One might think that the best place to seek out drumming in Morocco is Casablanca. Well, that's where I started my journey. But aside from an astounding convertible mosque (the Hassan II mosque has a vertable spa in its basement, retractable sunroof for hot days and a laser atop to point the reverent toward Mecca) I didn't find an abundance of music for the wandering rhythmatist to consume. So I headed off to Marrakesh where I found the Djemaa el Fna street market the best place to spectate different groups of bards signing their anecdotal comical tales with banjo and bendir accompaniment.
The Bendir, a frame drum with a string snare creating a rasping decay on each drum beat, is the most prevalent uniquely Moroccan drum. It is played balanced on the left thumb with the fingers of both hands playing the head. The bongo style pottery drums that were a later Moroccan invention can be found here as well, usually glazed the same colors as the tajine cooking pots.
Though the Marrakesh culture hit the spot for my drum craving, I heard tell of more wonders to behold in the coastal town of Essouira, a former Portuguese colonial town where the town retained the former colonial fortress around its outskirts and coast. I rolled into town in time for a festival of Gnawa music, a kind of trance singing with a bass guitar formed of odd parts like olive oil cans and sticks along with the traditional clapper cymbals that that are played somewhat like Spanish castanetes.
The trance festival was delightful and I had an even better drumming fix. But the best was still to come. Strolling the ramparts that fronted the coast I heard some odd high pitched chanting and kaleidoscopic interweaving clapped rhythms. More than a dozen elderly men dressed in white robes and turbans performed a fantastic set of trance songs with clapping, chanting and bendir accompaniment. They claim their singing is in praise of Allah. Like the intricate tile mosaics of Hassan II mosque, rhythm is a form of praising the almighty for the intricate beauty of the world.
Beyond the fascinating array of vocal trance music, Essouira has a bevy of drum artistry on display. Drum stores packed to the point that even ceiling space is used for storing suspended drums of all sorts. I ended up buying several drums made from the roots of massive cactus, several ceramic goblet drums and of course a couple of bendir.
Heading north, the next drum haven I found was Fes which seemed to be a capital for the making of lutes. Wandering its narrow alleys I found several drum workshops processing the goblet drums (probably the second most traditional Moroccan drum after the Bendir) through the spinning, firing and glazing process. They were quite happy to have a tourist come in to see the process, of course with the promise of much commercial consumption of their artistry to follow. (Note that the leather tanning pits are not to be missed either, a stunning site and an equally stunning smell as the primary ingredient of the leather curing process is pigeon feces.)
Of course no trip to the vast Saharan expanses is complete without a camel ride into the desert with a tenting experience bedouin style. Our guides made sure to bring along bendirs and ballads to wind up the day. There are few experiences like listening to bendir laced ballads under the galaxyscape night sky at the edge of the worlds largest desert.
For those with rhythmic intent, make sure that Marrakesh, Fes and Essouira are on your agenda.
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|On the prowl for drums and drumming in Morocco|