By Phil E. Bloomfield July 26, 2021
Video shows a group of friends, young men, their faces lit by phone light and the glow of a campfire off camera. They smile, comfortable with the camera as well as with the instruments they hold in their hands. One of them, crossed legs and bare feet, cradles the characteristic form of a banjo on his knees. As he plucks the strings with a certain lack of attention born from a skill acquired over years of practice, he closes his eyes, nods his head, and begins to sing a plaintive and dismal song.
The banjo player is Hassan Wargui and the video, which appears on Wargui’s Facebook page, is not shot in the Appalachians, but in a cave in the Sous Valley, a region in southwestern Morocco, perched between the Anti-Atlas mountains. immediately to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It is a fertile part of Morocco, most famous for the oil produced from the fruit of the argan tree and the goats that sometimes climb them.
“I love the banjo, it’s my first instrument,” says Wargui. His music is actually part of a hidden tradition of banjo music in the region that dates back to the 1970s: he learned to play by imitating bands like Archach and Izenzaren, who hold legendary status in the Sub. “No one taught me, I learned it myself.”
The modern banjo arrived in Morocco in the 1950s, when the country was still occupied by the French after World War II. Political scientist Hisham Aidi suggests in his book Rebel Music: Race, Empire and New Culture of Muslim Youth that American GIs stationed in Morocco exchanged banjos for cigarettes with the local population. In the 1970s, the Nass El Ghiwane banjo rose to fame (they are probably still the most popular group in Morocco), bringing together Moroccan and Western music with groundbreaking social commentary.
Moroccan musicians were probably drawn to the banjo because of its similarity to the guimbri, a stringed instrument with a camel skin membrane that provides the hypnotic rhythms for gnawa ceremonies. Gnaoua was created in Morocco by enslaved peoples of sub-Saharan Africa who merged their music and traditions with the principles of Sufi Islam, and the guimbri clearly looks like ngoni, an instrument that can be found throughout Mali. There is a parallel relationship between the western banjo and West Africa, which evolved from string instruments imported to North America, involuntary collateral of the slave trade. Coincidentally, the Anti-Atlas and Appalachians were once part of the same mountain range over 335 million years ago.
There’s another practical explanation why the banjo has spread in Morocco, says Marc Teare, who just released a record from Wargui Tiddukla’s band on his label, Beehive Spirit. “It’s a loud instrument,” he says, which means it can be played in groups, without the need for amplification. “You can have a banjo and a group of percussionists, and the banjo doesn’t have a hard time getting heard.”
Yet the bands that inspired Wargui struggled to gain a voice for another reason. Archach and Izenzaren were Amazighs (sometimes called Berbers, from ancient Greek for barbarian), part of a minority that represents 35 to 40% of the Moroccan population. The Moroccan state pursued a policy of Arabization after its independence from France in 1956, and the Amazigh culture was suppressed. The practice of Amazigh languages (mainly Tachelhit in the southwest, where Wargui lives, and Tamazight in the central Atlas) has even been banned. In the 1970s, when fiercely Amazigh Izenzeran started performing, singing to Tachelhit could even get you to jail, says Teare. Times have changed, of course, and Tamazight has been taught in schools since 2003. However, it is still difficult to make a name for yourself as an Amazigh musician. Wargui does not strike: “As Amazigh, we have few concerts and we live from racism. “
All the money Wargui earns from music comes from Amazigh festivals, performances at weddings, and religious festivities. “From the records, it’s really nothing,” he says. Making money only with music is impossible: he travels regularly from his village, Issafen, to Morocco’s second largest city, Casablanca, where he finds work selling food. His experience is typical of many who live in Amazigh regions, rural areas that suffer from higher levels of poverty than the rest of the country. “The village is beautiful and it is very pleasant to live here, but the problem is that there is no work, no work and no money.
Wargui could be forgiven for giving up music altogether, but a constant stream of recordings and live video continued to appear on both of his. Youtube and Facebook pages over the years. It was through Wargui’s YouTube channel that Teare came across Tiddukla (“friendship” in Tachelhit), which Hassan had posted in 2015. Teare has spent many years visiting Morocco, indulging in his passion for music from the country (before starting Hivemind, he uploaded cassettes that he bought in the country to his blog, Snap, Crackle and Pop) and marvels at Wargui’s dynamism when it comes to producing music. He compares it to a vocation: “If he doesn’t have a group around, people to play with, then he will do everything himself on FruityLoops”.
Teare is not the first foreign person in Morocco to fall in love with the music and the personality of Wargui. Jace Clayton, the artist and writer known as DJ / Breakup, came across another group of Wargui, Imanaren, after hear booming music from a sportswear store in Casablanca circa 2009. He was so struck by what he heard that, with the help of a Moroccan friend, he called the number on the back of the homemade CD to get in touch. (Wargui’s cousin answered, and immediately hung up because he thought it was a joke). Clayton would then re-release the band’s music on his label, Homework Artz, and the duo have collaborated on a series of live shows in Morocco and Tunisia, including one with Clayton’s Nettle group.
One thing that makes Wargui so unique is that he writes his own songs instead of tapping into traditional repertoires. “I think I have 154 songs,” he says. “I like to write songs when I travel, when I go to the mountains.” Being in these places helps him “flash” and focus on the material of his lyrics, he explains. The subject varies from common topics like love and romance to what he describes as “social reality, life in Morocco, the poor and humanity”. Sometimes he even writes stories based on his friends, who frequently harass him to write songs about them. “But I don’t tell them, I just write and keep it to myself.”
Even if you fail to understand the lyrics, Wargui’s music has a surprising universality. On Tiddukla, there is an ease in the way his voice rises and falls; a harmonious tranquility to the way his banjo fits into the pitch and yaw of the rhythms, between the low hum of the guimbri and a gentle chatter of hand drums and percussion. It is by turns nostalgic and full of hope, mixed with a latent emotion that does not require translation. This openness may have come from the intention of its creator, says Teare. “Hassan wants people to hear his music. He wants to expand his audience.