Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Entranced In Morocco


Hamid led me towards the sound of thumping drums. We left the main square, Place Moulay Hassan, and moved quickly through the medina’s maze of narrow lanes and alleys, the rhythmic pulse sounding clearer as we went. Turning a sharp corner, we came to a small square. The daylight had now almost faded completely, but what I saw needed no further illumination. Dozens of people were dancing around singing and clapping loudly, forming a circle around colourfully-dressed musicians. The music was raucous and wild. High-pitched andir trumpets bouncing off the walls, drum-bass pounding, shooting down the fellahin streets.


This group, of which Hamid and I were now a part, became a moving mass, a procession through the rough cramped lanes. So this is the place “Where the Streets Have No Name?” I thought, and for some reason I was reminded of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. The crowd surged along and I was slightly afraid of losing sight of Hamid in the crush. He had dropped towards the back but then I could just see him smiling at me, waving. We had now reached the house where the night’s entertainment was to take place.


Passing through a narrow entrance hallway into a large room and squeezing onto a foam mattress, we sat with the wall behind our backs. I realized that this was actually an open-air courtyard, about 8 metres square. A canvas tarpaulin, which was leaking rainwater, had been set-up as a makeshift roof. It was the classical Arab-style house. There were small rooms all opening onto the communal courtyard, and the second and third floors both had balconies which overlooked the inner square. Tonight these were packed with people. It was possible that, several families shared this building.


I was fascinated with this gathering as I looked around the room, trying not to appear as though I was obviously staring. There were about 40 people on straw mats, crouching, reclining, or casually lolling around. Hamid and I were sitting only with men, and on the opposite side of the courtyard were the women and children. The musicians sat cross-legged to our left along the other wall on beautiful patterned rugs, which actually covered almost the entire floor area. Bunches of lit candles marked the edges of the performance area, giving the room an ethereal glow. Apart from a documentary film crew of two men and one woman, it appeared that I was the only white person there.


Before the music began I asked Hamid about the meaning of this night. He explained that it was an event to mark the start of Ramadan, (the Islamic holy month of fasting,) “so we do not get to do this again for some time,” he said. I later learnt that the night was also to do with ‘healing by music’ through the summoning of spirits.


I had come to Morocco intending to try to hear some of its wonderful music in an authentic, non-touristy atmosphere, and thanks to a chance-meeting in his tiny jewellery shop the day before, Hamid was able to help me make this more than just a hope. He had told me earlier that the music we were about to hear would put people into trances and I was greatly excited at this prospect.


The music started without any fanfare or introduction. It was then apparent to me that the type of music that was being played here required a highly skilled leader with a remarkable ear for the overall sound of the group. They had that in the man who played the kanza, which looked to me like a type of low-toned rectangular guitar with only three strings. As a bass player myself, I quickly focused my attention on him. He had a thick moustache, and was wearing a turban, and like the other musicians wore socks and no shoes. As they played, he guided and cajoled the other members, instinctively and naturally using a wide range of facial expressions and head movements. It didn’t take long to see that he was a charismatic virtuoso, a one-man rhythm section, and was able to maintain an extraordinary level of energy for the following four or five hours, before another player took his place. He seemed to be the personification of the music at times, possessing the power to completely command his instrument, and through this, controlling the timing and speed of every piece of music the group played.


At first, the songs were like those played in the exuberant procession that led to the house. Three round tbel drums with the Hand of Fatima painted on the side were beaten with straight and curved sticks, and half a dozen men played the qarqba: metal hand-sized cymbals which clanged out the back beat. This was one kind of music played by the Gnaoua, who are largely born-into a musician “class” from northern central and West Africa. Many of these people are descendents of slaves and travel the top half of the continent especially, playing wherever they go. This has been said to be their occupation, as a revenge of the past.


Complementing this music was a type of dancing that I had not seen before. At the centre of it was a very dark-skinned man who wore his hair in the beaded-style of a Rastafarian. He was a professional musician, Hamid told me, and was dressed in largely the same way as the rest of the eight other performers, wearing an emerald-green silk or satin gown decorated with floral patterns, a contrasting black sash, and a be-jewelled skull cap. He spun around like a dynamo, kicking from a squatting position at times, similar to a Russian Cossack movement.


Quickly following on from this first half an hour was a slower, more simplified style of music, with the kanzir player taking on the role of the principal singer. When the first break came the musicians were given food in one of the small, windowless rooms off to the side of the courtyard. They then proceeded to begin the next set, which musically was similar to the previous.


The following and longer set I really got into, having started to enjoy the atmosphere after some initial tenseness. At this point there were still no signs of anyone falling into trances, but by the end of this set I was feeling distinctly unusual. The singing and chanting had got louder and more intense, with some of the audience, including Hamid, joining in the ‘call and response’ style of lyrics. I was being drawn into the rhythm itself, my arms and head unconsciously twitching in time with the sharp metallic scything of the qarqba and the underbeat of the bass kanza throbbing in my stomach.


Not really noticing myself, I slipped into a sort of concentrated heaviness as the music surged through me. I felt intoxicated by its’ raw force and found myself believing that something was going to happen to me unless this relentless energy stopped.  I was convinced that I would actually be unable to get out of this state alone, and that the only way I would not fall into a trance was if the band stopped playing. I was completely powerless now: a slave to the rhythm, in a sense.


Maybe I was simply falling asleep, but I certainly was not in control of my own state when the band suddenly ended their lengthy song. This sudden, punctuation point felt like a push in the ribs, and my head jerked back. As I sat forward again I was compelled to blow a gasp of relief, my cheeks bulging with air. I felt amazing, as if my veins were surging with adrenaline.


“That was unbelievable!” I said to Hamid, still next to me. “I thought I might have been going into a trance then.”

“Oh really?” he replied, “It will be next that the trance music will start.”

“What? So that was like a warm-up?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes,” Hamid said. “I think it will begin soon.”
“What are these songs actually about, what do the words say?” I wondered.

“Well, some are where a man is being sad or in love, seeing a pretty girl, but most are spiritual songs,” he explained.


The shift of gears continued when after the required pause, the music restarted. This time the oldest member of the group, a man with a grizzled grey beard and dark leathery skin, who must been at least seventy years old, took to shuffling back and forth in front of the band. As they built up the tempo to a faster pace he started to throw his arms stiffly around like an overworked windmill. Eerie moans fell from his mouth and his head lolled up and down while he circled the floor. He was frowning and looked anxious, but after ten or fifteen minutes of this he stopped with the music, and I was surprised to see that he did not look tired. Clearly, he had not fallen into a trance himself, but I took his actions to be setting the tone for what might be to come.


Soon, the music jumped to life again, and within minutes a young man, dressed only from the waist down, had joined the old man on the large rectangular rug in front of the band. The sounds of hand-claps from the audience now met in time with their spiky rhythms, and I felt a slap of excitement. A young girl of no more than fourteen rushed forward from the sitting crowd into the open area and began to twist and writhe at first, shaking with the bewitching music. Next, she was on her knees, her head jolting back violently again and again as if someone was yanking her hair. She seemed to be having a strange fit, directed towards the musicians themselves. The old man and a middle-aged woman began to drape large, coloured scarves over the heads of the two ‘dancers’ and they also waved bowls of burning incense under their noses. They staggered and shuddered, as if possessed, their pained, grimacing faces at times slipping out from under their shrouds. I was shocked but completely intrigued.


Before long, another woman had made her way to this bizarre rectangle, having just submitted herself also to the apparently irresistible force of the music. I was mindful now to not allow myself to go close to being in the vulnerable state I had been earlier, and resolved to keep perfectly still and just observe. I was scared I suppose, as well as riveted on the sights right in front of me, which continued in a similar vein for perhaps another twenty minutes. When the rhythms suddenly did stop, the ‘trance-dancers’ collapsed, falling to the ground, and as they were obviously weakened, almost spent, they were helped off by others to recover. One woman, looking emotionally drained, wept softly in another’s lap.


During the break I talked to Hamid about my amazement. He was rolling a joint and I asked him if he had ever been in a trance.

“I’ve been coming to listen to this kind of music since I was a boy,” he said. “But it has only happened to me once. I was about seventeen I think.”

“Did you actually remember anything about it?” I wondered.

“Well, not really,” answered Hamid lighting-up, “My friends told me about it afterwards, although I do remember waking up, feeling a little tired but fine otherwise.”


The joint was passed around amongst the men but I only took a couple of drags. I wanted to stay clear-headed and completely grounded. Certainly, I was high enough already! There was more to come I thought, as I noticed a massive plate, the size of a tractor tire, piled high with cous cous being carried by two women into a side room.


The older woman who had been mainly assisting the ‘entranced’ had begun to move through the crowd offering dates and milk, smiling. I tried to give a polite “La shukran,” meaning ‘No thanks” in Arabic, when she came to me, but she appeared to be for a moment taken aback by this. Then she beamed radiantly, and I knew she was not offended. She told me in French that she hoped I would enjoy the night, with a strange, beguiling expression on her face. I later found out that she was the ‘lady of the house,’ and her name was Malika.


With the resumption of the music, there was even more intensity in the air and the candle-lit room was vibrating from the energy of the Gnauoa. The balconies above us were filled with expectant eyes gazing down and almost immediately other men and women were now sucked into the area in front of the musicians. Just as before, they had begun their song slowly and would build gradually to a frenetic crescendo.


Only now, Malika herself was there. She grabbed a handful of lit candles off the floor and ran them up and down the skin of her left arm. Oblivious to any pain she repeated this on her neck, and her eyes bulged out with defiantly. She was making sickening yodelling noises and shaking her legs and shoulders in a sinister but sexually provocative way. I gasped and looked around the room, expecting someone to stop her or hold her down. But no, she was revelling in this, and Hamid next to me was calm-faced and impassive.


The music continued its surge and then from somewhere, Malika produced a kitchen knife and began to slice across her arms, but no blood appeared. She was laughing and she now opened her mouth wider, rapidly running the blade deeply into her tongue, back and forth, back and forth. I could not believe what I was actually seeing, and momentarily wondered which century I was in. It seemed medieval, but this was somehow timeless, animalistic, frightening. I had seen some documentary footage of similar voodoo oddities in Haiti, but never thought I would see this sort of thing with my own eyes.


More men were in trances now too.  Their bodies convulsed in spasms and they seemed impervious to the heat of candles. The knives they slashed across their wagging tongues were failing to draw blood. One man was on his knees arching back. Not wearing a shirt, his stomach muscles could be seen straining tight. He leant further backwards and began to drip hot wax onto his naked chest as his hips pumped into the air, as if in the act of sex. A young man nearby just rocked slowly up and down while another stood completely still, with only his head shaking rapidly.


This did not last for long though, perhaps fifteen minutes. It was the climax of the frenzy and soon the music became slower and laboured. The musicians were tiring perhaps, and those in trances moved less frantically.  About an hour later on, in the early hours of the morning Malika made intentional and lingering eye-contact with me from the dance area, smiling again, but on this occasion I was distinctly unnerved and looked away. Maybe I was being superstitious and silly, but I concluded that she was disturbingly ‘other-worldly.’   


The early morning continued with music but, to my own surprise, I even began to feel slightly blasé after about five hours, noticing its repetitive style. This was ridiculous, I decided, because I was missing the point of course. The subconscious design of the music is to be just that: hypnotic. This is precisely what induces the delirium of the trance, and the cultural belief is that only then can the healing by the spirits occur. There are quite similar examples of this in other parts of the world, rural Bali for example. I had become extremely tired by 5 o’clock but had forced myself to stay awake to bear witness to this event. I knew this was almost definitely a once-in-a lifetime experience so I resisted the temptation to give in to my weariness.


Then, the music was over and Hamid said we should go. There was another similar celebration nearby he said, and we might still be able to catch some of it. I was too drained to raise any objection and the thought of seeing more was still very attractive to me though. I again put my trust in Hamid and we stepped out into the blue-black darkness of the old medina once more.