Paul Bowles on the roof of the Palais Jamai in Fès, Morocco, 1947. Image courtesy of Dust-to-Digital and the Library of Congress. Source: The New York Review of Books.

In the late 1950s, the last remaining muezzin in Tangier who delivered the Muslim call to prayer with strength of voice alone decided to begin using a modern amplifier. His final call to prayer before doing so would be the last unplugged recitation in Tangier’s history, a milestone not lost on the American writer and resident of the city, Paul Bowles. According to Josh Shoemake’s literary history of Tangier, Bowles stationed himself at a café near the muezzin’s mosque and set up a tape recorder to capture the event. He invited the poet Allen Ginsberg, who happened to be visiting Tangier at the time, to join him at the café. When the muezzin began to sing, Ginsberg was so taken by the scene that he launched into an enthusiastic and lengthy commentary. His declamations became the only audible part of the recording.

Tape recorders were not widely available at the time, but Bowles had one for a much larger sonic project that coalesced almost thirty years of interest in Moroccan music. He first visited the country in 1931 while studying music theory and composition with Aaron Copland, and was bowled over by the Arabic music he heard. He would return several times over the next few years, collecting records where he could, before establishing a career as a composer in New York, where he wrote music for Orson Welles, Merce Cunningham, Tennessee Williams and others. When he moved to Morocco permanently in 1947, he turned to writing full time and found fame with his first novel, The Sheltering Sky. But sound continued to occupy his imagination and writing, along with a sense that traditional Moroccan folk music was at risk of disappearing. In 1957 he submitted a proposal to the Library of Congress for a “fight against time” project to record sounds and musical practices from across Morocco.

Few escaped blame for this apparent decline in traditional music practice. Philip Schuyler, an ethnomusicologist and friend of Bowles with a longtime attachment to the project, writes that Bowles believed the French and Spanish overseers of Morocco from 1912-1956 introduced new ideas and technologies that corrupted urban culture, and that the immediate post-colonial period was worse still with a national cultural policy “designed to eradicate traditional practice altogether.” Bowles’s Library of Congress proposal also took aim at “public apathy” and “the deculturizing activities of political enthusiasts.” He feared Egyptian music might generate generic imitations, and came to view it and other Arab music as an “influent strain” that threatened to corrupt Berber music. As Schuyler points out, it did not matter that all these styles of music had influenced each other for years. Bowles’s notion of purity meant a static form—even as he pushed to record single instruments never ordinarily played without accompaniment.

The Library of Congress chose to offer its support, and the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Bowles a grant for what would be a technically challenging endeavor. Reel-to-reel tape recorders only became commercially available in the 1950s, and many were of primitive audio quality, like the sturdy Wollensak machine that Bowles soon acquired. Bowles was something of an early audiophile, and was very happy when the Library of Congress supplied him an Ampex 601 machine, along with training in its use and maintenance. The Ampex offered greatly superior audio quality but was extremely bulky and required an electrical power supply not often available in the rural communities he would seek. This forced him to conduct most of his recording in towns, where he would arrange for musicians to be brought to him.

In the spirit of Tangier’s favorite son, the great fourteenth century explorer Ibn Battuta, Bowles travelled extensively. For this project, he managed to traverse much of the country in four stages—by his generous estimate more than twenty-five thousand miles of travel over the course of five months—with the help of a Moroccan assistant, Mohamed Larbi Djilali, and a Canadian expatriate, Christopher Wanklyn. But his itinerant designs were not so well received by the Moroccan authorities. While he was initially granted permission by the Council of Ministers, three months later he received word that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not approve his proposal. The Ministry of the Interior subsequently forbade him from making any further recordings in the country without special permission. Channeling the Kafka line he used as the epigraph for the final part of The Sheltering Sky—“From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”—Bowles defied the government’s directives. He kept his recordings to cities in order to minimize attention and completed the project between July and December 1959.

Altogether 250 distinct recordings made their way into the Library of Congress, and for over a decade, that is where they remained. Bowles wanted the collection to reach a large public in the form of six records, but funding constraints prevented any release until 1972, when the Library brought out two records containing twenty-six sections from the collection. Bowles curated the selection and was forced to cut the length of most tracks because the records’ capacity was less than two hours of audio. This allowed him to choose his favorite parts of a recording and those with the highest sound quality, but he regretted having to limit the listening experience of pieces designed to be heard in full—especially the heady Berber music. Not long before Bowles died in 1999, Philip Schuyler visited him in Tangier with a set of cassettes containing different track arrangements. Schuyler hoped to realize the goal of making a fuller set of recordings available and several weeks later received Bowles’s approval for several substitutions and additions to the 1972 album, creating a track list of twenty-nine complete pieces. He made one addition after Bowles’s death to round off the set: a short excerpt of recordings Bowles made of early morning in Tangier.

The thirty recordings at last reentered the world this past spring, thanks to the Atlanta music label Dust-to-Digital. Dust-to-Digital has a knack for unearthing music remarkable both for its provenance and obscurity, and often on the brink of disappearance. The label, run by husband-and-wife team Lance and April Ledbetter, remasters and repackages the material in a manner befitting its musical significance, with accompanying books and beautiful presentation. Their output extends across traditional American music and also takes in recordings from further afield, like their compilation of one hundred 78-rpm records made across Africa from 1909 to the mid-1960s. For Bowles’s recordings, they produced four CDs and a 120-page book with essays by Schuyler and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, along with excerpts of Bowles’s field notes, annotated by Schuyler. These are housed in a silkscreened cigar box under the Library of Congress’s original title—Music of Morocco. This month, the box set was nominated for a Grammy.

And what of the music itself? It contains the sounds of festival performances, sword dances, different geographies and tribal groups, gendered and mixed choruses, percussive ensembles, and even secular Jewish songs interweaving Hebrew and Arabic. It features plenty of percussion (from goatskin drums to a brass tea tray) and reed instruments (like the zamr double clarinet), lutes, and cane flutes, among other elements. There are marvelous sections of antiphonal song, Sprechstimme (sung poetry), ululations, and chanting. Many pieces are hypnotic, trancelike, devoid of predictable arcs. Phrases repeat and grow momentarily frenetic to reach an exhilarating pace that continues for long stretches, with most of the recordings lasting around ten minutes. Bowles noted that Moroccans “will sometimes describe it as ‘music that makes you play games inside your head.’”

The set is by no means a comprehensive survey of Moroccan music from the period, though the complete recordings remained the broadest collection of its kind until the early 2000s. Bowles was unable to reach several areas of the country and could not get good recordings of various types of performance. In both the original edition and the new release, half of the recordings come from the Berber “highlands” he valorized with the other half from the predominantly Arab “lowlands.” He made no pretenses to be an ethnomusicologist (he was a college dropout with no scholarly ambitions), but his perceived ideal of purity in Berber music and other musical preferences had ramifications beyond the collection. Schuyler notes that Bowles removed a small tin sound modifier from the neck of the gnbri, an ancient African lute, because he (and many other Western listeners) found it had a distorting effect. Its buzz was integral to the sound of the instrument for its people, the Gnawa, but they have used it less and less since the late 1960s to appease Western ears—reflecting, too, Bowles’s contribution to increasing foreign interest in Moroccan music.

This is more than the observer effect; this is active participation. Bowles was clear about his status in Morocco: he was a foreigner who valued various aspects of Moroccan culture but always felt “at one remove from the people here” and scorned those foreigners who tried to “be Moroccan.” He detested the Moroccan government (as well as his own), and his depictions of Morocco did not endear him to the country’s elites. However, his interventions often had noble ends. The country’s spoken language is Darija, while the language used to determine literacy is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). To write for publication meant learning MSA or French, but Bowles worked with several Moroccans to overcome that hurdle and help launch their writing careers. He recorded Mohamed Mrabet and Larbi Layachi telling their stories in Darija, then edited and published them in English. He also worked with Mohamed Choukri to translate his groundbreaking memoir, For Bread Alone, into English. It took nine years for it to be subsequently published in Arabic, only to be censored in Morocco for another seventeen.

Bowles’s stature helped elevate these texts abroad (and taint them domestically), but their quality held up and they have become vital components of Moroccan literature. If he overly involved himself in the production of Moroccan work, it was because he valued what he encountered and wanted it to reach a wider audience. He has been criticized for being condescending and opportunistic, perhaps a byproduct of his unflappable bearing. He did little to complicate the foreign stereotype of Moroccan “impenetrability” and frequently used reductive language to describe the Berbers—as “barbarous,” “neolithic,” and “primitive.” These word choices have earned him the label of racist or colonialist among numerous critics, and the nature of their usage today is without question. Half a century ago, Bowles meant these descriptions more kindly. As Schuyler writes of the recording project, “Bowles sought to create ‘psychological realism’ in his own work, and he believed that he had found it ready-made in Moroccan music. His opinions may have been romantic, Orientalist, or simply wrong, but his admiration and affection were sincere.” He was driven by his love of the music and the dissolution of barriers each trance-like compact enabled. We are richer for his effort.

“If you don’t know why you like a thing, it is usually worth your while to attempt to find out,” wrote Bowles of his attempts to determine what grounded him in Tangier. In his search for the folk music of Morocco, Bowles recorded the music he liked and wanted to hear, not necessarily its natural arrangements or the music the Moroccan government wanted to promote. His fear of foreign influences overcoming native music was not entirely baseless—the Jewish music he recorded left with the Jewish population, who emigrated in large numbers in the 1960s and ’70s. And following independence, the state championed cultural production that rendered a modern image of the country, not representations of its Berber or rural heritage.

More recently, the Moroccan government has become a strong supporter of traditional music, which thrives despite the usual combination of globalization, shifting tastes, and new technologies. Nonetheless, Bowles’s recordings from 1959 remain a vital catalogue of the talents, traditions, and imaginations of Moroccan musicians, as well as a unique reflection of the famous American writer who loved them. To Bowles, this would be a rare transcendence. Towards the end of his life he remarked, “I think that people are planets, floating spheres. If they touch, they just touch at one tiny point. In general they don’t touch at all.”

Henry Peck

Henry Peck writes about culture, technology, and human rights. His work has appeared in the New York Times, NPR, Almirah Radio, and elsewhere.

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