is never-ending entertainment – a world of acrobats, musicians and dancers, jugglers, fortune and storytellers, palm readers and fantasias. It is said that these celebrations glorifying a saint are the ancestors of the Spanish religious parades and merrymaking held in every city of Andalusia since the days of the Moors.
During the moussems, non-Muslims are not allowed to approach the saint’s tomb but are welcome to participate in the festivities. On the other hand, no such restrictions are found in the regional festivals. These jubilations have no religious character and are designed to mark joyous events. Each area of the country celebrates some aspect of its own resources and displays this to both native and visitor. They are many anticipated yearly affairs that offer an occasion for women to wear all their best in finery and jewellery. Everyone takes part. Travelers have observed that almost every Moroccan can sing and dance and also, keep up with the complex of rhythms.
The National Folks Arts Festival of Marrakesh
The National Folks Arts Festival of Marrakesh, held for two weeks in June, overshadows all these festivals. Organized within the ancient ruined walls of El Badi Palace, it incorporates the African, Arab and Berber heritage of Morocco. It features over 600 acrobats, dancers, musicians, singers, horsemen and other entertainers who come from every corner of the country. The theme of this festival varies from year to year, but it remains distinctive in its authenticity and profoundly popular character, derived from the traditions of a colorful past; a live homage to that historic city.
Marrakesh has been a folkloric center since the medieval ages. Even though modernization has enveloped Morocco, the city’s rich traditional way of life, especially in its peoples’ lore, has been retained. Every man and woman in that venerable metropolis is proud of their time-honored music and dancing.
To a lesser degree, the vast majority of cities and towns throughout the country exhibit Morocco’s rich folkloric heritage to whoever wishes to partake or join in the festivities. Today, in luxury hotels and restaurants crowding every tourist center visitors from the four corners of the globe can enjoy this entertaining legacy – one of the most fantastic folklore in the world.