Berber girls from the High Atlas Mountains
Music of Morocco and the cycles of life header
Home Reviews Morocco Order Gallery
      Morocco is a land of striking contrasts. Situated in the northwest corner of Africa and bound by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Morocco’s terrain is exceptionally varied, offering fertile valleys between mountains, great rivers, and plains rich in minerals, where caravan routes stretch towards the Sahara Desert. Throughout history its strategic location established Morocco as a lively crossroads that bridged Africa, Europe, and Asia, giving rise to a rich cultural exchange.
      The first inhabitants of Morocco were the Berbers, an ancient fair-skinned race of Northern Africa thought to have migrated from Asia millennia ago, who concentrated their communities in the vast mountain ranges that span the country – the Rif, Middle Atlas, High Atlas, and Anti-Atlas Mountains.
       Whether they arrived on Moroccan soil to live, trade, conquer, or pass through, an eclectic mix of peoples added their imprint. Over the centuries the indigenous Berber peoples were influenced by migrations of Arabs who brought with them the Islamic faith, Sub-Saharan Africans, nomads, Jews, and the Moors, Romans, and Portuguese of the great Mediterranean civilizations.
Map of Morocco

Moroccan Music
       This vibrant fusion of traditions, beliefs, and history has given Morocco a brilliant tapestry of music, intricately woven with the rich, multi-colored threads of her diverse peoples.
       Berber music is a highly percussive art, joining complex rhythms with limited melodic lines that are often repeated. Whether it is the tradition of the Tarafite Berbers of the Rif Mountains, the Tamazhirte of the Middle Atlas, the Tachelhite of the High Atlas, or the Soussi of the Anti-Atlas, the effect of Berber music is to harmonize all the participants into a unified whole.
       With their conquest in the 8th century, the Arabs introduced a musical style far different in its aim to enlighten the individual with philosophical reflection, using sound to embellish words and ideas.
       Sufi brotherhoods - mystical orders of adepts such as the Gnawa, Aissaouia, Jilala, Hmadsha, Deroqa, and the now forbidden Haddaoua - perform music in the service of Islam so that those present may become united to Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and the saints, by attaining a state of ecstasy through trance.
       The Andalusian heritage came to Morocco by way of the Arab Moors of Cordoba, Spain, and flourished between the 10th and 15th centuries. Very stylized in melody and poetry, these medieval Iberian suites are preserved in the classical style in which they were originally performed.
       For centuries, cities in the south of Morocco served as trading posts for caravans dealing in gold, salt, spices, and slaves, which traveled the desert. Music, the arts, and the customs of the nomadic peoples with roots in the Sahara have a distinctive influence on Moroccan culture.
       At one time, a thriving Jewish community populated Moroccan cities, from Marrakech to Tangiers. Their numbers have diminished throughout the centuries, but the Sephardic melodies of modal blues remain a testament to an exquisitely archaic Iberian form of Hebrew.

      Into these diverse musical traditions are interlaced the cyclical constants that influence Moroccans’ lives. Foremost is the enduring presence of the Islamic faith, which, though it discourages displays of singing and dancing, provides the regular refrains of Qur’anic recitation. This melodious chant can be heard in every city and village quarter - inside the mosque when the Imam offers the Muslim holy verse and from the minaret tower when the Muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day.
       The cycle of seasons establishes a timetable of recurring rites that correspond to changes in the earth, from summer to winter, from planting to reaping. These annual events inspire music that synchronizes labor and celebrates seasonal festivals during periods of leisure.
       The phases of the moon inspire events that are distinctive from those based on cycles of the sun. Many Muslim festivals follow a lunar calendar that is shorter than the solar cycle. Religious celebrations rotate through the seasons arriving nearly 11 days earlier each year.
       In the daily rhythms of the family are found those liminal musical experiences that become imprinted in the subconscious of all Moroccan lives – the familiar melodies sung by mother to baby, socializing games of children, songs that welcome guests, spontaneous chant that breaks the monotony of long days of labor.
       Finally come those pivotal passages – birth, initiation, marriage, and death – commemorated in music and ritual, which define a new phase in the existence of every individual. These are the momentous occasions that are cherished and recounted time after time in life and will be for generations to come. From a baby in the womb until its last living breath, music is ever-present and important on life's journey.

      “The Music of Morocco and the Cycles of Life” travels from mountains to desert to fertile river valleys, from imperial souks to remote villages, to witness rites of passage embedded in memory, heralded by ancient melodies: birth and infancy, courting and marriage, work and play, thanksgiving, healing and mysticism, death and life everlasting. From the very first breath until the last, music surrounds and shapes the lives of all Moroccans.

For pictures from this project visit our gallery.