In 1959, the American writer Paul Bowles secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to record the folk music of Morocco. Bowles presented his project as a rescue mission to save rural Amazigh traditions from both the rising tides of modernization and the Arabization policies of the newly independent Moroccan government. Reissued in 2016 by the American label Dust-to-Digital, authors in the New Yorker and the Journal of North African Studies have praised Music of Morocco as the best way to understand how Bowles “experienced and loved Morocco.”
But of course, Bowles’s recordings of local music were anything but authentic and untouched. The archive resulting from this project, now held at the Library of Congress, is a political text reflecting both Bowles’s own idiosyncratic Orientalism and the cultural policies of colonial and postcolonial Moroccan governments. In the name of preserving ‘Berber culture,’ Bowles coerced, manipulated, and underpaid local artists to create recordings that suited his own tastes and conceptions of North African culture. Incorporating the Moroccan Music Collection into the ongoing project to recover the voices of Indigenous people in the modern history of Morocco requires an honest appraisal of this exploitative past, and a commitment by institutions like the Library of Congress to redress these wrongs.
Cultural Policies Between Colonial and Nationalist Ideologies
France occupied Morocco for nearly fifty years, establishing a formal protectorate in 1912 that would last until 1956. From the beginning, French policy was justified by a scientific discourse that theorized a profound racial and ethnic divide between Berbers and Arabs. This “colonial vulgate,” in the words of historian Edmund Burke, was sustained by a body of linguistic, geographic, and ethnographic research which characterized the Indigenous people of North Africa as ungovernable tribal societies, locked in an eternal struggle for political and military supremacy with the urban Arab ruling class.
With the final ‘pacification’ of Morocco accomplished in the 1930s, the imagined divisions between Arabs and Berbers became reified in a set of policy decisions through which French officials attempted to divide and rule the colonized population. The colonial education system segregated students according to race and class, with French, Jewish, Muslim Arab, and Amazigh students sorted into separate school systems. The colonial military recruited heavily from Indigenous communities and excluded Arabs from the ranks; immediately after independence as many as 90 percent of soldiers were of Amazigh and rural origin. The culmination of this separation policy was the so-called Berber Dahir of 1930, which announced that many rural populations would be governed by tribal councils according to customary law (written in French) rather than the Maliki Sharia law applied in the rest of the country.
The Moroccan nationalist opposition, which had been brewing for several years among urban intellectuals, rallied in opposition to the 1930 Dahir. At protests in Sale, Fes, and Tangier, young men chanted the Latif prayer, used in times of disaster, with a special ending: “God save us from the miseries of fate and do not separate us from our Berber brothers!” The furious reaction to the Dahir led colonial officials to quickly retreat from the policy. However, the episode had a profound effect on the course of the nationalist movement and post-independence state. Paradoxically, the Arab leaders of the Moroccan nationalist movement had staked their solidarity with Amazigh communities on a denial of the linguistic, ethnic, and political differences between the two groups. This would set the stage for a policy of Arabization following independence.
The Moroccan nationalist movement climaxed after World War II in a campaign of protests, bombings, and armed resistance. France, facing an even more serious conflict in Algeria, granted independence in 1956 to a government led by King Mohammed V and the nationalist Istiqlal Party. One of the new kingdom’s first actions was to abolish the 1930 Dahir. In a refutation of colonial policy, Arabic was declared the official language of the state and the only mode of instruction in government schools. The government has also used a Civil Registry requirement that given names have a “Moroccan character” to effectively prevent parents from giving their children Amazigh first names. Protectorate-era prohibitions on heterodox Sufi religious orders, such as the Hamadcha, Aissawa, and Jilala, were upheld in accordance with the nationalists’ Salafist Islamic ideology. With the French gone, the Moroccan state was free to pursue its Arabization policy which silenced internal dissent and increased its prestige abroad.
This was the political context in which Bowles conceived his ambitious ethnomusicological survey. A New York-born writer and composer, Bowles’s conceptions of Morocco were driven equally by Orientalist fantasies and his intense dislike of government authorities. Whereas the French viewed them as rebellious tribes and the nationalists viewed them as backward coreligionists, Bowles saw in the “Neolithic Berbers” a kind of noble savage beset by the acculturating influences of Arab occupiers and “Negro slaves” imported from West Africa; only in the rural mountain regions, he claimed was Berber music “left intact, a purely autochthonous art.” What all three ideologies shared was a conception of Berber and Arab as separate and mutually exclusive categories. Bowles conceived of his project as a documentary record to save primitive customs before they were erased by the rising tide of modernization: “A recording project in Morocco is a fight against time and the deculturizing activities of political enthusiasts […] public apathy is destroying the performing traditions, and it is important to capture whatever examples I can.” While Bowles correctly diagnosed the threat that government policies posed to Indigenous peoples, he did so not to stand in solidarity with Amazigh communities but rather to represent them for his own purposes.
Hand-drawn map showing Bowles’s route through Morocco on his archival expedition. Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection (AFC 1960/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Creating an Archive
Having secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in partnership with the Library of Congress, Bowles began crisscrossing Morocco in a VW Beetle in 1959 to record music from a variety of regional styles. Bowles’s notes from this project reveal unorthodox methods which his friend and biographer Philip Schuyler describes in the liner notes as “refreshingly honest” but which we might more accurately recognize as coercive and exploitative. Bowles frequently underpaid the artists he recorded; in the month of August 1959, for example, he budgeted $550 dollars for his own food and lodging while paying Moroccan ensembles a mere $120 across 11 sessions. This money was likely split among dozens of musicians, although it is impossible to determine because Bowles failed to record their full names or even the total number of performers in some cases. The Library of Congress, in the course of releasing the recordings on vinyl in the 1970s, inquired about obtaining permissions from the artists or their next of kin. Bowles dismissed the idea entirely, writing that he couldn’t imagine identifying family members and implying that Moroccans would exploit the opportunity to demand more cash. The Bowles Estate continues to hold the rights to the recordings in the Moroccan Music Collection, while the artists themselves have no legal claim.
Arhacha Atsoudaoua, performed by the Cheikha Haddouj ensemble in Khenifra. Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection (AFC 1960/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
In addition to this financial exploitation, Bowles also orchestrated the music itself to suit his own notions of “primitive” Berber culture. He despised innovations which he considered modernized or hybridized, going so far as to call the Cheikha Haddouj ensemble, a mixed group of Arab and Berber musicians recorded in Khenifra, “schizophrenic music, an ethnical monstrosity. It presents two cultures, each making music in two unrelated scales.” “Personally, I found the combination highly displeasing,” he added, “but perhaps this is because I am aware of the music’s basic degeneracy” He discounted his failure to record music from the Beni Iznassen because they were “fairly degenerate ethnically anyway,” by which he meant that they were an Arabic-speaking Berber tribe. Bowles was unafraid to show favoritism to whichever style or performer he deemed to be the purest, which undoubtedly influenced the music which local artists presented to him. Moreover, he would openly manipulate the instruments themselves. After spending weeks looking for a rare horn instrument called the zamar, Bowles found a musician only to be disappointed by the volume of the instrument: “Within two hours my principal problem was to make him stop playing it, because its sound covered that of the other instruments to such an extent that there was a danger of monotony in sonorous effect. I finally seated him ten or twelve yards away from the other musicians. He went on playing, his cheeks puffed out like balloons, sitting all alone under an orange tree, happily unaware that his music was not being recorded.” In a different incident in the region of Essaouira, Bowles compelled a gnawa musician to remove a buzzing metallic sheet called a soursal from his instrument because he disliked the tone. For all of these reasons, the recordings in the Moroccan Music Collection present a vision of Moroccan folklife constructed by Bowles, at times utterly removed from the actual cultural practices of Moroccan communities in the 1950s.
Musicians of the Beni Bouifrour, with a zamar in the middle. Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection (AFC 1960/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
The songs Bowles recorded were created for his benefit, usually divorced from their normal social context. Ironically, given his hatred of French officials, Bowles’s use of local intermediaries was reminiscent of colonial-era strategies of rural governance. Bowles’s usual tactic was to introduce himself to a local notable, whom he would then oblige to assemble musicians: “in each place it is necessary to get on the good side of the local chief first, so that he will send out the order to the surrounding countryside, requiring that the people present themselves to the military post with their musical instruments; if the governmental order does not go out, there is no music.” Bowles either did not know or did not care about the social meanings associated with particular dances or genres. Although he spoke Moroccan Arabic, he had little knowledge of Tamazight dialects and did not bother translating the song titles because “they are useful only to the locals of each region.” This ignorance often produced farcical recordings which could scarcely be considered ‘traditional’ Moroccan music. Once, in the middle of an hours-long performance in the Rif, he asked the government official who had assembled the musicians what the song was about. “Oh, they’ll go on until I stop them, all night if you like” was the response. “It is about me. Do you want them to sing a different one?”
This episode also highlights the importance of the Moroccan government as an intermediary in Bowles’s archival process. The government officials Bowles met were generally educated Arabic speakers who disdained Amazigh folk traditions, seeing them as not representative of the new Moroccan nation. An official in Khemmiset told him “the music of the Zemmour is completely without interest to anyone. Why should it be sent abroad as an example of our culture?” Bowles’s correspondence suggests an official government policy outlawing certain Indigenous cultural practices. At Ain Diab, one group of performers frequently forgot lyrics to their songs because “the folk repertoires have been examined and censored by the government since the beginning of independence. Many of the present texts are new.” Bowles’s method of using local government officials to assemble musicians involved no small amount of coercion and violence. He wrote at the outset of the project that “the main difficulty is going to be persuading the musicians that their government will not punish them for collaborating with me. They have all been forbidden to make music of any sort, save for government officials or with government authorization, and flatly refuse to have anything to do with me.” Even after he completed the recordings, Bowles continued to fret that “people in high places in Rabat” would confiscate the tapes because:
“They are so stupid that they imagine that the diffusion of such music abroad will hamper their effort to persuade the world at large that Morocco is a modern ‘civilized’ country, and might thus indirectly reduce foreign investment. These men are a tiny minority but a powerful one, they are all city bred and have never even heard Moroccan tribal music. They hate to admit that such a thing still exists in spite of their deculturizing and detribalizing programs, and the last thing they want is for the world outside (and particularly the United States) to possess evidence of what they consider to be their great shame – i.e. the fact that Morocco is, in general, an unusually primitive region the vast majority of whose inhabitants have not been imbued with Arab culture, in spite of some eleven centuries of effort on the part of the Arab conquerors. This is an important part of their policy, both internally and externally, and by flouting it I have made even more enemies.” 
It is unclear whether such a policy actually existed, for Bowles was known to lie or exaggerate about such matters, and it seems unlikely that a state still struggling to put down armed insurrections would have the symbolic or military power to rewrite whole genres of folk music. But a general disapproval and discouraging of Indigenous folk traditions would certainly have complemented the government’s Arabization policies already mentioned above.
In any case, the Moroccan Music project was only possible with the cooperation of Moroccan authorities. Although Bowles and the post-colonial government had different views on Amazigh culture’s relationship to authentic Moroccan identity, they agreed on its essential difference from ‘Arab civilization’ and its fundamental primitivity. Ultimately, Bowles’s project ended abruptly in December 1959 when, without explanation, the Ministry of Interior announced a ban on further recordings.
Music of Morocco in the Twenty-First Century
The Library of Congress’s double-LP release of the recordings in 1972 reflected Bowles’s Orientalist philosophy: the first disc was devoted to “The Highlands” i.e., the ‘pure Berber’ recordings and the second to “The Lowlands – Influent Strains” of Arabic-contaminated music. Dust to Digital’s reissue in 2016 retained the same format, with an expanded selection of recordings. Bowles himself passed away in 1999.
In the meantime, the political and social meaning of Indigenous music has changed yet again. Responding to years of pressure from Amazigh activists, the Moroccan government has come to embrace Indigenous identity, within certain limits. The palace founded the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in 2001 to develop and promote Indigenous traditions and the constitution of 2011 made Tamazight an official language alongside Arabic. Yet these promising developments have struggled to make significant headway against decades of marginalization, even as the state continues to deploy Amazigh cultural markers for political purposes. Despite official decrees on teaching Tamazight in schools, French remains the primary language of prestige and social advancement, and Berber identity is relegated to the realm of apolitical folklore. Berbers, Aomar Boum writes, are seen “not as people with historical grievances against the state, but as people with striking dance steps, attractive clothes and jewelry, and beautiful casbahs.” This strategy has succeeded, inasmuch as the use of Tamazight continues to decline and rural communities remain excluded from power.
But Moroccans have not accepted state policies and Western discourses passively. Bowles predicted in 1959 that “younger men simply have no interest in music, or at least in Moroccan music. In very few years there will be no more good musicians in the land.” He was wrong. As Bowles was writing those words, teenagers in the bidonvilles of Casablanca were reimagining the rural traditions of their parents in new and exciting forms. Beginning in the late 1960s, artists like Nass el Ghiwane, Jil Jilala, and Lemchaheb led a revival of Moroccan folk music by combining regional styles such as melhoun, aita, and gnawa. The enduring popularity of Ghiwani music, sung in Darija but based on many Amazigh musical forms, demonstrates how ordinary Moroccans have rejected essentialized dichotomies of Arab and Berber culture.
Jil Jilala, Lemchaheb, and Nass el Ghiwane performing “Siniya” on Moroccan television.
In the meantime, Bowles’s legacy continues to change and expand. Despite ending his project in 1959, the Moroccan Ministries of Culture and Tourism now praise Bowles for his efforts to preserve Moroccan cultural traditions. His recordings remain in the archive, undisturbed more than fifty years after their tumultuous creation. The Library of Congress has been content to reproduce Bowles’s essentialized vision of Moroccan culture without translating the lyrics, identifying descendants of the original musicians, or honestly reckoning with Bowles’s problematic ideology. Historians have only now begun to write the history of modern Moroccan from subaltern perspectives; perhaps the Moroccan Music Collection is one place to start.
Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection (AFC 1960/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Aidi, Hisham. “So Why Did I Defend Paul Bowles?” The New York Review of Books. Accessed September 30, 2021. http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/12/20/so-why-did-i-defend-paul-bowles/.
Boum, Aomar. “Festivalizing Dissent in Morocco.” Middle East Report (New York, N.Y. 1988), no. 263 (2012): 22–25.
Bowles, Paul. Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue. New York: Picker Partners Publishing, 1963.
Burke, Edmund III. The Ethnographic State: France and the Invention of Moroccan Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
Chafik, Mohammed. A Glimpse of Thirty-Three Centuries of Amazigh History. Mohammedia: Al-Kalam, 1989.
Gellner, Ernest and Charles Micaud. Arabs and Berbers. Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1972.
Miller, Susan Gilson. A History of Modern Morocco. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Schuyler, Philip. “Music of Morocco: The Paul Bowles Collection” liner notes for Music of Morocco, Dust to Digital, 2016.
Wyrtzen, Jonathan. Making Morocco: Colonial Intervention and the Politics of Identity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016.
 The French colonial administration referred to the Indigenous people of North Africa as Berbers, a derogative term derived from the word barbarian. Since at least the 1980s, native activists have campaigned for the demonym Amazigh (pl. Imazighen), an Indigenous word meaning ‘free people’ (see Mohammed Chafik, A Glimpse of Thirty-Three Centuries of Amazigh History, Mohammedia: Al-Kalam, 1989). Because both primary and academic sources continue to apply the word Berber, I use both terms here.
 Andre Coram “Note on the role of the Berbers in the early days of Moroccan independence” in Arabs and Berbers eds. Ernest Gellner and Charles Micaud (Massachusetts: Lexington Books): 272.
 Susan Gilson Miller, History of Modern Morocco, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 126.
 Jonathan Wyrtzen, Making Morocco: Colonial Intervention and the Politics of Identity, (Ithaca, United States: Cornell University Press, 2016): 165. Bowles also comments on this ban in Correspondence from Paul Bowles to Harold Spivacke, 30 July 1957, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 1, Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
 Paul Bowles, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, (New York: Picker Publishing, 1963): 67.
 Correspondence from Paul Bowles to Harold Spivacke, 30 July 1957, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 1, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection.
 Correspondence from Paul Bowles to Harold Spivacke, August 1959, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 3, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection.
 Correspondence from Paul Bowles to Alan Jabbour, 16 June 1971, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 5, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection
 Field Notes 34A AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 8, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection.
 Correspondence from Paul Bowles to Alex Waters, 29 September 1959, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 3, Paul Moroccan Music Collection.
 Schuyler, “Music of Morocco,” 96.
 Correspondence from Bowles to Alex Waters, August 1959, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 2, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection
 Correspondence from Bowles to Alan Jabbour, 1 October 1971, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 5, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection
 Bowles, Their Heads Are Green, 78.
 Correspondence from Bowles to Harold Spivacke, 20 October 1959, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 3, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection.
 Field Notes 1A AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 7, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection.
 Correspondence from Bowles to Alex Waters, 6 August 1959, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 3, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection.
 Correspondence from Bowles to Harold Spivacke, 31 December 1959, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 4, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection Bowles.
 Schuyler demonstrates that Bowles’s claim about Soussi women dancing topless before the nationalist government outlawed the practice is almost certainly an Orientalist fantasy (“Music of Morocco,” 84).
 Correspondence from Bowles to Harold Spivacke, 7 December 1959, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 4, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection.
 Aomar Boum, “Festivalizing Dissent in Morocco,” Middle East Report, no. 263 (2012): 23.
 Correspondence from Bowles to Alex Waters, 18 September 1959, AFC 1960/001, Box 1, Folder 3, Bowles Moroccan Music Collection.