Just as Morocco's history can be revealed through its architecture, the country's intricate musical textures also have stories to tell. There are more than 700 dance and music festivals every year, and each region has its own particular flavor.
Tumbling quarter-tones and intoxicating rhythms beckon from every corner, be it Arabic pop or chaabi blaring from a taxi's radio, a snake charmers' rasping oboelike raita, or simply the soulful call of the muezzin from the mosque summoning the faithful to prayer.
Morocco's indigenous people, the Berbers, provide the cultural firmament that gives the music a unique rustic flavor. For thousands of years, the Berbers have populated the coastal plains, desert, and mountains, and have incorporated the rich variety of musical influences brought from the Middle East.
Folk music performs ritualistic, celebratory, and social duties as well as providing a vehicle for broadcasting the news to generations of rural dwellers who might never have learned to read or write. In many regions, traveling poets, or rwais, bring news of current affairs to the weekly souks. In small ensembles, they sing with accompaniment on handcrafted instruments including double-sided duff tambourines and the one-stringed fiddle or rabab. The context is usually celebratory and as such there is a rich stream of folkloric dance styles accompanying the music. In the High Atlas, villagers in local costume will gather around an open fire for a dance called the ahouach; in the Middle Atlas it's the ahidous, where women will dance shoulder to shoulder in a large circle around the seated male musicians who play hand-held frame drums called bendir and ney flutes.
If Berber village music represents a pastoral heritage, then the vestiges of Morocco's foreign military history can be found in its classical music, known as andalous. It stems from the Arabic invasion and subsequent Islamic domination of Spain's Iberian Peninsula from the early 8th century. For 500 years, the Moors ruled the region known as Andalusia -- a melting pot of Spanish, Berber, Arabic, and Jewish influences. The complex structure of andalous music is largely attributed to a composer named Ziryab, who traveled to Cordoba from Baghdad in the 9th century and created a highly stylized system of suites called nuba, each nuba corresponding to a time of day. The music was traditionally performed in court settings on state occasions and, though it is still viewed as Morocco's high art, it remains very popular among the general public, with concerts being broadcast every evening on TV during Ramadan. The typical andalous orchestra uses rabab, oud (lute), kamenjah (European-style violin played vertically), kanuun (zither), darbuka (goblet-shaped drum), and taarija (tambourine). When the Arabs were driven out of Spain during the Inquisitions of the 15th century, the music was dispersed across Morocco, and today the most famous orchestras can be found in Fes, Tetouan, Tangier, and Rabat.
Morocco's position at the northern edge of Africa and at the western extreme of the Arab world gave it a key role in trade with Europe and beyond. From this emerged gnaoua. The Gnaoua people are descendants of slaves originally captured by the Arabs during the 17th century in Guinea, Mali, and Sudan and brought across the Sahara for onward trading and to serve the sultans in Morocco. Gnaoua music can be recognized by its call-and-response, blueslike style and its instruments: the bass lute or gimbri, the persistent rhythms of metal castanets or qraqeb, and the acrobatic leaps of the vividly robed dancer-musicians who form the troupe. The effect is intentionally hypnotic; tassels swirling from the dancers' skullcaps and the cyclic groove are all designed to induce a trancelike state in the audience. Gnaoua music is not just entertainment but has a deeply rooted spiritual and healing purpose derived from the Sufi tradition of Islam and ancient sub-Saharan African rituals. The healing ceremonies, or lilas, take place from dusk till dawn and are conducted by a priestess who invokes ancient African spirits, or djinn, and Islamic saints. For many years, respectable Moroccans shunned the music, but now it is openly performed and has pride of place at the annual Gnaoua & World Music Festival in Essaouira, which attracts crowds of 400,000 people.
Heading south toward the Sahara desert, the insistent rhythms of the city slow to a more reflective pace in the valleys of Ziz, Dra, and Souss and beyond to the Western Sahara. Like the mountains, the desert also yields a wealth of folkloric music. The Souss valley is the home of the guedra dance of the Saharan nomads, or "Blue Men." The word guedra means cooking pot, and it is that pot, covered with an animal hide, which forms the drum. To a hypnotic heartbeat rhythm, a kneeling female dancer carves mesmerizing movements with her arms and fingers. It's said that the ritual can attract a mate from miles away.
From south of Agadir comes the tissint, or "dagger dance," which forms a central part of marriage ceremonies amongst desert nomads. To a crescendo of drums, the couple performs a passionate duet in which the groom holds a dagger and circles around the girl. He then raises the dagger and puts it around the neck of the young girl before collapsing to his knees. Farther north, where the rivers of Ziz and Rheris meet in the Tafilalt, al baldi draws upon Berber, Arab, African, and Andalusian influences in songs about religious and social issues.
Political and social themes find expression in many modern Moroccan music forms, and toward the fringes of the long-disputed territory of Western Sahara, one is far more likely to hear the yearning voice of Sahrawi refugees living in exile in Mauritania than the classical strains of andalous. The music is sparse, poetic, and dominated by female singers who play a small stringed harp-lute called an ardin; they are often accompanied by a solo electric guitar. Rai music, originating from western Algeria and once rooted in Bedouin music, is also popular. The word rai means "opinion," and Moroccans have produced their own homegrown variety that reflects contemporary and controversial views on social issues.
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