A Language of Their Own: How music bridges Moroccan cultural division

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A celebration of music in Morocco. It can be agreed that music is a powerful force that can bridge communities together. This is especially true when it comes to the cultural diversity in Morocco, in regards to the Jewish community. The Jewish community in Morocco have had a long history of brining their musical styles to the forefront of society despite tremendous presence of the Muslim community. Photo courtesy of the Middle East Monitor.

Music is a powerful cultural force, having the ability to bring people together across ethnic, racial and religious divisions. Music has served as a gateway for minorities in any nation to gain acceptance within a society dominated by a particular set of cultural norms. In some cases, the cultural contributions of an ethnic or racial minority in music can grow to be a part of the nation’s shared musical heritage. 

Vanessa Paloma Elbaz is a Research Associate, on the past and present musical encounters across the Strait of Gibraltar, at the University of Cambridge. She, also, holds knowledge in Jewish Music, Gender Studies, Memory and Oral Tradition, Sephardi Sacred and Secular Music, and Semiotics. Photo courtesy of the University of Cambridge- Faculty of Music webpage.

This is certainly true for the Jewish community in Morocco, who have had a long history of bringing their musical styles to the forefront of society despite the tremendous presence of the Muslim community. 

On Tuesday morning, the University of Connecticut and Université Internationale de Rabat partnered to host keynote speaker, Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, research associate at the University of Cambridge, as well as discussants Nicola Carpentieri, assistant professor and director of Arabic & Islamic studies at UConn and Najib Mokhtari, associate professor and director of MEdiNA studies program at the Université Internationale de Rabat. Elbaz sought to unpack the complex history of Jewish music in Moroccan society specifically in recent years.  

“Jewish-Moroccan musical repertoires are varied,” Elbaz said.  “They are multilingual, they are highly porous, and they embody a phenomenon which is diametrically opposed to nationalistic tropes of monolithic identities which might lack suppleness or movement.”

““They are multilingual, they are highly porous, and they embody a phenomenon which is diametrically opposed to nationalistic tropes of monolithic identities which might lack suppleness or movement.”

Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, Research Assistant at the University of Cambridge

Jewish-Muslim cultural exchanges have existed in Morocco for more than 1000 years, as Jews and Muslims both found refuge in the Moroccan part of North Africa following their shared expulsion from the Iberian peninsula during the Spanish Reconquista and Inquisition. 

“These repertoires tell a story,” Elbaz said. “That is not linear or binary and which has a center of gravity which functions through music to ensure the continuity of the specificity of this minority while placing itself at the center of a tangible patriotic ‘Moroccaness’ within the contemporary discourse, and all the while continuing their multi-layered identities.” 

Elbaz referenced a Jewish-Moroccan musician, Felix Wizman, who changed his stage name to better align himself with the Moroccan people and culture. While Morocco was under French colonial rule, Wizman was “Le Petit Felix,” but after Morocco broke ties with France and became a sovereign nation, Wizman changed his name to “Felix el Maghrebi” which translates to “Felix the Moroccan.”  

A celebration of music in Morocco. Despite Moroccan Jews and Muslims rarely speaking a shared language, music is the common language that allows all Moroccans to unite under the same cultural value.

Jewish-Moroccans have continued to assert their allegiance to their home country, especially following the creation of the Jewish-state of Israel, the Arab Spring and increased Jewish-Muslim conflict in the Middle East North Africa region of the world. 

“Jewish-Moroccans today stress their belonging to the ‘Bled’ and the national narratives of territoriality through language and most dramatically through music,” Elbaz said. “This is one of the convincing ways of establishing their commonality within post-independence Morocco.” 

While Moroccan Jews and Muslims, to this day, rarely speak a shared language, as Muslims tend to favor Arabic while Jews learn French and Hebrew, music is a common language that allows all Moroccans to unite under the same cultural value. 

“Music represents vitality, health, happiness and the non-fractured state of Moroccan national unity,” Elbaz said. “This new national reality of institutional pluralism and post-constitutional reform allows not only Jews living in Morocco, but also those who emigrated to participate in renewal of the public sonic celebration of intrinsic belonging, repairing years of silence within the acoustic public sphere within Morocco.” 

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