In the time I’ve been in Morocco, I’ve seen a lot of music performed and listened to many other kinds. In general, the music you hear in the taxicabs, hanuts, and blaring from stands in the medinas is Arabic music and not necessarily Moroccan in origin. That’s not to say that you won’t hear the music of Morocco in those places, because you will, but by and large it’s music from Lebanon, Egypt, or other Arab countries.
The music of Morocco is diverse and consists of as many regional varieties as you can shake a wooden stick at. In general the Amazigh (Berber) varieties of folk music can be broken into three seperate categories. Music associated with specific villages, ritualistic music, and that of professional musicians.
Regional or village music is usually made with flutes, drums, and voice and has specific dances associated with it such as ahidus and ahouach. Because Morocco is a Muslim country, most music will begin with a prayer that non-Muslims often mistake for music itself. In fact, I’ve been asked about the chanting music by numerous visitors and it took me a while to figure out they actually meant the recitation of Quranic Suras and not actually music at all.
In the past all sorts of rites of passage included a beginning with ritualistic music and prayers, but because most families now have access to radios, cd players, and stereo systems, this has become increasingly rare and special events are now as likely to have blaring speakers as spiritual invocations to guard against djinn and shaitans.
The music performed by professional musicians, called imdyazn in Darija, is led by a poet or amydze, usually this is a quartet that uses djembe drums, rabab (the Moroccan fiddle), and the strange sounds of the long brass horns called bou dunanum. Often this kind of music involves poetry, storytelling, and jokes which make me wish I understood Darija well enough to get what everyone is laughing or nodding in agreement about.
The Chleuh, make music using cymbals, vocals, ouds, and fiddles and have a complex structure that often begins with the fiddle and has intermittent stops with poetry or what at first sounds like chaotic cacophony but is actually a complex composition that takes decades to perfect. I was reminded of Indonesian classical music the first time I heard it.
Chaabi music is a completely different creature and comes from all the different forms of Moroccan music swirled together in melting pot, tossed into a hammam oven, and then pulled out and served super hot.
Chaabi music is the Moroccan music you are most likely to hear just about anywhere. Born in the markets it has become to Morocco what rock and roll is to the United States.
Chaabi had a lot of influence from the Egyptian and Lebanese music of the 1970’s so in a way you could almost call it Moroccan Disco. It is almost always composed of a rapid rhythm and Moroccans can’t help clapping with it when it is playing. There are no set instruments for Chaabi and you’ll find ouds, fiddles, electric guitars, and drums or anything else that the musicians want to try. Maybe Moroccan Fusion would be a better term, but the fact is, if you don’t want to dance when you hear Chaabi music, you are probably dead already.
Of course the music that everyone knows about is the Gnawa music. Gnawa was born from the slaves that were brought from the sub-sahara and at first was used in the same way as Gospel was used in the USA during the times that slaves built both nations. The music became an integral part of the Sufi brotherhoods traditions and is now firmly a part of Moroccan ritual. Gnawa is the original trance music and is used to help aspirants to achieve a mystical state with it’s heavy rhythms and repetitive riffs. It started to achieve fame world wide with kiffed out space cadets in the 1960s and 1970s recording it and finding the master musicians of the art with the help of expats like Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles.
Another type of Moroccan music you may hear if you visit Morocco is Malhun. Malhun actually is sung poetry and not Quranic chants. The poetry is usually accompanied by oud and/or violin. Again, this is a music I wish I could understand the words to, but the music alone usually can tell you what it is about if you pay attention. If not, the tears or smiles of those listening will give you clues. The other instruments in Malhun are the cymbals, flute, and of course drums.
Rai music comes from the cities close to the Algerian Border such as Berkane and Oujda. In fact, the music itself could be said to be Algerian except that Morocco has produced some well known stars and varieties of rai that make a true Moroccan music.
Sufi Music is another form. While Gnawa is associated with the Sufis, not all Gnawa is Sufi and not all Sufi music is Gnawa. Like Gnawa, most Sufi music is designed to bring on a trance like state and is often accompanied by ecstatic dance and ritual. Sufi music differs in that there is rarely an organized drum section, though, as with all things in Morocco there are more than a few exceptions.
Probably the best known Sufi musicians are the Master Musicians of Jujouka.