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Volume 47, Number 4July/August 1996

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Nights with Fires and Drums

Paul Bowles and Morocco

Written by Louis Werner

At age 85, he has been a novelist, a diarist, a prolific writer of letters, a composer, an actor, a photographer—and the catalyst of the popularization of Moroccan music in the West. His drop-in literary salon in Tangier drew the hip and the avant-garde for decades. His talents are no more easily summed up than the man himself: idiosyncratic, flamboyant, shy. A Beat-generation New York expatriate and reluctant celebrity, Paul Bowles never ceases to amaze.

Once recognized solely as a writer of novels and short stories, it is only in this decade that Bowles has begun to be noticed for more than literature. His biggest boost came in 1990, when Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci gave Bowles's 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky a sumptuous production—including a scene-stealing cameo role for Bowles himself. Soon afterwards, Bowles's previously unknown travel photography was published by Scalo. Last year, in conjunction with a two-day festival of Bowles's chamber music at New York's Lincoln Center, independent conductor Jonathan Sheffer published a book of essays titled Paul Bowles: Music and organized a symposium on his work. Largo Records has recently released Migrations, a compact-disk sampler of Bowles compositions from the 1930's to the 1990's.

But it is Bowles's association with a group of double-reed horn players from Jajouka, a mountain village in the Moroccan Western Rif, that has called attention to another of his pursuits: ethnomusicology. It is largely through Bowles's introductions that Western pop cognoscenti the likes of the late Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, rocker Peter Gabriel and jazzman Ornette Coleman have visited the Jajouka players. In the past two years, "The Master Musicians of Jajouka" have found a wide audience on the youth-concert circuit of Europe and the United States.

And it was in fact music that first drew Bowles to Morocco—though not Moroccan music. On that brief trip in 1931 Bowles was a student of the Western classical tradition, already regarded as a serious composer. Traveling with his mentor Aaron Copland, Bowles first heard the melodies and rhythms that forever changed the way he listened.

"We landed and Morocco took over," he wrote of the way the country first struck his ear. "Radio had not yet arrived.... One could sit in a cafe in the center of the madinah and hear only the sound of many hundreds of voices."

Perhaps there was no radio, but there was the phonograph. Bowles bought records of Berber music and was instantly entranced by its haunting sonorities and unique vocalizing. A practical romantic, he realized that to delay documenting what he had discovered would limit the chances the Western world could ever hear such music again in this form.

"The unfortunate fact," he wrote to a friend, "is that the longer one waits, the less variety and quality one is likely to find in the music itself. The structure is being altered with considerable rapidity. It is heartbreaking to see music and dance forms disintegrating before one's eyes."

During that summer in Tangier in 1931, Bowles worked, under Copland's guidance, on his Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet, experimenting with harmonies on an old Bembaron et Hazan piano delivered to his house by donkey. Then he journeyed to Fez and Marrakech to hear more of Morocco. It was on that trip that the seed of his lifelong drive was planted to seek out, record and champion the country's foremost tribal musicians.

A later trip across the Tizi-n-Tishka to Ouarzazate whetted his appetite for rough, back-country travel in search of music. In 1959 he won a long-awaited grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that financed four six-week recording expeditions.

"In high spirits we set out on our trip through mountains and desert," he wrote. "It was summer—we knew that it would not rain and that there would be many nights with fires and drums under the stars." He took along the newly developed portable tape recorder, plenty of money and an interpreter named Muhammad Larbi Djilali.

The expedition covered nearly 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles), from Goulimine south in the Anti-Atlas range to Segangane east in the Rif Mountains, and on down to Zagora on the margins of the Sahara. Among many other rarities in the tribal repertoire, Bowles sought out Chleuh (Berber) music of the Haha and Tafraoute regions, Riffian music of the Beni Ouriaghal and Beni Bouifrour, and the begging songs, trance rhythms and classical qasidahs played in Marrakech's Djemaa el-Fna (See Aramco World, July/August 1993).

He poked his way into village wedding celebrations, concerts of Andalusian noubas and free-style mawwal singing, and even into the Meknes synagogue of Benamara to record secular Sephardic songs. He located a virtuoso player of the rare double-reed instrument called the zamar, made from twin bull's-horns, and recorded what Bowles called "the forbidden music of the Hamatcha."

Bowles sent his recordings to the US Library of Congress, where today they make up one of the world's most authoritative bodies of Moroccan folk music—outside Bowles's own private library in Tangier. Although the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song is almost exclusively devoted to music of the US, Bowles's visionary work has given Morocco a unique pride of place there.

"I'm not a bit surprised the Library wanted my collection," he says. "This is great and important music. What would surprise me is if Americans wanted only to listen to all that cowboy singing and yodeling and so forth, and not to the music of the Djebala or the Gnaoua."

But what makes his collection unique is the man who did the collecting. Bowles is a true connoisseur, who simply loves to sit and listen, and a generation of younger ethno-musicologists has followed in his footsteps.

Bowles revealed himself in a letter he sent from the field to Harold Spivacke, then director of the Music Division of the Library of Congress. "Of course I am extremely happy to have been able to make such a collection, because I love the material. My taste may be somewhat special from having lived here so long and listened so much. But I feel certain that some of the pieces will have an appeal to others who are not already prejudiced in favor of Moroccan music."

Bowles has been living in Tangier now for nearly half a century, most of that time in the same comfortable apartment some distance from the center of town. During a recent interview, seated on the floor with a tape of the wailing rhaita music of the Jajouka players in the background, he reflected his romantic distress over the changes he has witnessed in Moroccan music.

"The quality of the music that is played is fine," he says. "The problem is with the quantity. Very few people still know how. The performers I recorded for the Library of Congress were mostly old men. I'm sure they're all dead by now. And the young today, they just want to be auto mechanics in some Casablanca garage."

And, he is quick to point out, traditional music cannot be expected to survive in archive form alone. When the people quit playing it, he says, it is gone. Years before, he could have recorded from his open window the wedding drums and the oboe-like rhaitas coming from the nearby village of Ain Hayani. Now, that village has been swallowed up by "progress," a word Bowles uses with disdain.

"Traditional performances today are truncated to fit some new recipe, whether an audio recording, a stage act, or even a film score. A piece that should take an hour is over in five minutes. Berber ahouache and ahidous dances used to last all night. Now they're put on for nightclub audiences."

The ahouache of the High Atlas and further south, like the ahidous of the Middle Atlas, is a formalized sequence of music and dance for mixed chorus performed during feasts. Bowles calls it "a kind of ritualized, dismembered theater, with only certain scenes left."

His recording of a Tafraouti ahouache is a rare documentation of a performance under unforced but difficult circumstances. "The dance was strenuous," he wrote, "and although it was 10 o'clock in the evening, the temperature in the compound still stood at 108 degrees. By the time the men finished, they were streaming with sweat."

What some Western listeners perceive as monotony in much wholly percussive Berber music, Bowles explains, is the result not of the music but of listeners' expectations. Berber repetitions are not static but deceptively organic. They capture and hold the imagination. "Since this music's aim is to cause hypnosis, it must be given the opportunity to hypnotize, and this requires listening to it in its entirety. There is no quick way."

Bowles is unyieldingly opinionated when it comes to the newly popular crossover experiments in "so-called world music." "That's nothing but bastardized sound, a foreign culture perverting a local culture—one of my pet hates." Even North African rai music, a pop craze among Arab youth that draws heavily on vernacular lyrics and rhythms, does not escape his ire. Though many popular musicologists see rai as a true indigenous genre, Bowles dismisses it curtly. "Music invented in France," he says.

Moroccan music specialist Phillip Schuyler thinks that Morocco's traditional music is more vital than Bowles makes it seem. Schuyler is an ethnomusicological consultant to the upcoming reissue, planned for later this year, of Bowles's Library of Congress recordings.

"Just like America in the 1960's, Morocco had its own folk revival in the 1970's," he says. "City-bred musicians learned from villagers to play old songs on old instruments, and in turn found new listeners for themselves. There is probably more ferment in folk music in North Africa today than anywhere in the world."

Bowles's concern about modernizing traditional music also seems contradicted by the case of the Jajouka musicians he knows so well. When rock producer Bill Laswell recently widened the Jajouka players' appeal among Western audiences by making the first high-fidelity recording, he did not resort to state-of-the-art studio tricks. Instead, true to Bowles's own style, he hauled his portable studio up the musicians' mountain and let them play all night in their own setting.

Whatever expectations listeners today bring to a Jajouka concert, the players themselves have not significantly modified their sound to suit their audience. Their us tour last year was praised by Western musicologists and Moroccan fans alike for its authenticity.

In an ironic parallel, Bowles has kept his own composing largely free of Moroccan influences. Other Western composers who have lived in non-Western countries, such as the late Colin McPhee in Indonesia, either cannot—or do not wish to—remain unaffected by what they hear locally. But even the pieces Bowles has written in recent years are notable for not borrowing from the North African tradition. "I did my best to keep it out," he explains tersely.

Schuyler goes on to appraise Bowles's contributions from an anthropologist's perspective. "First and foremost, Bowles is an artist, and he approaches music as a creative person. If he thought something might sound better played solo or on a modified instrument, he recorded it that way. But he also kept very good field notes. He tells you exactly what impact he himself had on the performance." This groundbreaking revelation of the observer's own role became a model for Western anthropologists and is commonly followed today throughout the social sciences.

From his first days in Morocco, Bowles was smitten by some sounds and left unmoved by others. He had his tastes and opinions, and he was characteristically frank about them. Listening today to the Library of Congress archive allows a glimpse into what captured the imagination of this passionate expatriate before radio and audio cassettes set Moroccan music on its path into the mainstream of world music.

Author and filmmaker Louis Werner lives in New York.

This article appeared on pages 24-27 of the July/August 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1996 images.