Jewish music under the sheltering sky

In 1959 Paul Bowles was awarded a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation to make field recordings of Moroccan music. Bowles was a sometime housemate of Benjamin Britten and a protégé of Aaron Copland, the relevance of whose Lithuanian Jewish descent will become apparent in the next paragraph. In 1947 Bowles had settled in Morocco where he established his reputation as a writer and influence on the Beat generation with his first novel The Sheltering Sky. In addition to a grant for the recording project the Rockefeller Foundation provided a professional-quality but mains powered Ampex tape recorder, which limited field recordings to locations where 110 volt mains was available .

This handicap notwithstanding, Paul Bowles and two companions travelled 25,000 miles across Morocco over a three year period making more than 250 recordings of the country's musical heritage . But despite support for the project from both the Library of Congress and the Rockefeller Foundation the potential of the recordings was not exploited and 97 two track 7" reel-to-reel tapes containing approximately sixty hours of music were archived for more than a decade after the project's completion. Finally in 1972 the Library of Congress issued a two LP set of highlights from the recordings. Almost three more decades passed before Massachusetts based independent label Rounder Records released a 2 CD set of Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews which can be sampled and bought as a download from the label's website.

Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews was recorded in the Jewish communities of Essaouira and Meknes. During my recent visit to Essaouira I followed in the footsteps of Paul Bowles and took the colour photos accompanying this article. At the end of the nineteenth century around 7000 Jews lived in the Jewish quarter, known as the mellah, in Essaouira. The creation of Israel and the continuing tension between Arabs and Jews has decimated the Jewish community in Essaouira and now only around twelve Jewish families live in the city. The remaining families live outside the mellah and, as can be seen from my header photos, many of the houses in the old Jewish quarter are derelict and in dangerous condition. But there has been some recent rehabilitation of the city's Jewish heritage with the support King Hassan II of Morocco's economic advisor André Azoulay, who is himself a Jew.

The photos above were taken in the meticulously restored Chaim Pinto Synagogue in Essaouira: this may have been the location for Paul Bowles' field recording of the unaccompanied Jewish liturgy. The building was the home and synagogue of Rabbi Chaim Pinto. His followers built the Pinto Torah Center synagogue on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles and Essaouira is the destination for an annual Jewish pilgimage. Below are two photos showing the well-maintained Jewish cemetery outside the city walls. The top one is of the plaque marking the tomb of the son of Rabbi Chaim Pinto.

Interleaved between my own colour images are three wonderful old black and white photos of the Jewish community of Essaouira I found in a backstreet shop in the medina. The prints have no captions or dates but evoke wonderfully the Jewish culture of Morocco that Paul Bowles captured in his field recordings. Sadly it is a culture that has since almost completely disappeared.

Random paths - Paul Bowles was a friend of Colin McPhee, as was Benjamin Britten. Read more about McPhee, whose Tabuh-Tabuhan is generally recognised as the first minimalist work, in East meets West. There is a modern setting of the Kabbalat Shabbat together with other Jewish music here, and the music of the Sephardic Jews is here.

Colour photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Copyright on the b & w photos is unclear. Their age probably puts them out of copyright and Morocco is hardly renown for its copyright enforcement. But they are reproduced in a low-res format which makes commercial copying difficult anyway. No review samples were supplied for this article. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


AS said…
Very informative post about Moroccan Jews and their music. Having been in the Jewish Music business for many years I find this fascinating.

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