I am currently visiting my brother who teaches English at a University in Fes, Morocco. One of his roommates is Chris Witulski, a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology from the University of Florida currently researching indigenous Moroccan music. A big part of Chris’ work is devoted to transcribing performances of certain types of Moroccan folk music, and Monday he hosted a group of Gnawa musicians at the house to perform a series of songs.

As Chris and a few Moroccans told me, Gnawa is rooted in West African music and primarily uses pentatonic scales, although more Arabic-sounding melodies with half-steps and microtonal vocal intonations evolved once the tradition reached Morocco. Monday’s performance featured three musicians, two who played iron castanet-like instruments called krakebs and one who played a three-stringed bass-like instrument called the hajhuj. The hajhuj player led the group through the songs, which often featured call-and-response passages.

Although the raw materials of the Gnawa music I heard were very straightforward – repetitive rhythmic grooves supporting tunes rooted in a simple melodic language – I was struck by the unpredictable phrasing. Rarely were lines repeated in a cookie-cutter manner, and most of the time there was little sense of antecedent-consequent relationships in the songs’ melodic framework. The music simply moved along from one piece of text to another, stabilized by the rhythmic drone of the krakebs.

Of course, I am no expert on this music and I dislike describing this music to you after so little contact with it. So, below is a link to a video of an earlier performance by this same Gnawa group. Note Abd ar-Rzaq, the ma’alem, or leader and the dual function of the hajhuj as a melodic and rhythmic part of the ensemble. The animal skin wrapped around the main body of the instrument not only helps it resonate, but also acts as a drumhead, which he taps from time to time.


Ma\’alem Abd ar-Rzaq, Gnawa معلم عبد الرزاق الگناوي

One Response to “Sounds of Fes, Morocco”
  1. Mary Jeffers says:

    What a great post and Gnawa video!

    Just wanted to let all of you in Fez know about the Moroccan/American fusion music performance coming up on Sunday May 8th at the Casbah Theater in Fez (sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Rabat). American guitar and violin virtuosos Danny Knicely and James Leva will join Moroccan violinist Abdellah Miry for a tour through Tangier, Chefchaouen, Fes, and Casablanca — to be joined by local musicians at each stop.

    The idea is to show how American bluegrass music and Morocco’s traditional musical styles both have roots in medieval traditions that spanned Europe from Muslim Spain to Great Britain. A very talented young Andalusian orchestra from Fes will be part of the performance at the Casbah Theater.

    Garrett, if you’re still in Morocco on the 8th, we’d love to see you at the concert. In any case, please encourage Matt and Chris and all your Moroccan friends and musical contacts to come out to see the concert. It is open to the public at no cost.