BERBER BANJOS AND GNAWA TOADS: Searching for the Sounds of Marrakech

Djemaa el Fna market; photo: Daniel Mitchell.

There are certain things we expect of common spaces, reliable markers to help us move through the public sphere. If we’re at a shopping mall, we expect signs telling us where the exits are. Hotels provide us with markers we can hang on the door requesting privacy or maid service. And in all such places, we generally expect the experience to be accompanied by soft music, more likely noticed if it’s not there than if it is.

I step out of my room into the faded elegance of a Marrakech riad, listening for what Moroccan Muzak might be. The hallway is a little uncomfortable in its silence, as is—in a twist on “elevator music”—my ride down to the lobby. When I get to the ground floor, I hear it for a moment: not quite easy-listening but faint, unobtrusive oud strains so quiet they’re only audible in spots. They don’t bathe the space in an audio wash, but merely spritz it.

I’ve traveled here to experience the Djemaa el Fna, an open-air market where it’s said live music has been performed every day for centuries. I leave the riad at about 10 p.m. on my first night there, and walk down Avenue Mohamed VI. I hear music, but the square is supposed to be about two miles away. I keep walking, and after a half-mile or so the boulevard opens up to a park where I hear hundreds of toads. The range in their different singing voices and the rich polyrhythm of their variously metered songs is remarkable. Drums are in the distance again. Sculpted bushes populate the shallow swamp, and a full chorus of amphibians fills the air. It’s not that big an area, but the traffic noise seems eclipsed. I stop to listen for a while. The toads seem to be everywhere, but I don’t see a single one.

Visiting new places heightens the senses. Whether viewing new things through a camera lens or just stopping to take in the information of the world, novelty gives us pause to experience the world in a way we don’t often stop to do at home. It gives us opportunities for Cagean moments. John Cage taught us, or reminded us anyway, to listen to the world, most famously with his “silent” composition. In his excellent new book No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4”33’, Kyle Gann writes:

4’33” is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-garde’s best-understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew. To Cage, it seemed, at least from what he wrote about it, to have been an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music. It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life. But to beg is not always to receive.

The piece was given its premiere by David Tudor in 1952 on a small outdoor stage near Woodstock, New York. In most performances what the audience members hear, as the pianist sits in silence, is themselves shifting in their seats, shuffling their programs, maybe exiting the theater. But at the premiere they would have been listening to the outdoors, crickets—maybe even toads like the ones that live near this Moroccan thoroughfare.

I finally arrive at “La Place,” as the square is called, with a rush. It feels like the greatest thing I’ve ever seen or heard. It takes me back to the exhaustion, confusion, and over-stimulation of the state fair when I was a child. A cacophony of drums echoes everywhere. Musicians have set up stools and lanterns around the plaza; audiences stand in circles around them. I approach one to find an old man, nearly toothless, playing a small, handmade lute. He stops and comes over to me (white skin attracts attention in a country where American or European tourists can spend in a week what the average native makes in a year) and says in English, “My music is the best, the most spectacular.” The young men around me respond with an encouraging “Ooooooh!”

I listen for a while, then move on to another circle. A man with a four-string banjo is taking coins from the audience. There’s a call-and-response chant, and he tosses the coins into the center. Occasionally he plays a soft oud-like line, finally kicking it in with others clapping and playing finger-cymbals and hand drums. Not more than 20 feet away, a man playing a Gnawa guembri (something like a bass guitar), his music distorted through a radio re-fashioned into an amplifer, plays as two young men do a quick-stepping dance while holding hands. The two drum groups almost mesh. Almost. It’s aurally dizzying.

While I’m listening, a guy starts talking to me about the music they’re playing, the Berber tradition. He asks me questions about what I do, where I’m from, and he wants me to write about the Berber struggle. But I want to listen to the music. I wonder if it’s possible to interrupt a performance of 4’33”. Can someone in the audience be disruptive?

Outside La Place, the default sound of Marrakech is the motorbike. The persistent alto growl is everywhere as the motorized burros speed around in all directions. They are a primary mode of transit, but they’re also a defining symbol of youth identity (like the American car, the means to get away from watchful eyes) and work as pack mules as well. They bring youth to the informal, outdoor gathering spots, and pull wooden carts packed with goods for distribution moving through the winding, narrow roads of the casbah.

After several visits taking in the wonderful madness of Djemaa el Fna and the claustrophobic din of the casbah, I decide to go in search of silence. I walk to the 12th century Jardins Ménara and climb to the top of a pavilion overlooking a large reflecting pool. The Ménara is a large open space, something I’d pictured as a sort of bucolic retreat. But the air here is deathlike, a dry stillness that can’t drown out the sound of the highway in the distance. The only living sound here, besides the occasional brave bird, is the constant hum of insects living in the olive groves.

On the way back to “The Place,” I visit the hotel La Mamounia, a famed bit of “old Morocco.” A coterie of six men in white robes with maroon vests and fezzes is on hand to open the door for me. Not one of them says a word as I walk in. Workers inside nod but don’t speak as I walk through the opulent lobby. It is a peaceful place, dark and cool with natural light from outdoors bouncing off the marble floors. Besides occasional voices in other parts of the expansive lobby, the only things I hear are the sounds of water running through two small fountains and the closest thing to Muzak that I’ve encountered yet. At the supermarché I’d heard soft-edged Moroccan songs, designed (or at least selected) to ease the shopping experience, and far different from the passionate pounding at Djemaa el Fna. But it was still organic music. Here, at Marrakech’s, priciest hotel I hear pure New Age-synthesized Arabic music. Non-obtrusive and inoffensive, it isn’t meant to be listened to, which is what I’m doing. Unsurprisingly, it mixes well with the sound of the cascading water reverberating through the tile rooms.

Water’s another constant hum, but one with enormously positive associations. It’s the sound of refreshment, of growth, of life. It’s safe, reassuring—especially in the treble range that connotes “not deep enough to drown in.” Traffic sounds are anxious. Insect sounds suggest death, or at least discomfort. Water, traffic, and bugs aren’t so auditorily different from one another on an acoustic basis. They are more like each other than they are like thunderstorms, carousels, or pile-drivers. But water’s the one that reassures us we’re going to be okay. Here, though, it’s augmented by the banality of Muzak. What was it like when this place was allowed to exist without the piped-in soundtrack?

As I leave La Mamounia, the afternoon call to prayer echoes through the medina, emanating from the towering Koutoubia mosque that dominates the area skyline. I head to the entry and begin to remove my sandals when I am politely told that I am welcome to enter if I want to make Muslim prayer, but that normally tourists are not allowed in. I politely say that I understand, and leave. There was a time when, for many people—in America anyway—the house of worship might be the only place where they heard music, at least as performed by a trained player on something as massive as a pipe organ. Maybe now, the house of prayer is the only place to hear nothing.

Contributor

Kurt Gottschalk

KURT GOTTSCHALK writes about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.

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