Recently The View from Fez reported on a Moroccan Bluegrass Tour. Our no-holds-barred music critic, Chris Witulski (pictured left) who runs the wonderful Marockin Blog, went along to sample the music on offer. Here is his report.
This past Tuesday, we all went to a bluegrass concert. Yes, that's right. Bluegrass in Fez. The US Embassy in Rabat and a variety of local sponsors brought a pair of Virginians to Morocco for "une série de concerts de fusion maroco-américaine." They were joined throughout the entire tour by Abdelilah el-Miry, a Moroccan musical celebrity (thanks, in part, to his visible Simon Cowell-like presence on an American Idol recreation of sorts). Local musicians filled out the "band" in each of the three cities: in Fez it was augmented with four members of an Andalusian troupe.
As I sat waiting (the performance finally started 45 minutes late!), I was unnerved, as I usually am when concerts advertise "fusion" so readily. The American musicians were flying through a whirlwind tour of Casablanca, Tangier, Fez, and Chefchaouen. How were they to "fuse" with anyone other than Miry?
The crowd consisted of a mix of American and European expats and Moroccans. While it was not as full as other events I'd seen in the building, it was great to watch Moroccans getting down with some bluegrass. (Sadly, most of the foreigners, were less enthused about the Moroccan music... I'll get into that later.)
Just before our down-home Virginians came out, there was an introduction in Arabic and English that confirmed my suspicions, and heightened my anxiety: "echos" of the music won't sound "that foreign," and these two traditions may catch you buy surprise, even sounding like something that "you might hear on the radio." I've heard this discourse before, including at the slew of festivals that inundate Morocco every summer. The truth is, though, that sometimes these projects fail (confused musicians trying to make the best out of an awkward and hastily assembled musical opportunity), sometimes they soar (real cohesion into something you've never heard before, and may not hear again). Oddly enough, they rarely fall in between these two extremes. Our "Bluegrass Maghribi" event had a bit of both.
As James Leva and Danny Knicely entered the stage, we finally got to hear some music. They picked up their fiddle and guitar, diving right into a series of old fiddle tunes. (A quick rant, that I'm sure few of you will care about, but I need to get off my chest nonetheless: very little of what they played was actually bluegrass. These old tunes and harmonies were just as much Appalachian old-timey music, not surprising since the two musicians hail from closer to the east coast than Bill Monroe's old Kentucky.) Their playing was refreshing, it felt like home.
When Abdelilah el-Miry walked out with his suissen (a small stringed instrument used in a vast array of Moroccan genres), they took their first stab at "fusion." By taking advantage of the bluesy licks inherent in some Amazight musics of the Atlas mountains, the group passed phrases back and forth, almost playing a game of Simon Says. They met the goal - establishing a point of commonality, of similarity, of familiarity - but the high points of the song were those moments when one of the performers grew restless, took a solo, and momentarily extended that point of departure into an actual platform from which to depart. This, after all, is the point of fusion. But it was just the first kernel, an experiment, one that was probably more appropriate for the rehearsal space than the stage. It was still voices speaking at each other, not yet a conversation. The sum of the parts was still greater than the whole.
When the band grew further, with the addition of four members of a Fessi Andalusian music troupe, the concert changed course. The focus shifted to playing Andalusian songs, from the dominant classical music tradition of northern Morocco. The performers were phenomenal. This, however, was where these types of events often fall short. Instead of "fusion" as advertised, visiting musicians are asked to play other genres of music, to be part of a group and play things that, well, are foreign to them. With just a few days notice, and a packed schedule of travel and performance, how are they to effectively participate in genres that carry so much depth? How are they to do anything other than hope the remember the notes to a song that they admit to having learned that morning? They can't help but to struggle alongside their expert counterparts, hoping for some leadership and just a sliver of a chance to add something from their own musicality to the final product. Having been in this situation myself, I can't help but feel the frustration that comes with hoping to cling to the fluency of your neighbor.
On this account, Miry was really the star of the show. An American fiddle song hobbyist here in Morocco, he demonstrated an adeptness for both the Moroccan and the old-timey. He went beyond playing notes that fit the scale, harmonies that worked with the melodies. His interpretation, his musical ideas, and his delivery reached "fluency" (for lack of a better word).
While the event oscillated between the Moroccan and American, with the encore the group peaked. James Leva put down his fiddle and reached instead for the clawhammer banjo (a fundamental ingredient to the old-timey sound) and the effect was jarring. Performing a sung melody that is ubiquitous throughout Morocco, all the musicians were equally comfortable, excited, and ready to contribute. The major key and implied harmony gave space for James and Danny to add harmonies and phrases above the rest of the texture, and the banjo/'ud combination added the missing texture. They achieved their goal, they found that elusive familiarity and gave a new musical ideas to those who sat through the event. (When they heard that the final song would be Moroccan, a number of the expats simply got up and left, presumably uninterested in hearing more Andalusian music.) The real shame, though, is that just two days later, James, Danny, and el-Miry had to go to Casablanca and begin their search anew with a different cast of musicians and music.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Christopher Witulski is a PhD Fellow, in Ethnomusicology at the University of Florida and will be performing at the Fez Sacred Music Festival - details later.