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Music of Morocco: From the Library of Congress, Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959

by Philip Schuyler, Editor
Dust-to-Digital, Atlanta, GA, 2016
4 CDs in silkscreen box with 120-page leatherette book. $60.00
Distributor's Website: http://dust-digital.com.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY 10019 USA


In 1959, the American novelist, composer, music critic, and sometime poet, Paul Bowles, travelled through Morocco recording North African, principally Berber, music. Having fully settled in Tangier in 1947, where he lived until his death in 1999, he had come to love the indigenous musical traditions he first encountered some 28 years earlier in 1931, when he visited the city with Aaron Copeland, his mentor in composition.

To fund the recording effort, Bowles obtained a Rockefeller grant, which enabled him to purchase an Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape recorder, then an innovative, portable technology just 26 pounds in weight. The tribes that fascinated Bowles, and which he had come to know somewhat, were even then under pressure to conform to modern conceits. More importantly, while in the colonial era rural musical traditions were left largely alone, in the new nationalist period (with independence in 1956) cultural policies sought a greater measure of homogenization, extending from the city into the countryside. As Bowles put it in his grant application: "a recording project in Morocco is a fight against time and the deculturizing activities of political enthusiasts." Here was a rich tapestry of music on the verge of suffering the effects of modernity, including absorption into official Moroccan policy with little taste for its own cultural roots.

So, with compatriots Christopher Wanklyn (a Canadian living in Morocco) and Mohamed Larbi Djilali (a Moroccan assistant), the three set out in Wanklyn's VW bug. From July to December, they visited 22 locations (both villages and cities), making some 250 recordings, which were housed in the Library of Congress.

Over the years several LPs and CDs of this music were released if in adumbrated form. And, of course, just prior to and during this period, Berber music was "discovered" by Western musicians. From The Rolling Stones to jazz masters Randy Weston and Ornette Coleman, to composer Richard Horowitz, and so many others, an exceptional inspiration was drawn from the hypnotic and curative power that this music expressed.

But we would have to wait until this year, 2016, to have fair representation of the best of the recordings that Bowles made. Music of Morocco: From the Library of Congress, Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959 is a four-CD set, with 30 exemplary tracks. A 120-page book that accompanies the music includes the field notes that Bowles made for each track, a selection of photos taken en route, an incisive discussion of the project and the music by Philip Schuyler, ethnomusicologist and authority on Moroccan musical traditions, and a fronting text by Lee Renaldo, co-founder of the music group, Sonic Youth.

For those who know this music as it is today and those who want to encounter it as it was, I cannot recommend this publication more. Not only do we have Bowles' recordings expertly re-mastered, we have those recordings returned to their original, long form by Schuyler, which Bowles had previously edited. The instrumentation, voicing, chants, and songs from just over a half-century ago return a vivacious, propulsive arc whose attraction and beauty are unmistakable.

Bowles was not a professional ethnologist or musicologist. As a dedicated traveler, successful composer and writer, and host from his Tangier perch to several generations of creators across the arts, it is all the more gratifying to have this publication now––as the internet enfolds into it the musical gifts that indigenous cultures (agrarian, nomadic, or urbanized) yet can give us live and in the flesh.

Last Updated 1 July 2016

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