Music of Morocco (2016)
A little over a month ago, I wrote an extended piece about Paul Bowles involving his importance in the history of field recording. Part of the intent was to direct the reader to Dust to Digital’s expansive four CD box set – due for release on April 1st. Since I’ve spent more time with it, and a month has slipped by, I thought it would be a nice place to return in the days leading up to its issue.
Though Bowles is largely recognized as a writer of fiction, his extensive recordings made of the music of Morocco during 1959 hold a hallowed place in the history of ethnomusicology. They’re some of the finest documents of North African music ever made. Within the practice of documenting the world’s musical traditions, they are held in equal standing with the contributions made by more prominent figures like Hugh Tracy, John Levey, Alan Lomax, Peter Crossley-Holland, David Lewiston, Charles Duvelle and Pierre Toureille. For those aware of them, they are the stuff of legend – no small thing, considering the company they keep.
One of the less recognized attributes within the field of ethnomusicology, are the roots of the practice itself. We tend to think of it as having grown from anthropological study. In truth its beginnings having a stronger connection to Western musical composition. During the second half of the 19th century, growing from a new cohesion of radical Left-Wing political thought, there was a fairly broad reappraisal of the intrinsic value of folk-craft. Though the movement was largely centered around figures like William Morris, and was a partial response to the Industrial Revolution, it rapidly spread toward idioms of folk music. Many prominent composers – Rimsky Korsakov, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Bartok, and others, began to collect and transcribe folk songs, subsequently incorporating their elements into compositions. This became a well recognized attribute of avant-garde composition during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Bowles was a polymath. He began his creative life a poet, and before finally settling on writing as his life’s pursuit, spent many years as a composer – a field in which he gathered wide renown. It was his musical pursuits, and his interest in the music there, that originally drew him to Morocco. The recording that Bowles made in 1959 were made as fan – drawing from a highly developed understanding of music, and a deep belief in the importance of what he heard. I’ve always felt this is what makes his recordings so special. They aren’t a product of science, or intended for study. They were made from love.
Over a six month period Bowles recorded over sixty hours of music. He traced back and forth across the country in Volkswagen bug, armed with a new portable Ampex tape recorder, capturing everything he could. After his return, the results were housed at the Library of Congress, where they gathered dust for more than a decade. In 1972, probably owing to his fame as an author, roughly eighty minutes of those recordings were released as a double LP set by the Library of Congress. Given how few copies of it are in circulation, and how hard it was for me to find, it doesn’t seem like there was much interest.
Times have changed, and in many ways for the better. The last decade has fostered a wide and continuously growing appreciation for diverse musical traditions. Countless recording have come to light and been gobbled up by a hungry public. The emergence of Dust to Digital’s box is well timed and a welcome addition – particularly because of its focus on some of the most important recordings ever made – ones that have remained out of view for too long.
The musical traditions of Morocco are incredibly rich and broad. They grow from ancient Islamic music fed and altered by the African continent bellow. They’re deeply geographic, often locked within the lands from which they sprang. As Bowles traveled the country, he captured the sounds of the Berber and Riffian cultures, with diverse street, Gnawa, cafe, and trance musics. Swirling reed flutes, ghimbris, lutes, drums, castanets, and voices, bridge across centuries and diverse cultures. They rattle and rise into ecstatic heights. I own a a fairly large stack of LPs which capture traditional Moroccan music. There is no question that Bowles’ are the best. Because this music is usually made in public, most recordings are drowned in ambient sounds. Bowles’ recordings bring the musicians rushing into the room. Their depth, detail, and presence is striking. I’m often overwhelmed by the feeling that they were recorded yesterday. Simply put, they’re as wonderful as can be.
Dust to Digital’s box is a faithful remastered reissue of the original set released by the Library of Congress in 1972 – furthered with four previously unheard recordings, and accompanied by a book with expanded liner notes, an introduction by Lee Ranaldo, and Bowles own travel notes. It’s an astounding piece of work. I hope it’s the first of many the label will dedicate to the incredible archive of recordings made by Bowles during his travels around Morocco. It’s out April 1st. You can pick it up from Dust to Digital, Forced Exposure, or from your favorite local shop. Have a listen below.