Dust to Digital has just released a remarkable and historic box set: Music of Morocco, from the Library of Congress, recorded by Paul Bowles over a five-month period from July to December 1959. It is a snapshot, or perhaps a time capsule, of a culture then relatively pure and unmolested by the world outside.
Paul Bowles lived in Tangier for over 50 years, from his arrival in 1947 until his death in 1999. He knew the language and customs of Morocco, spoke Arabic and Berber. As a composer in the European classical tradition, his own music couldn’t have been more different from the music there, but he could appreciate Moroccan musical culture, not for its similarities but for its differences from European music. Like John Cage, Bowles was fascinated by sound.
Music in Morocco assumed an important role for people who couldn’t read or write. In the accompanying booklet in this box set, we read that the mythology of Morocco is clothed in song, and this new collection gives us an ample glimpse of it. Bowles wrote of these recordings, “The pieces with the greatest, and those with the smallest amount, of Arabic influence, are both to be found, strangely enough, in the same country: Morocco. This region’s contact with Europe has been that of conqueror: in its decline it has been comparatively unmolested by industrial Europe. By virtue of this, also because it once had colonies in Mauritania and Senegal, and thus has a fair amount of admixture of Negro culture, it is richer in musical variety and interest than Algeria and Tunisia. In the latter countries there is plenty of music, but in Morocco music is inescapable.” The new box set features music from the different regions of Morocco, lowlands and highlands, with styles including Berber, gnawa trance music, ceremonial music for weddings and other rituals.
I eagerly awaited this new 4-CD, 30-track set, with a custom booklet bound in real Moroccan leather (embossed with PFB–Paul Francis Bowles), encased in a handsome Moroccan-style box. In it you’ll find more than four hours of newly-remastered audio plus extensive liner notes by Moroccan scholar Philip Schuyler. The substantive booklet features an introduction by Lee Ranaldo, co-founder of the band Sonic Youth, as well the original and extensive field notes by Bowles written at the time of the field recordings, which were originally commissioned by the Library of Congress. Bowles recorded the music with a good microphone and a big Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder. He and a friend drove from village to village in an old VW Beetle over the five month period of the project. The audio quality is exceptionally good for these late 50’s field recordings.
I read Paul Bowles’ books when I was in college. I loved The Sheltering Sky, his autobiography Without Stopping, and his amazing transcriptions of the hallucinatory short stories of Moroccan writer Mohammed Mrabet, especially The Boy Who Set the Fire. Many other people were attracted by Morocco, but compared to Bowles they were day trippers. Beats like Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac visited him. Later it was the hippies looking for freedom, kif and hashish. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones went there in 1968 and recorded his album Pipes of Pan in Jajouka, something Ornette Coleman was to do a few years later on his album Dancing in Your Head. The Rolling Stones also visited Bowles and recorded with the Jajouka musicians. In the 1970’s people would prove mind-over-matter by fire-walking over hot coals, something taken from Moroccan trance music rituals and transplanted into new age human-potential ceremonies.
Here is a clip of Bowles filmed by Gary Conklin; Bowles is talking about a gnawa trance ritual where a participant self-mutilates himself into ecstasy. I remember reading about things like this in Bowles’ books years ago. People would pass out dancing to one rhythm, even slicing themselves up with knives, then reawaken upon hearing a different rhythm and act as if nothing had happened. Such is the power of rhythm, the power of music.
And a short documentary on Bowles in Morocco: