Moroccan music is incredibly diverse, and the predominant sounds and preferences change from one region to another. The ethnic groups who live in an area, the area’s history and heritage, and the local culture all play a part in the music that you hear throughout Morocco today. Traditions have long endured, and there have been outside influences too in some cases.
Music is a part of everyday life for many Moroccans, used for pleasure and relaxation. Certain music is symbolic, featuring at special events and ceremonies, and there are some sounds that are strongly connected with religion. Indeed, the haunting sound of the muezzin sending the azan (call to prayer) through the air five times per day is melodic and musical, with some skilled muezzins creating an almost hypnotic effect with just their voices.
Here’s an overview of the main types of music around Morocco:
The style of music most associated with Morocco is Andalusian music. It is heard a lot in the north of the country, and it can trace its roots back to the 9th century. Common instruments that accompany lilting voices include the drum, lute, violin, and tambourine.
Andalusian music is a combination of music from the Moorish areas of Spain and traditional sounds from the Middle East. When Spain conquered Grenada, many Arabs and Jews fled to North Africa, taking their traditions and musical customs with them. Combined with traditional Arabian music already present in the area, the result was what is now known as Andalusian music.
Stemming from Andalusian music, malhun was mainly developed by the craftspeople and artisans of Morocco. Although developed by traditional tradesmen, the enjoyment of malhun spans all social classes in Morocco today.
A type of sung poetry, malhun does not follow grammar rules, creating some unusual and memorable lines. Another interesting feature is that it uses Moroccan dialects and everyday speech rather than standard Arabic expressions. This has led to it being considered an early type of urban music. Malhun retains strong links to the past.
Although usually just using the voice, various types of drums may be used to perform malhun music
Berber Folk Music
Morocco’s population comprises both Arabs and Berbers, with Berbers having called the lands home for a much longer time. Berber communities are traditionally found in the mountainous areas of Morocco, with different areas having their own distinct sounds and styles of music.
Berber songs often tell folk stories through the lyrics, relaying historic events, beliefs and cultural aspects. Common instruments include the fiddle, flute, drum, and cymbals, with hand clapping adding to the rhythmic beat that is commonly heard in Berber music.
Music is a major part of significant events in Berber society, including seasonal festivities, weddings, and funerals. Many communities have a group of locals who specifically perform at major events. Known as imdayzn, the bands are fronted by a poet, known as an amdyaz.
It’s typical for whole villages to come together to celebrate festive occasions, with music and dancing playing a big part of the celebrations. Traditional dances that accompany music are learnt from a young age, with specific movements and routines performed by the group.
Named after a specific ethnic group and with strong historic links to African slaves, gnawa is lively and hypnotic. It tells stories of oppression and restrictions, as well as hope for a free future. It became representation of all former slaves who had escaped or who had been set free, not just those from the gnawa community.
Similar to other global styles of music that originated within enslaved African communities, gnawa is different to some types due to its strong spiritual connections. It is used as a way to commune with and praise God, with the gnawa people believing that a person cannot communicate directly with a higher being.
Although traditional music retains deeply spiritual meanings, gnawa music is reaching more international audiences when it takes on a more secular meaning.
A strong beat is created by the use of basic instruments such as the tbel drum and castanet-like instruments known as grageb, whilst a softer, more haunting, and more mystic sound is added with the lute.
Sufi music refers to the devotional hymns of Sufis. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam, with music used in spiritual activities to help followers to reach a trance-like state.
The music if Sufism varies between the different regions of Morocco, with variations even more noticeable when one compares the different groups of Sufis around the world. All share one common goal, however: to form a closer relationship with God through music. Movements often accompany the sounds, with whirling dances commonly associated with Sufis.
Sufis also use music as a way of therapy and treating people who are sick. The loud music and religious poetry is believed to drive the devil out of a person, the reason often attributed to a person being ill.
Different Sufi brotherhoods around Morocco include the Aissawa, Hamadcha, the Gnaoua, the Jilala, and the Jajouka.
The reed flute and frame drum are commonly used in Sufi music.
Gharnati music is similar to Andalusian like music. It is particularly popular in the nation’s capital of Rabat and Oujda, located close to the border with Algeria.
The name of the musical genre comes from the name of the city of Granada in Andalusia. Instruments used in gharnati include the banjo, mandolin, lute, and a traditional instrument called the kvitra. The piano may also be used nowadays.
Chaabi is perhaps the musical style that most visitors will encounter the most as they travel around Morocco. It plays in cafes and coffee shops, is often the first choice for taxi drivers when they are flicking through their radio channels, many shops play chaabi, and you may hear it coming from people’s homes. The name translates as “popular” and it combines elements from various other styles of Moroccan music.
Upbeat and uplifting, themes in chaabi music often include love and social issues. Some groups have found themselves in trouble in the past for their politically based and critical lyrics.
As well as being enjoyed in day-to-day life, chaabi is often heard at parties, celebrations, events, festivities, and social gatherings. It is a crowd-pleaser type of music, a genre that is sure to raise a smile and get people’s feet tapping along.
A variety of instruments are used in chaabi, including drums, hand-held castanet-like clackers called grageb, the stringed instruments of grimbri, oud, the long-necked buzuq, and kamenjah. Modern groups might also add the electric guitar.
Although more commonly associated with neighbouring Algeria, Rai music is, nonetheless, popular in some parts of Morocco too. It is especially common in the eastern areas of Morocco, close to the Algerian border.
The name rai means “opinion”, so it’ll be no surprise to learn that the folk music talks a lot about life, social issues, community challenges, and world problems in its lyrics.
Stylistically, rai blends traditional Berber music with more modern musical instruments. It’s not unusual to hear the lute and drums combined with guitars and synthesized beats.
Rap is growing in popularity amongst the younger generations in Morocco, with direct lyrics that speak about societal problems and cultural issues. Young groups of Moroccans might blast rap music on the streets of their neighbourhood as they hangout away from their homes.
Moroccan rap music borrows words and phrases from foreign languages, such as French and English, as well as using the language of the Arabs (Arabic) and Berbers (Amazigh).
Music Events in Morocco
Morocco hosts several music festivals and events throughout the year, as well as many restaurants and centres that regularly demonstrate various styles of Moroccan music and hold folk shows. Even just strolling around the main centres of large cities, such as Marrakech’s Djemaa el-Fna will lead to encounters of individuals and groups performing music.
Oujda hosts the yearly International Gharnati Festival. The festival takes place every June. The four-day Gnaoua World Music Festival is held in the coastal town of Essaouira, with a major draw being that many of the performances are free to enjoy.
If you’re in Marrakech in July don’t miss the various performances around the city for the acclaimed National Festival of Popular Arts. In addition to musical performances the festival also showcases other traditional arts and cultural aspects.
Mawazine takes place in Rabat, featuring both home-grown and international performers. One of the biggest music festivals on the planet, it features seven stages with normally close to 100 different acts.
Agadir’s Timitar Music Festival is ideal for anyone interested in Berber music and culture. The festival works hard to showcase and preserve the traditions of Morocco’s Berber people.
Other terrific musical events in Morocco include the ten-day Festival of World Sacred Music in Fes, Merzouga International Music Festival, the dance festival of Oasis, Tanjazz, the Sufi Festival, and Chefchaouen’s Alegria.
Some Moroccans, especially younger people, are becoming more and more drawn to the international music scene, with popular artists from the USA, Canada, the UK, France, and Spain especially listened to. Dance and pop tunes blast in clubs, and other styles you may hear include soulful rock, retro sounds, electronic, reggae, hop hop, jazz, indie, and blues. Metal music, grunge, and punk are not, however, so popular in Morocco, with many people rejecting the harsh sounds and angry lyrics that are associated with these genres.
The music of Morocco is as diverse as its people and landscapes, and, a journey around Morocco will reveal a world of enchanting and captivating music that you probably never knew existed.