Lose yourself in Paul Bowles’s 1959 Morocco tapes

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If you know Paul Bowles, it’s likely because of his first novel The Sheltering Sky, a bestseller upon its publication in late 1949 and a classic of 20th-century American fiction. But Bowles was so much more than just a novelist: he was a travel writer, composer, translator, and a master of the short story. He also recorded hours and hours of Moroccan music at a time when the country was in transition from decades of colonial rule.

By the time he died in Tangier in 1999, after living for half a century in Morocco, he was America’s most famous literary expatriate. He had made a lot of recordings, too, 70 of which have been stored in the Library of Congress since 1960.

As a composer, Bowles had long been intrigued by North African music. In 1931, years before he began writing novels, he took his first trip to Morocco with Aaron Copland, his friend and musical mentor.

With the end of World War II, Paul turned to writing, inspired in part by his wife Jane Bowles (herself one of the great writers of the 20th century). It was an enormously productive decade. He published three major novels— “The Sheltering Sky” (1949), “Let It Come Down” (1952), and “The Spider’s House” (1955), all set in North Africa— a collection of short stories, “The Delicate Prey” (1950), and a number of travel essays.

One of those essays was called “Baptism of Solitude,” published in 1953:

Immediately when you arrive in the Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails outside the towns; and within, even in busy places like the markets, there is a hushed quality in the air, as if the quiet were a conscious force which, resenting the intrusion of sound, minimizes and disperses sound straightaway.

That sense of hush, of losing yourself in silence, is trademark Bowles. It informs much of his fiction—and, in a way, his own life— in which the idea of losing yourself is terrifying, often horrible, but also seductive and at times inescapable.

Soon thereafter, Bowles dedicated himself to a deeper exploration of sound in Morocco. The country had begun to modernize as Morocco gained independence from the French (and in the north, the Spanish) in 1956, and Bowles worried about the encroaching influence of the West. He feared that Morocco’s new government would cast aside the country’s rich musical heritage in its rush to embrace the modern. After all, it was what he called the “graying” of cultural particularity that had caused him to flee the U.S. for North Africa years before. In the Sheltering Sky, a character complains: “the people of each country get more like the people of every other country.”

In July of 1959, Bowles set out on a major project recording Moroccan music. Over the next six months, along with Christopher Wanklyn (a Canadian whose VW Beetle they used) and a Moroccan friend, Mohammed Larbi Jilali, Bowles recorded more than 200 musical selections.

It wasn’t until 1972 that the Library of Congress released a selection of the recordings on a two-LP set. But the majority of Bowles’s work languished in the Library’s archives for decades.

That is until the ethnomusicologist Philip Schuyler became obsessed with the recordings. Schuyler has spent nearly two decades working to bring a full four-and-a-half hours of Bowles’s recordings into circulation, with a combination of scholarly rigor and an expert’s ear for North African music. In his accompanying catalog, published in a gorgeous leather-bound book included with the box set, Schuyler shows a sensitivity to what drove some of Bowles’s more controversial choices, from paying musicians to perform for him to altering their instruments to achieve the sound he was seeking.

Some of those decisions resulted from the challenges of using the massive Ampex recorder itself in a country where sources of electricity were often difficult to find outside cities. But others are a bit more intriguing, as when Bowles asked a ginbri player to remove the rattling soursal from his instrument, or when Bowles leveraged U.S. power to pressure a Rifi qsbah player to play a solo against his will, instead of with drums and vocals, as traditional.

Listening closely to this box set reveals yet another angle on Bowles himself, a perpetually complex figure.

The Organist’s “Baptism of Solitude: Paul Bowles’s Morocco Tapes,” explores some of the most knotted questions about Bowles’s controversial recording project, and presents a selection of the most gorgeous recordings he captured in the process.

Now, “Music Of Morocco From the Library of Congress: Recorded By Paul Bowles, 1959” is a finalist for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Historical Album. The competition is stiff – including yet another volume of Bob Dylan bootlegs and some unreleased live concerts by Vladimir Horowitz – but this project surely merits strong consideration.

And the music it brings back to us has the potential to haunt, hypnotize, and seduce with its beauty.

Brian T. Edwards teaches literature and Middle East and North African studies at Northwestern University. He is author of “Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express,” which discusses Bowles in Morocco. His most recent book “After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East is available now. Twitter: @briantedwards