Moroccan Folklore

Moroccan folklore expresses and enhances everyday life of which it is an integral part. Although loyal to its forms of expression for generations, it is being continually enriched by popular imagination, under the influence of new events on the national, tribal or individual levels.

Moroccan folklore is extremely diverse. It varies not only from one area to another but each tribe, nomadic or sedentary, has its own repertory, the extent and wealth of which will surprise the layman. Besides the exotic, picturesque, colorful or romantic aspects of the setting, folk dancers form an ensemble of traditions, a world of symbols which are undecipherable today.


The visitor to the Marrakech Festival that many treasures remain hidden in the Moroccan country-side. Thanks to the festival, one discovers the people of legendary times.

Organized in the ruins of the El Badi Palace, every year at the beginning of June, the show is one of the most successful staged in Morocco. The ancient walls are brought to life by the skillful use of lighting which also plays on the shimmering costumes of the dancers and gives a new dimension to the vast Saadian structure.

The stage is set beside a large pool of still water. On this island of light, the troupes follow each other in song and rhythm. Here they are:


The dance comes from the High Atlas valleys in the Ouarzazate area. A circle of women in multicolored robes stands motionless. In the center, men sit around a fire, each of them with a "bendir" (a circular wooden frame with a hide stretched over it). A piercing cry breaks the silence. It is a shout more than a song. All the drums beat. The song of the men begins, mounting skyward. The women reply. Shoulder to shoulder, they sway rhythmically and slowly. The rhythm gets faster and faster until the finale.


Set to very ancient music, in which is easy to perceive Middle Eastern accents, this dance is like a ballet.

The orchestra comprises a one-stringed fiddle, or "rbab soussi", and a certain number of "guembris" which are small mandolins with three strings sometimes made with a turtle shell. The rhythm is provided by a beater who strikes a piece of cast iron lying on the ground. The dancers add to the music with small copper cymbals attached to their fingers. All the dancers wear city dress: a colored "kaftan", a muslin "dfina", an embroidered silk belt, a cord decorated with spangles woven around the head. The dance is graceful and comprises several steps. Couplets alternate with the step to make an uncommonly delicate spectacle.


South of Agadir, men and women, entirely garbed in indigo-blue, perform a dance which resembles a religious rite.

Perhaps it is an ancient rite. The dagger dance is clearly symbolic. It is part of marriage ceremonies. Men and women dance to a rhythm that becomes more rapid. A young girl and boy leave the circle to do a duet. The boy holds a dagger at arm's length at the end of a cord. He spins about, making circles around the girl, withdraws and comes nearer, until they are face to face. Advancing towards each other with short steps, the boy raises his arms to place the dagger around the young girl's neck as she continues to dance. Slowly the boy falls to his knees in front of her. The song continues.


No doubt a warrior's dance, since women do not take part. Wearing white tunics and turbans, with powder- horns on their shoulders, the dancers keep time to the accompaniment of earthware tambourines covered with skins. They dance shoulder to shoulder or in indian file. The body is shaken rhythmically and stopped suddenly with perfectly- timed stamping of the feet. It is a frank, powerful and virile dance without any mannerism or any equivocal gestures. Although athletic, it is nevertheless aesthetic.


African in origin, the Gnaoua dance belongs to brotherhood music-lore. The tumblers of the jemaa El Fna in Marrakech have transformed it into an entertainment. The instruments are as primitive as ever: large drums and wrought iron castanets form the orchestra. Cowrie shells and glass beads are worn as ornaments that recall the dance's origin and its magical or religious aspect. Some of the dancers perform leaps worthy of the best acrobats. They manage to jump high in the air without missing a beat of the rhythm. It is a show with great dramatic intensity.


This dance resembles somewhat the Ahwash of Kelaa M'Gouna. A row of women in festive dress faces a row of men. All the gestures of the dancers express gaiety and enthusiasm. The dance marks the end of work in the fields, when the harvest is in and when the winter cold of the mountain regions gives way to the season of relaxation.


Another warrior dance performed only by men. Wearing white "gandoras", they link arms as if welded to each other and chant their song during a continuous backwards and forwards movement. The dance appears to symbolize the indivisible unity that should link the warrior of the tribe in the face of the enemy. The men form an impenetrable barrier: they are as one man, one will be animated by a single rhythm.


The central figure wears a different costume to the rest of the troupe. He has a pointed bonnet covered with a strip of white muslin and plays a double flute. He is the only professional in the troupe and produces a nasal buzzing with his instrument which has a striking effect while the men and women of the village turn in a circle. The dance is at times light, composed of slides and little steps, or more dynamic when the performers stamp hard on the ground. It is an abstract dance by the mountain folk but it has the virility also of warrior dances. Poems are recited.


The "Ahidous" of the Middle Atlas is a visual enchantment performed in its traditional purity by men and women dancers of the Oulmes and Khenifra areas. Most of the girls are very young and very pretty. The costume, strongly influenced by urban dress is in pale colors. The men and women form a large circle and rock to the rhythm of "bendir" drums. They do simple steps, advance and withdraw. The gestures are discreet, full of dignity and modesty. Poems are recited.


The Ait Haddidou live on the upper plateaux of the Assif Melloul in the High Atlas mountains at an altitude of 8,500 feet, and seem to have been subjected to no influences to upset the harmony of their patriarchal existence. The women wear "handiras", blue cloaks with white stripes. Married women and widows may wear "akidoud", a kind of henna, in their hair. Hefty necklaces of yellow amber beads and heavy silver jewels convey an impression of barbarian beauty. The men wear long burnouses and wrap their heads in impressive turbans. The "Ahidous" they perform is fascinating although static. We see here gestures which have resisted and triumphed over the passage of time, but whose significance is lost to us for ever.


These dancers come from Inezgane near Agadir. The troupe is composed of a group of men and one woman. The men begin the dance to a sprightly rhythm. One or two virtuosi leave the circle to execute solo dance. When the rhythm reaches its peak, the woman rushes to the center. There follows a whirling dance of great power. Uncommon physical strength is required to keep up the rhythm and do such elaborate steps. The dance is without doubt one of the most spectacular in Moroccan folklore and arouses the enthusiasm of the audience.


In the Middle Atlas Haidous dance singers and dancers form a large circle with the men and women standing alternately shoulder to shoulder. Sacred and secular influences are deeply linked in this ceremony. To the rhythm of tambourines, the men and women undulate and sing a joyful hymn.


Warriors carry rifles dance to the tune of pipes and drums. It is not clear whether they are dancing to work up courage to face the enemy, or whether they are celebrating a victory. They do not sing but shout rumbling cries in cadence. Their rifles, like toys, are balanced on the head, spun at arms length, and they pretend to shoot with them at invisible enemies. Forming a circle and turning to the rhythm of a noisy orchestra, they aim their weapons at the ground, at a signal from their leader, fire off blank charges.


The music is reduced to a solo seven-hole flute made out of a reed and elementary in design. The rhythm is supplied by hand-clapping and stamping of the feet on the ground to give a both powerful and enchanting effect. Dancing vigorously, the men produce an ensemble that is disciplined and virile.


It would take too long to try to explain the significance of this dance from South Morocco in which the attitudes and movements have their origin in a very ancient symbolism. It is c~ represents some ritual ceremony whose origins are lost in the mists of time.

The women dancers kneel and are completely covered with a black veil. The steady rhythm like a beating heart brings out the hands that describe vivid and expressive motions. The head is revealed, with eyes closed, swaying like a pendulum. The rhythm is supplied by a "guedra" or cooking pot (an earthware drum covered with skin). It becomes pulsating as the dancers continue to speak their mysterious language. The singing of the spectators changes to brief and guttural cries. The dancer gradually casts off her veils and finally collapses in a heap.


These acrobats belong to the wandering brotherhood of Sidi Ahmed Ou Moussa, the saint of Tazeroualt, a locality of the Anti Atlas mountains. Originally the young people of the area performed these exercises in preparation for their role as archers and marksmen. With the disappearance of the warriors, acrobatics became an end in themselves and a way of earning a living.

Many people from the Oulad Ahmed ou Moussa work in circuses in Europe and America. The colorful costumes are often embroidered and have not changed in centuries.


The people who perform this rhythmic entertainment are not professionals. The strange orchestra composed of craftsmen and merchants of Marrakech is made up entirely of earthware drums of different dimensions. The ceremony starts with simple and rather solemn rhythms, and then the cadence of hand-clapping accelerates. High and lower pitched beats on the drums are cleverly orchestrated and the men start singing powerfully in chorus. The rhythm changes suddenly from time to time, but it is all amazingly well- regulated. The general impression is an explosion of joy, a sonorous enchantment that seems wild but is disciplined.


There is one particularly stunning and exciting event that has taken its rightful place among the more noteworthy examples of traditional folklore in Morocco, those demonstrations popular customs of which Morocco is so famous and which stimulates tourists to come and to see for themselves; that even is the Fantasia.

This colorful display of horsemanship begins with a procession made up of women from the Zayaan tribe on horseback. Behind them come, their menfolks in groups according to their tribe and bearing each group's emblem. When this "lap of honor" finishes, it gives way to the real Fantasia, the Aid el Broud (Festival of Gunpowder) with its gun-fire and bursts of shots. The horsemen line up in close ranks, and no sooner has one wave of riders left than the next is ready to follow; the impression is that of surging waves of galloping hooves. The frenzied dash of horses is accompanied by the piercing cries of the riders and terse orders from their chief until the whole thing explodes in a blaze of gun-fire from their famous "moukhahla", the rifles that are so highly prized by gun collectors. And when the riding is over, then another kind of show begins on a platform that has been erected in front of the huge marquees.

No show of popular folklore is complete in Morocco without music and dance. The spectator is, needless to say, enthralled by the diversity and richness of costumes and music that stretch back in time for a thousand years.

Since September 1977, the National Festival of Fantasia has been held in Meknes.