Jamming in the Djeema

April 22, 2009 — Jason del Sur

“Musician?” the bendir player asked me.

Finally, after seeing the market open and all the alleyways that had so scared me previous night transformed into shop after shop, I was coming to feel comfortable in the city. During the day, the medina of Marrakesh is overwhelming. The Djeeaa el Fna is covered in carts selling fresh squeezed orange juice, snake charmers, Gnawa musicians, and tourists. The souqs were a vibrant display of colors as what had previously been locked brown grates were now open displaying scarves, jewelry, shoes, clothing, and spices. The smells of Marrakech constanty bombard your nose. Some derbs (streets) smell wonderful: cummin, saffron, fresh olives, and meat mixing and melding into an olfactory wonderland. Other streets: urine and donkey dung making you wish you were back on the street with the fresh olive vendor. You are never sure what new scent would enter your nose as you turn the next corner. Or perhaps you would be startled by the honk of a motorbike as it manages to weave in between the children playing football and the live chickens waiting to be sold. The streets are perhaps two meters wide, just big enough that you can squeeze against the wall as the donkey carrying 20 tanks of gas saunters by.

At night, the Djemaa el Fna explodes in a burst of smoke as the dinner carts take over the square. Kebab, tangine, or goat head are all available. It’s difficult to find just the one you want as the workers are handing you menus and pushing you to sit at their tables. I had a goal of trying the goat head, but we never made it to that cart before we were seated. I think I’ll survive not knowing how it tastes.

Outside the dinner area, musicians and storytellers draw crowds into their circle. In these circles, you find few tourists, and those of us white people that stop to listen are immediately asked for money. I moved from circle to circle listening to the drummers. Some were much better than others. I finally settled on a group of 3-4 bendir drummers, a darbouka player, and an electric violin. A bendir is a frame drum (like a tamborine without the jingles) with a couple string snares across the head inside. And the oil drum top, which was used for a kind of flamenco-tap-stomp dance when they reached the fast part of the song.

As I was very impressed by their music, I of course gave them a few dirhem. One guy could tell by the way I was enjoying it that he asked if I was a musician. I told him I play drum set, as I could convey that with a simple gesture as opposed to explaining to someone who doesn’t speak English that I also do body percussion and drum on trash cans.

In the break after the next song, I asked if I could give the bendir a try. This naturally led to a drum battle, which I of course lost, having no idea how to play this drum–it requires a special balance and some finger dexterity that I lack. After the drum battle they had me do the oil can dance, which, I can assure you, is not easy when wearing sandals. Afterwards, I sat with them and watched as they continued.

In between songs, they would tell stories and jokes to the crowd. I’m quite sure many of them came at my expense. As the night went on, more people joined the circle, and the crowd began getting more into it. I soon saw that Moroccan have amazing rhythm. Even the young girl, Hanna, who befriended me there was clapping a three over two polyrhythm along to the music. (This observation was of course negated the next night while in the Saraha when (from what I could tell) our guide was yelling at one of his sons for not being able to keep a beat on the plastic gascan darbouka).

I shared mint tea with the musicians. We laughed as they joked about the one musician who resembles Barack Obama. If you’re ever in Marrakech, look for him and you’ll find this amazing group. If only I could speak French, I could have understood more, but I did understand “ami.”

(It’s a long one and pretty dark, but the best part happens around 9 minutes in when one of the drummer’s son get up on the oil can)

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