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It would be easy to convince yourself you had stepped out of a time machine, were it not for the satellite dishes and Madonna posters.

A Musical Journey Through the Imperial Cities of Morocco

By Peter Culshaw
Published September 1, 2005

Music provides a constant soundtrack as you travel through Morocco. In every city we visited, we experienced the sonic variety that emanates from this fascinating country.

“Slowness comes from Allah, haste comes from the Devil.”—Moroccan proverb



Ismael, the guy sitting next to me on the plane to Tangier, seemed an ordinary enough businessman: Burton suit, Rolex, slightly battered briefcase, in clothes—import -export. The real strangeness of Morocco started becoming clear when he began telling me about his wife’s mother, who had the ability, after going into a music-induced trance, to drink boiling water, and to spit it out again a few seconds later ice cold. His current problem was that his daughter had been put under a spell by a frog. Frogs, he explained matter-of-factly, are prone to being possessed by “devils.”

Ismael’s family belonged to two Sufi sects, the Aissawa and the Hamadashas. These sects rely on music to induce ecstatic states, and music, from the haunting cries of the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer to the topical songs of the Chaabi singers, in Morocco’s still largely non-literary culture, does seem to retain a power lost in the colder, thin light of the North. My first musical encounter in Tangier was unexpected. When we checked in to the faded glamour of the Hotel Continental, the unmistakable voice of Lata Mangaskar, the queen of Indian playback singers, floated up the stairs, as though the swoops of her voice followed the twists and turns of the baroque banisters.

            The next morning we hired a taxi, a battered old Mercedes, to take us north to Chefchauen in the Rif Mountains. Chefchauen is high up in a different world, and one of the prettiest towns I’ve  ever  seen. It’s nothing like a European town and more reminiscent of a town in the Andes. The streets are cobbled, the air is clear, there’s a fabulous Medina and Kasbah and the houses are all painted white and different shades of blue: aquamarine, turquoise, cornflower. Chefchauen used to be totally isolated—it is said that before 1920 only three Europeans had visited here and it was once the center of an independent Emirate. One of these three visitors was Walter Harris, a celebrated London Times journalist who was amazed that “within 30 hours’ ride of Tangier (there was) a city in which it was considered an utter impossibility for a Christian to enter.”

Harris was kidnapped by the legendary Sultan Raisuni when the town was alerted to the presence of “a Christian dog.” His grandson, while initially suspicious of us, was an essential gatekeeper to the area’s musical riches, and he did introduce us to a group of Hadra Sufis, who we saw in a wonderful internal courtyard flanked by vaulting arches. They sat in a semi-circle and began to sing something akin to transcendent Arabic Gregorian chant.


  Travel notes



Hotel Ibis Moussafir, Fes 

Ave des Almohades  (+212) 55 651902


Palais Jamai Hotel, Fes 

Bab El Guissa  (Toll free 1-888-254-0637)


Le Mamounia, Marrakesh 

Ave Bab Jdid (+212 4 44 8981)


Hotel Parador, Chefchouen 

Place Saha el-Makhzen (+212 9 98 63 24)


El Minzah, Tangier

65 Rue de la Liberte  (+212  7 73 47 27)


Villa Maroc, Essaouira 

10 Rue Abdellah-ben-Yassin (+212 4 47 31 47)