Saturday, February 02, 2013

A Day in Sidi Ali - the search for Sufi Ben Salem

Sidi Ali

Sidi Ali, a small mountain town north of Meknes, hosts a pilgrimage once each year during the week following the Prophet's birthday. The traditionally Hamadsha event now includes ritual events from a number of groups, most notably the Gnawa and Jilala. These groups work with spirits, helping those who are possessed by saints or spirits to develop and reinforce their lasting relationship, leading to blessings, health, money, or the removal of specific symptoms. People rent houses and hire groups to host ritual events, and the town is loud, full of these musical activities day in and out. Simultaneously, each group can be hired to take sacrifices down the hill, progressing to either the tomb of Sidi Ali Bin Hamdush (for the Hamadsha) or Lalla Aisha's cave. Pop music blares, competing with these (popular) ritual sounds, and the entire place is inundated with energy. Chris Witulski reports for The View from Fez.

Chris Witulski (standing, second from left) with Hamadsha Brotherhood 

A Day in Sidi Ali

Today started with my first shower in what felt like ages. It took some time to find some soap, but it was certainly worth the wait. I arrived in Sidi Ali with the hope of finding Ben Salem, an older Meknesi Gnawa ritual leader who supposedly taught everyone of a certain generation in this part of the country. I had realized last night that I already knew him - he is the older guy who I had met in Sidi Ali two years ago playing with Abd ar-Rzaq, a Fessi malem who I've worked with for a few years now. He was sweet and funny then, and he continued to be sweet and funny now. I walked down the streets that he had pointed out to me the evening before, asking for some help. Of course, people living there simply see Gnawi walking all over, so they are rarely helpful in understanding which are which. It was a miserable failure and I gave up, hoping to find him sitting at a cafe.

A green cloth for collecting gifts

While in the fortress square, I stumbled across Abd ar-Rahim Amrani's son, Abd al-Rafiʿ, who invited me to join his Hamadsha group for a descent from the taxi stands to the tomb of the Hamadsha patron saint, Sidi Ali Bin Hamdush. A young muqaddim dressed in red (who I recognized for some reason) was leading a group of 4 guwwal (large clay drums held on the shoulder), 2 tarija (small clay drums held in one hand), and 4 ghita (oboe-like very, very, very loud wind instrument). He also had two or four younger kids holding a large green cloth to catch monetary gifts from passers by and two flags preceding the group. A few Moroccans were trying to find the person with the best video device (my iPhone won, until it ran out of space). Putting in the wax earplugs that I bought from the local pharmacy, I felt prepared to do this all day long.

We kept stopping and starting, moving slowly from the tents near the pharmacy to the main square, down through the tight market, and to the closed tomb of Sidi Ali. They constantly paused to bless people who had put money in the blanket, using familiar refrains to those that I hear during Gnawa and Hamadsha events, with familiar rhythmic intensity. At one point the muqaddim looked up and blessed an older woman who was looking down from a high window.

The guwwal and tarija players stuck with the hadra rhythm almost exclusively, though the ghita players shifted cleanly between a small handful of distinct songs. The sound shifted constantly as different people swapped instruments or slightly changed their accents. The 5 (or 10?) beat rhythm was always drifting toward a 5-beat swing until the muqaddim would take a drum and emphasize what he wanted to hear - calling everyone to attention, at least until it drifted away again. When everyone stopped moving, the ghita players went into the loud ornamental playing over a held drone that showcases both impressive circular breathing techniques and ear-splitting volume. This went on for a little more than an hour and a half, until we reached the tomb, which was closed for renovations.

Malem Rida Stitu and his group

I wandered around after this, trying desperately to find Ben Salem. While descending, I passed Malem Rida Stitu's group, Gnawis from Tangier, who wanted me to sit with them, but when I arrived up at the cafe again, they were gone. I saw Yassine (a young Fessi Gnawi) and Said (Rida's brother) during the short walk, who told me that they had a house "down at the bottom". I wandered to find it, but failed. While bothering people on the road, asking if they'd seen a Gnawa group (of course they had), a woman gave me bread that was blessed from the baraka of the events at Sidi Ali. I eventually found some members of Stitu's group and Yassine's friends at the same cafe, where I sat for a while.

I went with Stitu's group to the main square, where they began to perform parts of the dakhla, the outdoor entrance portion of the Gnawa ritual (after lots of picture taking, of course). There were a handful of gifts involved, with what I assume to have been family members carrying three or four covered woven baskets (the kind used to roll bread dough) from the square to Lalla Aisha's cave. The descent was fairly normal, but without as much starting and stopping, just fighting through the tight sheep stalls that line the muddy roads to the cave. The Gnawa follow a very different path than the Hamadsha, with the end goal being Aisha's cave.

By now it was well after dark, and I continued to look for Ben Salem, wandering up and around the houses higher up the hill. On the way, I saw Abd al-Rafie again, who (1) wanted to play pool, (2) wanted to bring me to Abd al-Latif, a Hamadsha performer to whom I still owed a visit, and (3) just seemed to need a reason to wander around. The pool hall was packed, so we continued on to the house where Abd al-Latif was performing in a Hamadsha Ashiya. They had just finished, but I wandered in and got to meet (and re-aquaint myself with) some of the group. I helped them carry some olives downstairs and continued my search for Bin Salem and Abd ar-Rzaq.

After asking at a few more houses, I saw a flash of what could be Abd ar-Rzaq's black, white, and grey scarf disappearing into a door. I asked, and the confused girl who was in front of the house let me go in. (I assume that there aren't many Arabic speaking white people correctly identifying Gnawa musicians from outside of houses in Sidi Ali.)

Bin Salem and Abd ar-Rzaq

I walked in to find Bin Salem and Abd ar-Rzaq sitting outside of a small room where Hamid, Rzaq's brother, was playing the final bits of a ritual. He was working through the women's portion before ending with Aisha. I talked to the two malems sitting with me. Bin Salem, I learned, grew up with Abd al-Latif wld Sidi Amara, who I met in Marrakech. They look like brothers, but are not. He traveled the country when he was 20 or so for what sounded like about a decade or two before settling down. He now lives in Casa, and is proud of the fact that he does not own a phone (which will drive me crazy when I try to find him again). He broke five. That was enough to convince him that these new-fangled gadgets just weren't worth the trouble.

We went back to the house that they were renting and sat for a while. It was a complete floor, a very large space made up of two long rooms and a third area near the staircase. It was about a spacious as the dirt floored incomplete basement where I watched a ritual the night before, and much larger than the tight room where Hamid's event had been a few minutes ago. I loved Bin Salem's energy, his happy demeanor. He laughed easily and often, showing his toothless gums as he slapped his knee and repeated whatever funny things he heard to those around him. He left an impression on me two years ago, and I was glad to see him again. (At the end, however, I learned that he was not "that" Bin Salem the Gnawi. My search continues...)

In the end, I have a few new great recordings, with those two trips down the hill standing out as really special. I also have a lot of new thoughts about pilgrimage, pop music, and religious economies in this tight little packed mountain town.

Chris Witulski is an adjunct lecturer and PhD candidate in musicology at the University of Florida. As a Fulbright grantee, he is currently living in Fez, where he is completing research on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in Islamic popular music in Morocco. He maintains a blog: and can be contacted by email at

See a two-part description of the Hamadsha at Sidi Ali

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