Whether you watch gnawa musicians sing and dance in the happily chaotic swirl of Marrakesh's Jmaa el-Fna square, listen to a refined Andalusian orchestra play subtle melodies, hear bright homegrown shaabi blare from a shopkeeper's storefront or become mesmerized by the sounds of a Sufi brotherhood's samaa, you quickly realize that music is at the heart of Moroccan culture.
Morocco's traditions are stunningly diverse. The fascinating Berber folk traditions differ between regions: those of the High Atlas Mountains, with their emphasis on the flute (ney or gasba) and drums, are quite different than those of the Souss Valley, where the bowed, stringed rabab and lotar lute join the percussion; and the famed Master Musicians of Joujouka, from the foothills of the Rif Mountains, have a tradition of all their own. The music of the Sufi brotherhoods vary greatly from place to place as well; the gnawa traditions of the south, with their mesmerizing rhythms and the playing of a lute called the gimbri or sentir, seem much closer to the music of sub-Saharan Africa than to the music of the brotherhoods of northern Morocco cities, which in turn sound more like the Sufi music found elsewhere in north Africa and the Middle East.
As in Algeria, the Arab-Andalusian classical tradition has left its mark, but the tradition has been vigorously preserved and is to this day well loved in Morocco; there are several internationally well-known Andalusian orchestras based in cities like Fez, Rabat, Tangier and Meknes. Another Moroccan stream of tradition belongs to the country's once-large Jewish population; while many artists like cantor Emil Zrihan have emigrated to Israel along with most of the rest of the Sephardic population, their legacy in Morocco remains an important and rich part of the country's heritage. In addition, Morocco has its own thriving shaabi (or chaabi) tradition, with popular acts like the group Jil Jalala and the female singer Najat Aatabou populating cassette sellers' stalls all over the country. Anastasia Tsioulcas