- Music of Morocco, from the Library of Congress, Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959 by April G. Ledbetter, Steven Lance Ledbetter, and Bill Nowlin
Today, Paul Bowles (1910–1999) is most often remembered as an expatriate American author. Spending much of his adult life in Tangier, Morocco, Bowles excelled in several literary forms—his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky is widely considered a classic, and he wrote and published many short stories, poems, and travel narratives. Bowles was in fact a modern-day Renaissance man whose other talents included translating literary works (in addition to English, he knew Morocco's spoken language Darija, as well as Arabic, French, Spanish, and Portuguese); composing music (instrumental pieces, art songs, and ballet scores); and documenting the music traditions of various Moroccan ethnic groups. During his lifetime, he received praise for his translations and compositions, yet he conducted documentary fieldwork with little fanfare. This was not unusual, since, with a few exceptions—notably, John and Alan Lomax—documentarians have been overlooked. Recently, though, a boxed set from the Dust-to-Digital label has at last brought a measure of public attention, including a Grammy nomination in the Best Historical Album category, to Bowles' recording efforts.
In 1959, Bowles embarked on a 5-month recording expedition across Morocco—which at that historical moment was only recently independent from French and Spanish colonial rule—for the purpose of documenting ethnic music traditions associated with Berbers, Arabs, Sephardic Jews, and Saharan groups residing in that Northwest African country. Bowles' research was subsidized by the Rockefeller Foundation and sponsored by the Library of Congress; the latter was not surprising given that Morocco and the United States have maintained friendly relations since the American Revolution, when that kingdom was among the earliest foreign entities to recognize the new breakaway nation. Upon being granted permission by Moroccan authorities to conduct the project, Bowles traveled extensively across Morocco by car, at times with two assistants, Christopher Wanklyn and Mohammed Larbi. Estimating that his Volkswagen Beetle covered more than 25,000 miles, Bowles encountered, befriended, and recorded various traditional musicians in 23 different communities, including in villages along the Atlantic and Mediterranean Coasts, in Morocco's section of the Sahara, [End Page 473] in the Rif region, and in several locations in the Middle and Grand Atlas Mountains and the Anti-Atlas Mountains (war with Algeria prevented Bowles from visiting Morocco's Southeastern border territory). Before long, however, Moroccan authorities withdrew permission for Bowles to travel. Nevertheless, driven to complete what he had started, he continued to seek out and record musicians through the end of 1959, though he focused his documentary efforts in the larger Moroccan cities to avoid drawing attention to himself.
Utilizing an Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape recorder, Bowles eventually amassed over 60 hours of recordings (250 performances in all) that collectively documented a range of instrumental and vocal performances by musicians from many of Morocco's ethnic groups and from most of the country's regions. The Library of Congress, which was the repository for Bowles' field recordings, ultimately issued a sampling (26 selections) of those recordings on a two-LP album entitled Music of Morocco (released in 1972 on the Library of Congress' own label, as AFS L63-L64). To provide a broad representation of his collecting work on two LPs, Bowles in some cases excerpted sections from longer performances. The Library of Congress release had limited distribution (primarily research libraries and private collections of ethnomusicologists). A quarter of a century later, when the CD format incentivized some record companies to remaster and reinterpret historical recordings, the independent label Rounder Records made plans to reissue Bowles' Moroccan recordings. One compilation of such recordings saw the light of day on Rounder—a two-CD release in 2000 entitled Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews. Although intending to repackage and enhance...