Graded on a Curve:
Music of Morocco from the Library of Congress: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959

Primarily remembered for his mid-20th century novel The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles was in fact a multifaceted wordsmith, translator, and composer, and a dip into his historical profile reveals him to be a non-clichéd bohemian expatriate to boot. Moving to Tangier in 1947, Morocco served as his home until his death in 1999, though Bowles didn’t completely sever ties with the USA; in the 1950s he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to record the music of his adopted home. Dust-to-Digital’s Music of Morocco from the Library of Congress: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959 offers the exceptional results on four CDs and will surely rank amongst 2016’s best box sets.

By any yardstick Paul Bowles led an eventful and unconventional life. Like Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who contributes a brief opening essay to this set’s accompanying notes, my discovery of the man came through his connection to the Beats; indeed, Music of Morocco includes the often reproduced 1961 photo of Bowles in Tangiers with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Alan Ansen, and Ian Sommerville that brought Ranaldo, myself and scores of others directly to The Sheltering Sky.

To some this instance of hipness by association may seem like a superficial road to Bowles’ existentialist classic, but that’s just how it is, or more aptly put is one way of it; undoubtedly many Charles Bukowski fans stumbled upon Bowles’ Collected Stories in the catalog of alternative/underground publishing house Black Sparrow Press.

However, Paul Bowles encompassed far more than writing and throughout 88 years on this planet his copious achievements ride on nobody’s coattails. Early evidence of his greatness was articulated in his desire to be a poet, but Gertrude Stein set him straight and additionally proposed Bowles and his teacher Aaron Copland travel to Morocco in 1931.

The visit would prove life-altering for Bowles; he would eventually return there with a commission to write what became The Sheltering Sky and the intention to leave composing, or at least composing for others, e.g. Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and numerous stage works including the plays of Tennessee Williams, behind.

The 78 rpm discs of Moroccan music Bowles collected during the ’31 visit would prove unsatisfactory (at the suggestion of Henry Cowell copies were sent to Bela Bartok, where they were incorporated into the Hungarian composer’s Concerto for Orchestra), and the seeds for a future field recording project were effectively planted.

It was Peggy Glanville-Hicks, an Australian composer as well as Bowles’ longtime friend and advocate, who successfully lobbied the Rockefeller foundation for a grant and strengthened the relationship with the Library of Congress to ultimately produce the extensive accomplishment comprised here, Dust-to-Digital significantly expanding a 2LP set on the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Song from 1972.

It’s important to understand this was not the journey of an ethnomusicologist but essentially just a guy traversing the Moroccan countryside in a borrowed Volkswagen Beetle, armed with his tastes and prejudices and an Ampex 601 tape recorder. Beginning on August 1, 1959 and continuing to December 18, he attempted not to invisibly document the full spectrum of the country’s traditional music but instead simply strove to capture whatever struck his fancy, though thankfully his interests were wide and his ear discerning.

Dust-to-Digital retains the same basic division that shaped the Archive of Folk Song set, but with notable differences; for starters, nearly all the entries are offered in their full length as two of the excepts found on the original release get swapped out for previously unpublished pieces and eight more tracks are added to further deepen the totality.

CDs one and two are titled “Highlands—The Berbers.” As outlined by Philip Schuyler in his outstanding notes, Bowles painted the Berbers with such troublesome descriptors as “barbarous,” “neolithic,” and “primitive,” though it’s necessary to clarify these terms were intended as praise, as its documenter felt the highly percussive music spread across the first two discs “represented the pure spirit of North Africa.”

Bowles assessments have been described as racist, but while undeniably misguided they lack maliciousness; to the contrary, he was enamored of Berber art and determined to archive it for history’s benefit in the face of modernity’s neglect. Much of the first disc is devoted to rhythmic and to a lesser extent vocal repetitiveness that Bowles termed “hypnotic” and his colleague and collaborator Ira Cohen tagged as “trance music.”

An exception is “El Baz Ouichen” by Rais Ahmed ben Bakrim; an exchange of amarg (sung poetry) and rabab (a bowed instrument with a single gut of horse hair) moves into a call and response between the leader and backing musicians and then culminates in a lively instrumental passage for dance. CD one comes in at a relatively concise 48 minutes, but its Berber companion contains a handful of longer cuts and stretches out to 73.

Disc three also hits 73 minutes as the fourth manages 75, and the total length emphasizes the unlikelihood of Music of Morocco receiving frequent front to back listens; electing to focus on a few or in the case of disc four’s 27 minute “El hgaz el Mcharqi” one track at a time is a fruitful mode of entry into these deep waters.

The third and fourth CD presents examples mostly in Arabic but also includes anything Bowles could trace to Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, or the Middle East. The distinctions can be striking; for instance, where the music of Berber’s is often wildly celebratory, the music corralled under the designation “Lowlands—Influent Strains” regularly inhabits a ceremonial intensity.

A handful of shorter pieces emerge to successfully offset the prolonged sections, and if Paul Bowles lacked the studiousness of Alan Lomax or Sam Charters, he was surprisingly handy with his recording apparatus; the content largely shines through with clarity. In short, for lovers of the African continent’s rich sonic history Music of Morocco is an utter gift.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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