Friday, July 15, 2011

Dvorak will never sound the same again


Musicians with a conscience make many appearances On An Overgrown Path and I offer no apologies for today featuring another artist who eschews the self-righteous bullshit that is the lingua franca of today's music industry.

The presence of Berber's in Morocco predates the Arab invasion of the country by eight centuries. Around three-quarters of the 30 million population of modern Morocco are of Berber descent and the number of Berber speakers, either as a first language or bilingually with an Arab dialect, is estimated to be around 10 million. Although Tamazight is the generic term for Moroccan Berber (Berber culture is known as Amazigh culture) there are actually three main Berber dialects, Tamazight, Tashilhit and Rifi. Despite the establishment in 2001 of a Royal institute to safeguard and promote Berber culture Moroccan schools did not recognise any of these dialects until constitutional changes forced by the Arab Spring this year, and as a result there have historically been low levels of literacy among some Berber groups. Other human rights violations identified by Berber activists include the refusal of the Moroccan Government to issue birth certificates with Berber names because, to quote the Moroccan government, such names "contradict the Moroccan identity".

The Berbers, together with many other North African Muslims, mix observance of saintly and animistic cults with more orthodox Islam in a syncretic tradition known as Maraboutic Islam. This finds expression in the music of the region, most notably among the gnawa who blend their sub-Saharan origins with Berber and Sufi influences. It is also found in the music of the famous Master Musicians of Jajouka from the Rif Mountains, but they are of Arab not Berber ethnicity. Although gnawa is justifiably celebrated there is much other interesting Berber music, including the disc featured above and below.

Cherifa Kersit, who is known as the poetess of the Middle Atlas, sings in the emotional tamawayt style. She was born in the Middle Atlas Mountains and, as still happens today with many girls in rural Morocco, did not attend school. Her reputation singing at local weddings and village gatherings spread and in 1999 her career took on an international dimension when she sang at Peter Brook's famous Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in a marathon event celebrating the women of Morocco. She is now managed by Zamanproduction: this Paris based agency specialise in showcasing non-Western artists and presented Les Orientales Festival which I wrote about so enthusiastically in 2009.


On Berber Blues Cherifa Kersit performs songs which follow the traditional sequence of an opening instrumental taqsim and final lively final dance framing a central section built around call and response between soloist and chorus. The songs are part of the improvised oral tradition of the Maghreb and are based around Cherifa's own poems about the daily joys and miseries of Berber life. Accompaniment is provided by a lute and two of the bendir frame drums that are found throughout North Africa, and the three accompanying musicians, seen with Cherifa Kersit above, also provide the chorus. Their music can be sampled in this video.

Now let's tackle the dead moose that lurks in the middle of this post. Berber Blues will be, for many Western-trained ears, a difficult listen. But there are many good reasons to write about Cherifa Kersit and Berber music. The first is quite simply that this is foreign but compelling music and in today's monoculture of modernity we must keep alive threatened cultures. Another reason is that this music is a powerful illustration of what I called in a 2009 article the lost art of listening. At that time I wrote "just as television sets can be retuned, so can the human ear and its linkages to the brain be retuned. This retuning process can take many forms, such as tuning out our inbuilt preferences for conventional tonality and melody". The prejudiced ear can be retuned and music such as Berber Blues is an invaluable tool in this retuning process.

In that 2009 post I also talked about "ear candling music" and that is precisely what Berber Blues is. If you liked my recent post about István Kertész's recordings of the Dvořák symphonies you can thank Cherifa Kersit. Because after spending some time appreciating her tamawayt style, I heard Dvořák's music with a freshness and clarity that was quite revelatory. So at just £4.14 for the MP3 download why not give Berber Blues a try? I guarantee Dvořák will never sound the same again.


* Cherifa Kersit did not attend school and, as explained above, this still happens today to many girls in rural Morocco. Education For All is an NGO that provides the opportunity of a college education for girls from rural Moroccan communities. Three boarding houses making secondary education available for around 100 girls have been built by them in the High Atlas region around Marrakech. More on Education for All's invaluable work and how you can help here.

* In a wonderful example of inclusivity Berber Blues is on Long Distance, the label that also released Daan Vandewalle's recording of Alvin Curran's Inner Cities. Back in 2007 I webcast this contemporary epic for solo piano, all 4 hours 24 minutes of it.

* And in another wonderful example of inclusivity Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall perform a Berber lullaby on their exquisite album Ninna Nanna.

* My earlier post I am in an even larger prison touches on the contradictions of contemporary Morocco as experienced in Essaouira. This city is home to many Tashelhiyt speaking Chleuh Berbers whose region stretches from Essaouira south to beyond Agadir. The conundrum that is Morocco is also illustrated by Tahar Ben Jelloun, considered by many to be Morocco's greatest living author he is viewed by others as being anti-Amazigh.

* As a change from the numerous videos of Gnawa musicians follow this link to a wonderfully authentic example of the oral tradition of the Maghreb as practiced by a Chleuh Berber poet in a souk.

* More Berber music in my Chance from the souk system post and linked podcast.

* My photo below was taken in the Berber village of Tamraght in southern Morocco and by chance captures the gender inequality that still exists across the country. Thanks go to Hassan, Said, Mohamed, Brendan and our other friends who invited us into their homes in Tamraght and to friends in Essaouira, Marrakech and elsewhere. We will be back!


Berber Blues was bought online. Footer photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter. V1.1 amended 16/7 to correct error with date of founding of IRCAM Berber cultural institute.

2 comments:

Pliable said...

Trivia, the dot in the water to the right of the female figure is a surfer. My photo was taken looking south from Tamraght and some of the best surfing in Africa is in this area. In the foreground is Banana Point, one of the best local breaks. The Berber guys from the village are simply awesome surfers, I only ventured out in a sea kayak and found the power of the waves quite frightening.

Pliable said...

Can anyone explain why my site logs show a number of return visits from the BBC to this article? What is ironic is that this must be the only article for many months that does not contain a single mention of the BBC.

Perhaps a programme on Berber music is planned? It would not be the first time - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2007/08/echoes-of-rudolph-dunbar-on-bbc.html