Ahwach Meets Jazz: a ‘New Global Rhythm’

By Alexander Jusdanis

Rabat -Any country that forgets its heritage has nothing: One Moroccan Saxophonists 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 didentité. 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.”




  • The Moroccan Gold Eldorado

    The Moroccan Gold Eldorado, a Myth or a Reality?

    Rabat - Recently, a conspiracy theory video about a large gold discovery in Morocco is making rounds online. The video claims that a substantial gold reserve was discovered and is being extracted by a Canadian mining company called Maya Gold and Silver. We Moroccans are very proud human beings, we love our country and cherish...

  • Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani

    Qatar: How the Tables Are Turning in The Gulf

    Rabat - Amidst harsh sanctions and a long list of demands from its neighbors, Qatar’s ability to thrive under pressure may prove to be problematic for Saudi Arabia. As Saudi Arabia and its coalition attempt to wait out Qatar, the recent spat in the Gulf continues to become more and more global, and severely against...

  • FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, a plume of steam billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H. If the nation doesn’t do more, the U.S. probably won’t quite meet the dramatic heat-trapping gas reduction goal it promised in last year’s Paris agreement to battle climate change, according to a new study. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

    Climate Change : If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Fix It

    Chefchaouen - Climate change is happening at home and around the world. Chefchaouen is doing its part by embracing clean energy climate solutions and engaging its citizens in climate action. When it comes to fighting climate change, cities and local leaders are best positioned to lead that charge. Local leaders from coastal to landlocked communities are...

  • 20

    India Orders Internal Probe into Mistaken Use of Morocco-Spain Border Picture

    Hyderabad - The Indian Ministry of Interior on Wednesday ordered an internal investigation to find out how a picture of Morocco-Spain border was used in its annual report to show floodlights along the India-Pakistan border. What is most embarrassing is that the annual report of previous years was tabled during the Budget Session of Indian...

  • Amid Growing Tension, Thousands of Moroccans Stage Pro-Rif March in Rabat

    Neglect in Harsh Soil: The Deep Roots of the Rif Crisis

    Rabat - The ongoing protests in northern Morocco started almost eight months ago, but they have their origin in nearly a century of violent repression by the state. The Rif has, in spite of itself, got involved into a peaceful revolt since the death of the fishmonger Mohcine Fikri at the end of October 2016, a...

  • Tamim Bin Hamad al Thani emir of Qatar

    The Qatar Crisis: What Does It Mean?

    Rabat - The recent diplomatic fallout between Qatar and the rest of the Middle East could have serious economic and geopolitical consequences across the globe. Earlier this week, Qatar’s diplomatic crisis took an extreme turn as several Arab states severed diplomatic ties with the Gulf nation.  The original list of countries in the coalition against...

  • Moroccans spend Laylat al-Qadr, the 26th day of Ramadan, at the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca.

    Ramadan: Not just Abstinence from Daily Intakes 

    By Abdellatif Oudra Rabat - The observance of Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, compels Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset. But it is not just about abstaining from food or drink.  Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is observed in commemoration of the revelation of Qur’an to the prophet Mohammad,...

  • Morocco Threatens to Terminate Agriculture Agreement with Europe

    Morocco and the EU: Managing the Future

    Rabat - Morocco enjoys proximity to Europe and is at an advantage of being favoured by the European Union as a close partner on political, economic, and cultural levels. Historical archives and political legacies tie Morocco directly with at least three influential European countries: France, Spain, and England. Demography, kinship, and immigration compel other EU...

  • The Educational and Cultural Implications of the Arab Spring

    The Educational and Cultural Implications of the Arab 'Spring'

    Rabat - In the last ten years or so, the Arab world has seen unprecedented collapses in the realms of politics and economy, among others. World NGOs regularly release area-specific rankings, in which Arab nations commonly rank at the bottom of lists in education, human rights, and income for instance while they top those of...

  • Thousands Hold Peaceful Demonstration in Memory of Mouhcine Fikri

    Al Hoceima and the Pedagogical Exercise

    Ottawa - What makes a democracy different from non-democracy? This is the classical and historical question asked by philosophers over the centuries and deeply questioned in the discipline of political science. Democracy cannot prevent inequality as the case in the United States where inequality is the highest globally. Democracy cannot stop corruption like in Brazil...