Djemma El Fna
“Why do you want to go to Morocco?” was a question I was asked a lot leading up to my recent April 2013 trip there. The short answer is: curiosity. The longer answer is: As a musician who’d played in bands for years, I started getting really into world music field recordings in 2007. I was disillusioned with the hyped & moneyed nature of the American music scene, and found these recordings of street musicians who had made their own instruments and were just playing for the joy of it really inspiring. Plus an Oud played through a crappy amplifier sounds like an extra awesome electric guitar. So much so that I’ve been using effects pedals etc. trying to add this element to my guitar sounds.
Ever since I saw Sublime Frequencies film “Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway”
I have wanted to go to Marrakech, Morocco. I wanted desperately to see the street musicians play in the Djemma El Fna, a public square full of magicians, snake charmers, storytellers and musicians. This square is so historical and unique that it has become a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage site to protect it from development.
Finally, 6 years later I started my own music project called NEON GRLZ using drum machines, world music samples, and my guitar and vocals. I began recording my own samples of various street musicians and sounds. I decided I wanted to make videos as well, it seemed like it was finally time to go to Morocco.
My husband and I booked tickets to go to Marrakech for a week. He did Middle Eastern Studies for his first Masters Degree, lived in Rabaat for 3 months in college, and speaks a little Arabic so I thought I’d be in good hands traveling with him. The first day in Marrakech we spent an hour trying to hunt down our luggage at the airport. It had been shrink wrapped into unrecognizable shapes by the airline but we finally found it. We were taken by cab to the winding streets of the Medina, within the walls of the old city of Marrakech.
A man from our Riad (Moroccan version of a Bed and Breakfast or as I called it a Bed and Bread- since Bread was our breakfast for 7 days) came and met us at the car and led us through a maze of narrow streets to our Riad. We managed not to get run over by scooters with whole families crammed on them. The Riad was nice but, we were traveling pretty budget and our room was fine but had no real windows only some small ones by the floor of our room for ventilation. I guess staying in a bunker wasn’t so bad as it was a quiet den away from the busy streets of Marrakech.
Once we were settled they served us mint tea in the courtyard. We trekked through the Souks (think crazy big mazelike flea market) with men calling out trying to sell things to you. Haggling is a big thing here. They will tell you a price 6x or more than the worth of an object and it’s up to you to try to haggle them down to a reasonable price. I am a great haggler in America and have haggled my way through Mexico, Russia, and Europe so I thought I’d be fine when I was ready to buy things. Nope; these guys are pros. I walked away from every purchase during the week feeling I’d been ripped off to the point I just stopped trying to buy anything. The extent of the stories they will tell you to get your money is pretty remarkable.
We made our way to the Djemma El Fna. Finally, I was here but it was day and only the snake charmers and orange juice sellers were out. Upon closer view/proximity of the snake charmers they start asking for money. You give them money and they say they want more which is kind of a turn off. Not to mention most of the snakes look either dead or half dead. I shrugged this, the miserable monkeys on leash, and sad shriveled donkeys off determined not to let my dreams of this place be shattered. See I felt like going to Morocco with all their sacred music and calls to prayer echoing would be a Yatra or a pilgrimage to a holy place. But I had a sneaking suspicion I’d been a bit mislead in my thinking. We ate the first of many tagines walked around some more.
We got lost trying to get back to our Riad and a little kid helped lead us back. We gave him what we thought was a respectable tip and he yelled at us that it was not enough. My husband told him if it was not enough he could give it back and the kid ran off. We both felt frazzled.
That night we went back to the Djemma El Fna to take some sound and video samples. The Gnawan and other musicians were amazing. But again we gave money and were almost always asked for more even though we’d given a good amount. The Djemma El Fna was overwhelming in good and bad ways. I had trouble making sense of my feelings and was beginning to feel serious culture shock. We ate at one of the food sellers and my husband had Pastilla, which was unclear whether it was chicken or pigeon, but I suppose it was safer than the goat and Sheep heads some people were bravely eating. On our way back to the Riad/Bunker a woman grabbed my hand and began painting on it with henna before I could say no. I finally gave her some money to let me go and stupidly wondered back to our bunker feeling as though I’d been mugged.
The next day we wandered into the New City (built by the French during their occupation) and went to the Jardin Marjorelle and Berber Museum. The garden and wide streets leading there were a nice change from the crowded, small, winding streets of the Medina. Never had I been so happy to walk by the familiar golden arches of McDonalds. We went to the Djemma again that night for footage and sound and found a few musicians that were cool with what we gave them. But the constant harassment by others in the square sent us back to the Riad early.
We had scheduled a Moroccan cooking class and tour of the Souks the 3nd day. I asked our guide, a Dutch woman, who had moved to Marrakech several years before about what was appropriate to give to musicians and she told us an amount smaller than we were even giving. I had immense respect for her as an expat who had been able to make her way in this strange place that seemed so into ripping off foreigners. Say what you want about NYC but if you ask someone directions they will just tell you, not try to purposely mislead you to get your money. If you ask a price they will start with a pretty fair one. I get it, I’m American and probably a lot more well off than many of these folks, but I’m not rich by any means so I got pretty offended when I was trying to be kind and respectful adn was told it wasn’t enough.
I started having intestinal issues probably from eating in the Djemma and a few days of eating things my body wasn’t used to. This led to nausea and other unpleasant things the rest of the weak. By day 4 were ready to go on our day trip to the coastal town of Essaouira.
As opposed to the Pink City of Marrakech, Essaouira is a blue and white port town. It had a much more chill feeling, though I got ripped off there too when I bought a bracelet I was told was old silver but turned out to be something that left green band on my arm. I did however wander in to Bob’s music (named for Bob Marley) and got a castanet lesson from the kind proprietor there. Essaouira holds a Gnawa Music Festival there every year and its laid back atmosphere brings many hippies and musicians there. I bought some castanets, which are actually harder to play than you would think. I got carsick on the two hour drive back to Marrakech.
This led to my first ever travel meltdown where I felt I’d seen/done enough and wanted to go home early. My husband convinced me it would be more difficult to change our tickets and we should just stick it out. I felt ashamed that I was crazy spoiled American as we went to McDonalds the next day and mostly hung out in the New City which had a more European feel. My husband tried to console me by telling horror stories about his time in Morocco in college. I couldn’t believe he’d lasted 3 months there. It was just so radically different, which at times was beautiful and at times really, really frustrating.
Our final few days we spent mostly in the New City eating a Fast Croke and other French inspired places. We went on another day trip to the High Atlas Mountains and Berber villages but it was pouring rain and again I got carsick on the winding mountain roads.
Berber village in High Atlas
I was really relieved when it was finally our day of departure back to America. I appreciate my cushy American life so much more. The odd thing is looking through pictures I’m glad I went although I wish I’d only done a few days in Marrakech and more days in Agadir or Essaouria or Spain.
Perhaps, now in my 30’s I’m less adventurous than I was in my 20’s. I place a higher value on being comfortable. I was so uncomfortable all the time in my teens and twenties that a trip to an uncomfortable place didn’t faze me much. Now I like my routines, my husband, apartment, neighborhood, and my pain in the ass dog. I am humbled by this, as I used to think I was so adventurous. I guess my home in New York City is all the adventure I really need for the time being.