By Alexander Jusdanis
By Alexander Jusdanis
Rabat – ‘Any country that forgets its heritage has nothing’: One Moroccan Saxophonist’s Quest to Make Ahwach a ‘New Global Rhythm’
Moroccan saxophonist Abdel Mabrouk’s latest album, “Ahwach Jazz” isn’t just a unique experiment in fusion — it’s an attempt to make one of Morocco’s lesser-known musical traditions “go international.” MWN sat down with the Ouarzazate native to uncover his memories of ahwach and his big plans for its future.
Abdel Mabrouk grew up in the town of Ouarzazate, the so-called “door to the desert” south of the High Atlas mountains. The region is the home of ahwach, a tradition of collective performance of music, dance, and poetry. Performances can involve anywhere between a dozen and a hundred participants, so it’s not surprising that Mabrouk saw a lot of them as a kid. If you ever have a chance to take part in one, he says, “You’ll go far! You’ll understand a lot of beautiful things — friendship, beauty, laughter.”
His own upbringing drew him to jazz. His father played the saxophone in a military band, and from him he learned the rudiments of the instrument. Mabrouk went on to study with other teachers in Ouarzazate before moving west to Marrakech to work as a professional musician. But ahwach’s call-and-response choruses continued to echo in his ear, and he recently made his way back to his hometown to rediscover the soundscape of his youth.
When he began to really dig into the traditions and music of ahwach, he realized it was “something big,” more than the simplistic “folk” tradition he and his jazz musician friends had imagined it to be.
“I found a lot of things in the music,” he says. “I found rhythm, I found culture.” But most importantly, “I found jazz in it! I found that it was jazz, already jazz.”
Mabrouk realized that, even if jazz and ahwach sounded worlds apart, they shared the same foundation. In its essence, he explains, “jazz isn’t something complicated. In the beginning, it was a traditional rhythm,” like ahwach.
And in both ahwach and jazz, that rhythm backs up melodies made of the five-note pentatonic scale. “The pentatonic scale is international,” says Mabrouk. “You find it in jazz, in blues, in Asian music, in gnawa, and also in ahwach.”
The similarities are not just in music theory, Mabrouk is sure to clarify, not just a matter of scales and rhythms. It’s the spirit of the musicians themselves. “It’s a jazz, what [ahwach performers] play — spiritual. They play with hysteria, something not normal, something amazing.”
Having discovered this strange affinity, Mabrouk became driven to bridge the two styles. “It was my dream, le reve!” After studying the music in Ouarzazate, he returned to Marrakech, bringing together together a group of international musicians with backgrounds in jazz, ahwach, Western classical music, and various other genres. In the studio, they began to make his dream a reality.
As Mabrouk suspected, it worked. When he’d first told people about his plan to mix ahwach and jazz, he said they’d all imagined “something crude, just boom-ba boom-ba.” But once the musicians started working together, it became clear that he’d discovered “something beautiful! Wow!”
The trick was to find the right balance, to make it neither a jazz record with some token ahwach sounds, nor an ahwach record with a smooth saxophone on top. It took some practice to find some middle ground between the musicians’ different performance approaches, but in the end Mabrouk says they created an “equilibrium — 50 percent ahwach, 50 percent everything else.” But, he clarifies, this doesn’t mean that any of the music was watered down. “I respected the norms of ahwach. The rhythms aren’t changed, the drums aren’t changed.”
Sharing Ahwach with the World
While the group was recording in the studio, Mabrouk says some foreign musicologists came to listen in. They liked what they heard. “They felt something unusual, something new, something beautiful,” says Mabrouk. “They asked, ‘Why don’t we know this music?’ ”
The saxophonist was left asking himself the same question: if jazz and ahwach mixed so well, how come no one had ever done it before?
The problem, according to Mabrouk, is that Moroccan musicians often look for inspiration beyond their borders before they look within. In his experience, this led to creative stagnation. For twenty years, he says, “I imitated rock, jazz — you always just repeat other people. […] You play other people’s music. But when I did the album, I played my own music, and I felt like I did something. The other musicians said ‘Wow! Bravo Abdel!’ They respected it, because it’s a new rhythm. I brought them something new.”
He’s not saying that Moroccans should exclusively play Moroccan music, but he doesn’t like that some have completely forgotten it. “It’s not bad to play what others play — it’s bad that you never work with what’s yours. You’re a musician, but you don’t have your own carte d’identité. You’re a Moroccan musician, you go to the US, and you play their music, jazz, blues — that’s theirs! And it’s good! But it’s theirs! It’s good to play, but show them your music, your rhythm!”
Mabrouk began to wonder: how, like so many Moroccans far from the US, did he end up loving jazz? “Because [jazz musicians] worked hard. They got their music out there.” But he didn’t see that happening with ahwach.
“Some Moroccans tell me, ‘We don’t have our own culture.’ We do! Al hamdulillah! The problem is that we don’t have people who look for it.”
Why? “The researchers are sleeping! They’re not researching this music, so when you talk about ahwach, musicians say, ‘Oh, that’s just blah blah blah, whatever, get out of here!’ They call it ‘folklore’, they say ‘Oh, that’s just folk music.’ This is your heritage! Do you want it or not?”
Mabrouk sees his project as a call to arms, not just for musicians, but also for researchers and even the Ministry of Culture. They all must work together to give ahwach, and Morocco’s other traditional genres, the kind of attention and prestige he believes they deserve. “Folk music is like your mother, like your father, you know what I mean? Any country that loses its traditional dance, its folklore, its patrimony — it has nothing.”
What started out as a personal project, with Mabrouk simply following the musical memories of his childhood in Ouarzazate, has now expanded into a much more ambitious quest: to bring ahwach to the world, and in the process to open Moroccan musicians’ ears to their rich national heritage.
Ahwach is a “new global rhythm,” he insists. “I want Moroccan heritage to become international. Like we hear blues in Morocco, we hear jazz, bossa nova, swing — one day I want to hear ahwach, us too, in the United States, in England. […] That’s my dream. I want it to become international.”