Ahl Touat were brash, upbeat, and a lot more fun than Saturday’s Shadhiliya performance. Where the Shadhiliya were sedate, showing off their impressive vocal range and Andalusi-influenced music, the Ahl Touat soared high and wild. Faith Barker reports...
The group is from Fez, so the sparse 11pm audience quickly grew until it was standing room only. Mqaddem Driss Zerhouni had his whole family sitting at the front and the mostly Moroccan crowd responded ecstatically to their songs. Babies, teenagers and older people alike danced and sang along until one in the morning, and the women’s cries of “salam ‘ala rassoul allah” followed by the zaghrit, ululation, rang out.
Zerhouni led the group like a Sufi Mick Jagger, switching between different drums and later getting to his feet and interacting with the crowd. This type of Sufi music upends Western notions of sacred music as something to be revered and instead is a group celebration which has overtones of a rock concert. The Fes Festival performances of groups like the Ahl Touat, Issawa (who are at Dar Tazi on Tuesday night), and the Hamadcha (Saturday), are not simply representations of lilas as they would be in a private setting. Rather they are new concoctions which fuse ritual with concert-style performance, and this fusion feeds back in to the ritual in its more traditional contexts.
As a popular brotherhood, rather than the more high-brow tariqas like the Shadhiliyya, the Ahl Touat use only percussion: the small clay ta’areja drum, the tbbal, the bindir (like a large tambourine), and the metal tasa. Occasionally they also use the nffar, long trumpets which blast out their single notes at ear-splitting volume. Unlike Saturday’s concert, this group knew all their words by heart and didn’t use paper copies. They played many well-known songs which are also played by the Issawa, especially at weddings. Hamadcha mqaddem Abderrahim Amrani tells me that in the past it was in fact Ahl Touat and not Issawa who played at weddings and brought in the bride.
The origins of the group are in Touat, in the Algerian Sahara. They came to Fes and several other Moroccan cities several centuries ago and built a house, the dar dmana, which was similar to a zawiya: a place where devotees worshipped and the poor were given shelter and food. They form part of the Wazzaniyya tariqa, so many of their songs are in praise of the group and its founder, as well as God and the prophet Muhammad.
The Ahl Touat are best known for their dance with the ‘asa, stick, which replaced the rifle that was traditionally used until French colonisers banned its use in Touati ceremonies. Towards the end of their set, four members of the group left their drums and stepped down in front of the stage holding the sticks. The crowd got to their feet and pressed around them at the front of the stage to watch the men clash the sticks against each other in the rhythm played by the remaining musicians. Several women towards the back of the crowd were trancing, shaking their heads from side to side, their hair whipping around them.
Tonight’s performance with the Issawa, probably the most important popular brotherhood in Morocco, is likely to bring the house down. For those wanting more than the polite appreciation of audiences at the festival concerts, the Sufi nights are a must. Pray for fine weather and turn up early to get a good spot.
Text and photos; Faith Barker