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by World Music Network May 27, 2011


The Music of Morocco

From the ancient folk pieces of the Berber mountain communities, to the Arab-Andalusian music of the cities, to the roots-fusion that you'll hear blaring from taxi radios and café ghetto blasters, music is the ultimate expression of Morocco's culture. 

Berber Music

The Berber are the first known inhabitants of Africa’s north-western corner. Over centuries they
monopolised the Saharan trade in salt, gold and slaves and spread their culture throughout the region.There are three main categories of Berber music; village, ritual and professional music.

In a typical scene of village music-making, an entire community may gather in the open air to sing and dance in a large ring around an ensemble of drum (bendir) and flute (nair). The best-know dances are the ahouache and the ahidus. Over the past twenty years several masters of bumzdi and ahouache have become very well know nationwide.

Berber ritual music often features drums and rhythmic handclapping. It is used in the rites of the agricultural calendar - such as moussems - as well as on occassions such as marriage. Ritual music is also performed to help deal with evil spirits.

In the Atlas Mountains professions troupes of musicians, called imdyazn, travel during summer and perform in village squares and at weekly souks. A leader improvises poems telling of current affairs.Drum, rabab and clarinet accompany the singer. The clarinettist also acts as the ensembles' clown.


Rwais are Cheuh Berber musicians from the Sous valley who perform ancient msuical theatre involving poetry, fine clothes, jewels and elaborate rwais. Groups consist of single-string rabab, one or two lotars (lutes), sometimes nakous (cymbals), and a number of singers. They play for every celebration and produce their own repertoire (again, commenting on current affairs) and improvisations. Female ensembles are called raysat.

Andalous Music

Morocco's Arab-Andalusian classical tradition evolved 1000 years ago in Moorish Spain and can be heard, with variations, throughout North Africa. It's invention is credited to Ziryab, whose greatest innovation was the classical suite nuba, which forms the basis of al-ala (Andalous music). Although somewhat elite, Andalou music is still very much alive and is regularly performed on national TV.

For an indepth exploration of music from Morocco - Check out our album...

The mystical power of Sufi music is explored in this entrancing album. Although the religiously orthodox tried to keep Islam free of music, the Sufis (Islamic mystics) instead sought to harness its power for the service of God. This collection discovers the diversity of Sufism from across the Islamic world.
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Originally there was a nuba for every hour of the day, but most have been lost. Complete nuba last between six and seven hours and have five main parts - mizan - each of a different length and meter. Each mizan starts with instrumental preludes followed by up to twenty sana’a (songs), which deal with subjects ranging from the religious to the taboo.When the Arabs were driven out of Spain, the different musical schools were dispersed across Morocco. Centuries on, the most famous andalous orchestras are those of Fes, Rabat and Tetouan. A typical andalous orchestra uses rabab (fiddle), oud (lute), kamenjah (violin-style instrument played vertically on the knee), qanun (zither), darbuka (metal or pottery goblet drums) and taarija (tambourine). Clarinets, flutes, banjos and pianos have all been used from time to time with varying degrees of success.


Milhun is a semi-classical sung poetry associated with artisans and traders. It makes use of the same modes as al-ala orchestras, but is more lively and danceable. A Milhun suite consists of two parts: an a-metrical taqusim played on oud or violin, which introduces the mode, and the qassida, sung poems with words of folk or mystical poetry, or nonsense lines. The qassida has three parts: al aqsam (verses that are sung solo), al-harba (chorus refrains) and al-drîdka (a chorus of accelerating tempo). The milhûn orchestra generally consists of oud, kamenjah, swisen (a small, high-pitched folk lute), the hadjouj (a bass swisen), taarija, darbuka and handwa (small brass cymbals), plus a number of singers.


This kind of Arba Andalusian music is mainly played in Algeria but is also hear in the Moroccan centres of Rabad and Oujda. Gharnati uses ouds and kamenjahs with banjo mandolin and kwitra (Algerian Lute) and, like al-ala, is arranged in suites (nuba).

Sufi Music

Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam. The Sufi  brotherhoods or tarikas, use the hadra - a private ritual of music and dance - as a means of getting closer to Allah. Sufi music can also be heard at moussem (festivals devoted to the memory of a holy man), and some brotherhoods play for alms in households that want to gain favour with their patron saint.

Gnawa Music 

The Gnawa are descendants of slaves, brought across the Sahara by the Arabs, who claim spiritual descent from Sidi Bilal, the first muezzin. Their musical rites (lilas), in which a leader plays the gimbri/sentir (long-necked lute) and sings, accompanied by garagb (metal castanets), last all night and are performed for the purpose of spiritual and physical healing. The music, which has sub-Saharan origins, is remarkably adaptable, having been blended with jazz, rock, funk, hip-hop and drum'n'bass..

Chaabi and Fusion

The oldest form of chaabi (pop) is al’aita, the music of rural communities on the Atlantic coast. It is performed during private and public celebrations and is usually sung in Darija (Moroccan colloquial Arabic), telling of love, loss, lust and daily life. Alaita has two parts. The lafrash is a slow instrumental prelude (usually on violin) followed by several verses sung in free time. Then comes the lahsab, a syncopated dance that lasts as long as the audience desires. Traditionally it uses a male or female lead singer, violin, some percussion and backing vocals, but today a “synthetic” version is popular, that adds keyboards, electric guitars and drum machines to the mix.

Roots Fusion

This more sophisticated style of chaabi emerged in the 1970's as a reaction to the commercial Egyptian and Lebanese music that dominated the scene. Groups usually feaetured hadjuj, lute and percussion and occasionally bouzoukis, banjos, congas and electric guitars. The style combined Berber music with elements of Arab milhûn, Sufi ritual, Gnawa rhythms, Western pop and rock, reggae, rap and occasionally political lyrics.

International Fusion

Moroccan music has proved an ideal starting point for all kinds of fusion experiment, having influenced such disparate figures as Brian Jones, Ornette Coleman, and the European electronic group Dissidenten. More recently Moroccan sounds have been, successfully blended with reggae, funk, hip-hop, house and drum'n'bass, by a wide range of international artists.

Rai, Rap and Rock Music

There is a strong Algerian Rai scene in Morocco, especially around the northeastern towns of Oujda and Al Hoceina. The Rai influence can also be heard in some Moroccan folk music. More recently hip-hop has become popular in Morocco and, though the home grown scene is still largely underground, most popular crews have attained national visibility. Heavy metal too has become popular recently.


Interested in learning to play African music?

You can now study these genres through our partner site World Music Method. Click HERE to view the list of courses.