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Popularizing Folklore, Folklorizing the Popular: Memory, Co-optation, and Commodification in Moroccan Music

Panel IV-10, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
In the 1970s, the Casablanca band Nass el Ghiwane led a folk revolution in Moroccan popular music. They achieved wide renown by repackaging genres considered folkloric - Aita, Jilala, Gnawa, Aissawa - in the form of mass-mediated popular music, reaching millions of listeners across North Africa and the diaspora in Europe through best-selling records, television broadcasts, and massive arena concerts. This process of popularizing folklore had profound consequences not just for Moroccan music, but also for popular conceptions of Moroccan identity, as it brought widespread acknowledgement and acclaim to once-marginalized Sufi and Amazigh traditions. Yet Nass el Ghiwane’s entry into the mainstream over the past fifty years has been accompanied by a corresponding folklorization of their popular movement. The Moroccan regime moved quickly to co-opt the band’s popularity, incorporating Ghiwani music into official discourses which dissolved their potentially radical social critique in the apolitical glow of nostalgia. Concurrently, new rock and hip-hop artists have their own ways of remembering and incorporating memories of Nass el Ghiwane into their music. This panel explores the processes of popularization and folklorization through the history of Moroccan music. The presenters use interdisciplinary methods - history, visual studies, ethnomusicology - to investigate how music has been transformed into folklore, and, in the process, remembered, co-opted, and commodified in contemporary Morocco. As the state seeks to consolidate its authority at home and abroad, popularized folk music has become a key venue through which competing visions of Moroccan identity are contested and cemented.
Art/Art History
  • Dr. Said Graiouid -- Presenter
  • Ms. Kendra Salois -- Presenter
  • Mr. Benjamin Jones -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Cynthia Becker -- Presenter
  • The Green March of November 1975 set off a decades-long conflict over control of the Western Sahara between indigenous Sahrawis and Morocco. While the political, economic, and military dimensions of this conflict have been widely analyzed, the discursive means by which both the Moroccan state and Sahrawi activists have laid claim to the Sahara remain poorly understood despite the intense emotional attachments these claims have engendered on both sides of the conflict. In fact, in the weeks leading up to the Green March and in the years since, popular music has been a key field through which national attachments to the Sahara are asserted. Whether in the Moroccan band Jil Jilala’s 1975 classic “Laayoune Ainniya” or in the contemporary protest songs of Sahrawi activist and singer Mariem Hassan, artists and institutions continue to put forward competing claims about Saharan authenticity through music, melodies, instruments, and lyrics. Using archival press coverage of the Green March, as well as contemporary musical recordings, this paper demonstrates how popular music has been a key field of contestation in the struggle over Western Sahara. In doing so, it argues for a greater incorporation of music and musical sources into the history of the Middle East and North Africa
  • Cynthia Becker
    This paper serves as an analysis of cover art on Moroccan albums and cassettes from the 1970s and 1980s, examining the photographs, designs, colors, and other visual elements used to market popular music. It specifically concentrates on cover art associated with music produced by Nass el Ghiwane, Izenzaren, Mahmoud Gania, and others. It examines how music was understood as a mechanism of social change and a means to express various, often competing views of an emerging Moroccan post-colonial identity. Music that protested state repression used rhythms and instruments associated with marginalized groups, such as the descendants of the enslaved (Gnawa) and Imazighen. It asserts that the covers of albums and cassettes can be just as crucial to the identity of a group as their music. Cover art impacts people’s expectations and perceptions of a musical group. Everything from the language used to write a group’s name (Arabic, French, or Tamazight), the typeface, and the photo included on the cover would be recognized by the larger public as carrying meaning. The period of the 1970s and 1980s was particularly poignant in Morocco, as it was a time of political unrest and government oppression. Furthermore, national politics impacted racial and ethnic identities, gender roles, and language policies. Moroccan cover art draws from artistic styles found across the Arab world and the African continent during the post-colonial period, as artists attempted to create national artistic styles free from colonial influence. Inspired by Arabic calligraphy, Amazigh geometric motifs, and Sufi spiritual practices, Moroccan cover art represents a collusion of artistic influences from abstraction to African Diaspora visual culture. Cover art contributed to the marketing of musical groups and illustrates how folkloric identities were popularized and commodified. While mass produced albums and cassettes served to bring music to the larger Moroccan public, and eventually, a global music audience, this paper asks what impact commodification had on the political efficacy of Moroccan music. Urban-based musicians often recorded songs from socially and politically marginalized groups and reconstituted them for wider audiences. Cover art contributed to the elevation of individual musicians at the expense of community-based music.
  • Ms. Kendra Salois
    Nass el-Ghiwane is widely acknowledged as the first Moroccan band to create a “national” music that resonated with the trans-Atlantic trends of the 1960s and 70s. By bringing gestures from multiple regions and practices together, they recuperated low-status groups’ musics for a broad public through, not despite, the folkloric paradigm established by colonial-era curators and affirmed by post-colonial elites. Today, the bands is just as often cited as the founders of a tradition of protest song that hip hop and other popular musicians have inherited. While many hip hop emcees have adopted the strategies of deflection and inference celebrated in Nass el-Ghiwane’s lyrics, the band’s effect on popular musicians’ tactics of reference, quotation, and arrangement is less often recognized. In this paper, I explore the Ghiwanien aesthetic and methodologies at work in Morocco’s contemporary “heritage pop.” I define heritage pop as music that fits indices of marginalized identities into universalizing, “western” popular-music frameworks, resignifying them as valuable raw materials for cosmopolitan finished products whose underlying musical norms remain unchanged. Using examples from hip hop, pop, and fusion, and supporting my audio and visual analysis with interviews and participant-observation, I argue that these songs refine a poetics and politics of extraction seen in Moroccan tourism and other industries and usefully theorized through Anibal Quijano’s concept of the coloniality of power (1992). Unlike past and present understandings of Nass el-Ghiwane, in which the band represented dissent through the sonic traces of the other, the musicians in use similar techniques to the very different effect of creating newly salable heritage objects for national and international consumption. Regarding some musical mixes as performances of extraction can enhance our understanding of how popular music mediates inter-class and inter-ethnic relations in Morocco.
  • Dr. Said Graiouid
    The experience of Nass El-Ghiwane constitutes a contrapuntal moment in the history of music production and reception in post-independence Morocco. Upon its constitution in 1970, Nass El-Ghiwane was immediately hailed as a voice of dissent and resistance. In a social, cultural, and political context characterized by organic crises, Nass El-Ghiwane became the “epistemic heroes” (Medina 2012) of the “years of lead.” Their music, which documents the emergence of a decolonial moment, was the voice of the disenfranchised and excluded. By “delinking” (Mignolo 2007) from the dominant Western and Oriental rhythms and tempos, they re-linked the people with their cultural heritage, reinstated epistemic justice to Morocco’s music production, and translated the abstract notion of resistance consciousness into rhythmic and bodily reality. Over decades, the coercive and hegemonic systems of the state but also other dominant interest groups including the conservative music establishment have sought to contain the influence of Nass El-Ghiwane through co-optation of its band members and ‘folklorization’ of the movement. Using Medina’s notion of “resistant imagination,” (Medina 2012) this paper argues that the Ghiwane movement is a regenerative force and resource capable of inspiring new epistemologies of resistance. The paper also makes the point that not all forms of “folklorization” are necessarily dissociative and alienating and that in this case, “the folklorization” of the Ghiwane movement has contributed to its perenniality and transnalization. The paper engages with the song “مهمومة” [Mahmouma] [Worried] as a manifestation of resistant imagination and analyzes Moroccan French artist Fouad Boussouf’s border text “Näss,” (2018) a choreographic representation inspired by the music of Nass El-Ghiwane, as an embodiment of transnational resistant imagination. References Medina, José. (2012). The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mignolo, Walter D.. (2007). Delinking. Cultural Studies, 21 :2, 449-514.