Maghreb Voices – The Travelling Desert Blues Show, Part III

(Read Parts I and II of this series.)

??The desert is beautiful,? the little prince added.

And that was true. I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams . . .

?What makes the desert beautiful,? said the little prince, ?is that somewhere it hides a well . . .??

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Throughout 2010?and just prior to the start of the demonstrations and revolutions that have been spreading across Africa and the Middle East?my Maghreb friends and acquaintances were posting Youtube videos on their Facebook pages, videos that served as an informal survey course in ethnomusicology. With songs from rai to chaabi to Tuareg to gnawa to Moroccan hip hop to Maghreb jazz, they represented every genre and genre fusion imaginable.

By watching these videos, you could get a general idea of what music and lyrics were fortifying the young and preparing them to do something, anything. And despite the ubiquitous availability of American pop music in that part of the world, most of this music was produced by Arabs. Much of it communicated a sense of unrest, frustration, intensely bottled-up passions, and a longing for freedom; even back in January, you couldn’t help feeling that something culturally and politically significant would soon be happening in the Maghreb, something with momentous consequences for the world at large.

The seeds of change could be seen as early as the 1990s in rai music like the song ?Aïcha,? written by the famous French-born singer-songwriter Jean-Jacques Goldman and sung by the charismatic Algerian ?King of Rai? Khaled. Its popularity in Europe rivalled its status in the Arab countries.

The ardent, optimistic, danceable rai music challenged stifling political, social, and religious conditions. It unsettled governments, which looked for ways to silence or candy-coat the music’s raw defiance and sensuality, and provoked the ire of Islamists, who kidnapped and/or assassinated a number of prominent rai singers (including the beloved Cheb Hasni in 1994).

Hasni’s murder created terrible grief among his fans, who saw the singer as a martyr. The emotional tide continued to rise against repressive regimes and religious groups in the Muslim world, and the assassinations ultimately increased rai’s popularity.

In the song ?Aïcha,? a man sings to the girl he loves, offering her riches, poetry, and himself if only she will love him in return. Toward the end of the song is a verse meant to describe the girl’s point of view. Unlike the rest of the song, which is sung in French, this verse, the only part of the song written by Khaled, is sung in Arabic. Its translation: ?Keep your treasures./Me, I’m worth more than that./Bars are still bars even if made of gold./I want the same rights as you/and respect for each day./Me I want only love.?

When Khaled sings this verse, the audience joins in full force. They know the words by heart. It’s the soundtrack of their own troubled lives, It’s their fervent cry for freedom, justice, and love. The words of this simple verse pose a challenge to repressive domestic and foreign governments and religious leaders, asserting that the soul cannot be bought, sold, or haggled over. There is value in the human spirit, a value that can’t be possessed or continuously subjugated.

Similarly, there is an almost sacred value in the environments that sustain human lives. Unfortunately the natural resources of the Middle East and Africa have been exploited at the expense of the very people to whom they rightfully belong, people whose freedoms have been hobbled to allow the rich and powerful to continue their unrestricted access to these resources. But Aïcha (incidentally, the name of the prophet Muhammad’s favourite wife and a matriarch beloved by Sunnis) does not want riches; she wants love, freedom and respect, and in stating this she takes the moral high ground over the suitor who offers symbols of wealth and ease.

Khaled, although Algerian, borrowed for his early repertoire many of the songs of a Moroccan group called Nass el Ghiwane. This group (the name means ?the new dervishes? because of their similarity to a sect of Sufis?ghiwanes?who had traveled across the Maghreb bringing Islam to the various tribes there) produced music that was much more roots-oriented and less orchestral than rai. But like the rai singers, they sang about controversial subjects, earning them, too, the anger of both authorities and Islamists.

Nass el Ghiwane had spearheaded a movement to popularize traditional Maghreb genres and instrumentation, at the same time rendering them modern and accessible. Their music comprised a mix of local genres, one of which was gnawa, a genre of religious music originally brought to the northern Maghreb countries by ?gnawans? from the Saharan regions of Mali, Niger, and Mauritania and later influenced by Arabic and Berber music.

But why the Sahara? What is it about this vast, hot expanse of arid sand that spawned musical influences that survived the brutality of slavery both in the Americas and in the Arab countries and that served as the leavening agent for every form of American pop music from the US Civil War until today? Why is the Sahara the historic wellspring of countless rivulets of fresh musical inspiration streaming across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas?

To be continued . . .

This article could not have been written without the generous assistance of Driss Akjij of Meknès, Morocco.

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