Banging the drum for oppressed women musicians

Quite rightly the gender balance in classical music is being corrected. But too much emphasis is being placed on the women musicians who achieve celebrity status in an art form eviscerated by celebrity fixation, and too little attention is paid to the less fortunate women who are at last being given the opportunity to make music.

While in Morocco recently I attended one of the music workshops that Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb has been running for local women in Essaouira for five years. That is Ahmed in my photo above; he is an adept of the Derkawa Sufi Order, and as a musician has performed extensively in Europe. His workshops have a particular importance because although they are not repressed in the same way as their counterparts in the Gulf States, women still play a subordinate role in Moroccan society and suffer from low levels of literacy.

Unlike more orthodox branches of Islam, Sufism has an enlightened attitude to women, and the mystic and poet Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya who lived in the the 8th century was the first female Sufi saint. In Essaouira there is a unique variation of the celebrated Gnawa lila trance ritual known as the hadra which is performed exclusively by women - Les Haddarates Souiriyattes. Falling numbers threaten the tradition of the hadra, and Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb hopes to keep this threatened tradition alive through his workshops. He is also an artistic advisor to the town's Festival Joudour, and this year the festival's female strand - Festival Hadra Féminine et Musiques de Transe - is showcasing no less than twelve ensembles of women musicians representing mystical traditions from as far afield as France, Algeria, Tunisia and Senegal; a video of the 2015 festival can be viewed here. Trance music - of which Gnawa from Marrakech and Essaouira is the most celebrated form - is performed in healing ceremonies, and Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb is also a music therapy practitioner. His latest album Parfum d'Amour is a collaboration with French classical cellist and transpersonal therapist Emmanuelle Robert which combines musical improvisation and Sufi verse - sample the fusion of a Bach Cello Suite and a transcendental text via this link.

My time with the women musicians of Essaouira reminded me of the wise words of Percy Grainger that I quoted when I wrote about Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb's transcultural collaboration Shore to Shore last year:
I firmly believe that music will someday become a 'universal language'. But it will not become so as long as our musical vision is limited to the output of four European countries between 1700 and 1900. The first step in the right direction is to view the music of all peoples and periods without prejudice of any kind, and strive to put the world's known and available best music into circulation. Only then shall we be justified in calling music a 'universal language.

Thanks go to Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb for his time and wisdom. My Moroccan travels and accommodation were self-funded. Photos were all taken by me and are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2016. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Paula Jeanine said…
My name is Paula Jeanine Bennett and I am a vocalist, percussionist and composer. I am very proud to say that I am currently involved in a collaborative project with the women you mention in your post, the Haddarattes Souiriyattes. Our project is named Kloub Nssa (Heart Of Women). I have provided a youtube link below:

In Kloub Nssa, we are striving to create a new pathway for our expression as women, crossing cultural and spiritual boundaries. When I first encountered the Haddarattes I was so happy to meet women who played and sang with the fire I have always felt in myself.
Be hopeful. We are raising our voices together for the world!
Here is my website and contact:

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