The late 1980s and early 1990s ‘World Music Boom’, when a decent selection of African music first started to appear in non-specialist shops in Europe and the United States, helped many artists reach new audiences; I can still remember the excitement of discovering Youssou N’dour’s 1990 release ‘Set’. However, despite its many successes, the ‘World Music’ phenomenon had some unfortunate-and I assume, unanticipated-consequences, including the progressive dilution of once unique and powerful artistic voices in the pursuit of ‘crossover dreams’, and the establishment of powerful ‘brands’ whose gravitational pull perverted the market, probably limiting the artists who were produced, distributed and marketed. These ‘brands’ created by particularly successful artists or groups (for e.g. Cesaria Evora, or the Buena Vista Social Club) or out of particular styles- I am still surprised by how many mainstream, and even specialist, journalists (in English, French, and Spanish) continue to refer to all Congolese music as ‘Soukous’-soon became synonymous in the international marketplace with the musical production of an entire nation. Perhaps because Morocco was one of the first countries to capture the imagination of the ‘baby boomers’, the main targets of the 1990s ‘World Music’ marketing push, the kingdom’s musical variety and depth have been particularly obscured by ‘brandlash’.
Building on the Moroccan fascinations of Beat authors like Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Brion Gysin, American and European hippies flocked to the kingdom throughout the 1960s, attracted by the mysteries of the souks and the potent hash of the Rif Mountains. Brian Jones, one of the founding members of the Rolling Stones, visited Morocco in the summer of 1968 and two years later, with the release of ‘Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka’-often called the first ‘World Music’ album-was one of the first to brand Morocco in the Western music market as the land of trance music and ‘spirit night masters’ (the name given to a 1991 release of Gnawa music produced by Bill Laswell). The steady stream of Gnawa, Aissawa, Jilala, and Jajouka releases that have been produced by European and American record labels over the last several decades could lead even a well informed ‘music hunter’ to mistakenly believe that all Moroccans are in a constant state of psycho-musical delirium. This is not the case.
Morocco is a country with great geographical and cultural diversity, where the majority of the population still lives off the land. The Moroccan musical map includes dozens of regional genres (sung in 4 different languages), urban Chaabi, classical Andalusian music, Arabic classical song (inspired by Um Kulthum and Mohamed Abdelwahab), fusion (the name given to a new generation of musicians mainly in Casablanca and Rabat inspired by reggae and r&b), rap, and probably least visible of all the musics of the Sufi brotherhoods and village rituals that have so captured international attention. To my ears, the most interesting music produced in Morocco, and some of the most popular in terms of sales, are the different regional styles of popular music. While these artists are often celebrities in their regions, few become nationally recognized. One of the exceptions is Mohammed Rouicha, THE star of Amazigh music.
Mohammed Rouicha was born in 1950 in Khenifra, a city in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains about 120 miles south-east of Fes. His family, which belongs to the Zawaniya tribe, the dominant Berber tribe in Khenifra, immigrated to the city from the Tafilalet, one of the largest oases in the Moroccan Sahara, located on the other side of the Middle Atlas Mountains. (There are three distinct Berber groups in Morocco, each of whom has their own dialect and distinct musical traditions; the Tashelhiyt speakers of the Sous Valley of Southern Morocco, the Tamazight speakers of the Middle Atlas, and the Tarifit speakers of the Rif Mountains of the North).
Mohammed grew up listening to the music of the ‘imedyazen’, itinerant musicians who travelled throughout the valleys of the Middle Atlas accompanying their songs on the loutar, a three string lute. On market days he would rush to the ‘halka’, an open space where storytellers, musicians and comedians would perform for tips, to listen to the different troupes passing through Khenifra; the most famous Moroccan halka is Marrakech’s Djema el Fna. He also remembers spending hours, in the late 1950s, listening to Moroccan radio, whose playlists at the time included Egyptian stars like Um Kulthum and Abdelhalim Hafez, Elvis Presley, French chanson, Moroccan Chaabi stars Bouchaib Bidaoui and Hajja Hamdaouia, and the Amazigh music legend Hemmu u Lyazid. Rouicha composed his first song at the age of nine, and by the age of twelve was touring eastern Morocco with Ahmed Wahby, an Algerian singer from Oran whose 1950 hit ‘Wahran Wahran’ made him a star throughout the region.
In 1965, at the age of fifteen, Rouicha made his debut on Moroccan national radio. He then spent the late sixties and much of the 1970s mastering his instrument-he added a fourth string to the loutar-and performing at countless weddings, harvest festivals and village celebrations. It wasn’t until 1979 that, as he put it, Mohammed ‘went professional’. This was the year that he put his own group together and recorded his first cassette for the Tichkaphone label; a Casablanca record label that was founded in 1979, from the ashes of Koutoubiaphone, by Chaouir Hassan, a Berber from Taliouine in Southern Morocco. Every year, usually during the month of Ramadan, Rouicha would go into the Tichkaphone studio located in the basement of le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disque and record a dozen songs, in both Arabic and Tamazight. The label would then release the best tracks from these annual sessions; Tichkaphone have released 85 Rouicha cassettes over the last 30 years, and they still have dozens of unreleased tracks in their archives. Rouicha is no longer ‘signed’ to Tichkaphone.
Over the last three decades, Rouicha has played in almost every town in Morocco, performed on Moroccan national television 95 times, received hundreds of awards, and become a household name throughout the Kingdom. Drawing his inspiration from Morocco’s many musical styles, from Arabic language genres like the Melhun, the Aita Jabaliya, and the Aita Marsaoui, to the Berber musics of the Souss valley and of Northern Morocco, Rouicha has revitalized the popular music of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Perhaps more than any other artist of his generation he is identified with the ‘Izlan’, songs that express the tribulations, joys, sorrows and dreams of migrants who have left their villages in the valleys and slopes of the Middle Atlas Mountains to make their living in Morocco’s urban centers. Rouicha still lives in Khenifra and only performs a few times a month, usually at major festivals in Morocco, and occasionally in Europe.
This first selection features one of Rouicha’s most loved musical partners, the female singer Cherifa Kersit. She was born in 1967, in a village a few miles outside of Khenifra, and started singing as a young girl, accompanying her daily household chores with improvised songs. By the time she turned sixteen, Cherifa was performing at weddings and village celebrations. And it was around this time, in the early 1980s, that Cherifa met Mohammed Rouicha; he heard her sing at a village festival and asked her to join his group. Cherifa, who has become this generation’s most famous female Amazigh singer, released her first solo album in 2000, and has toured Europe several times over the last ten years.
This 2005 recording starts, as most Rouicha tracks do, with an improvised loutar taqsim that introduces Cherifa, whose powerful ‘tamawayt’-an ornamental vocal improvisation in Tamazight-highlights her sharp voice. Cherifa embroiders a proverb, singing ‘a stone from the bottom can never reach the top’. Rouicha then starts the verse, ‘my love for you never leaves me, my heart is always full’.
In 2004, Tichkaphone released one of Rouicha’s best cassettes. In these next two tracks, Rouicha’s loutar and the two percussionists-who play the alloun, a frame drum covered in goatskin, with a threaded string run across the back of the skin-master the jackhammer rhythms that typify the music of the Middle Atlas. In this first selection Rouicha sings, in Tamazight, ‘my love, you are a gift from God, I can’t leave you. You do all you can to make me happy, and even then, I too often take your love for granted’.
In this next selection Rouicha again sings of love, but he also introduces a religious theme. He sings, again in Tamazight, ‘tolerance and acceptance come from God. My love, I miss you. My beloved, I miss you. But, with the help of God, I will learn to accept’.
While Rouicha composes all of the music he performs, he does not write all of the lyrics. He often sings texts that are written for him by a small group of poets and philosophers. Rouicha told me that he draws lyrical inspiration from Koranic verses (in the course of our conversation he illustrated several points by reciting Koranic verses), Arabic and Tamazight proverbs, and the poetry of the Melhun. This next track, in Arabic, is inspired by the texts and music of Sufi worship ceremonies.
In 1992 Rouicha recorded one of his only solo sessions. Rouicha’s parents divorced when he was young and he was brought up by his mother.
After his parent’s divorce, Rouicha suffered at the hands of his many half-brothers and sisters, and was sustained by his mother’s love and support. Both sides of this cassette are a tribute to his mother Aicha.
These final two tracks are instrumentals. The first one, recorded in 1982, featuring Rouicha and two percussionists, cycles through several rhythm changes. The second instrumental, released in the late 1980s, starts off at a more leisurely pace. Rouicha takes his time, embroidering several different melodic ideas. Then, six and a half minutes into the piece, the pace quickens and Rouicha pulls the percussionists into the ‘tahidust’, a rhythmic coda that draws on the rhythms of the ‘ahidus’, the collective songs and dances typical of village celebrations in the Middle Atlas Mountains.
This post is based on interviews with Mohammed Rouicha and Said Boummait, and draws on the writings of Malika Mahmah and Lahsen Hira. Special thanks to Tifa Bourjouane and Cherifa Alaoui el Mdaghri for their help with the interviews, and to Hasnaoui Brahim for help with Tamazight translations. If you are ever in Casablanca, and want to hear some more of Rouicha’s music, stop by Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques, located in the heart of downtown at 26 Boulevard Lalla Yacout, the store has walls lined with vinyl and is a beautiful throwback to the record emporiums of the 1960s and 1970s.