The Moroccan Music Abroad among the Berber-Jewish communities

The Moroccan Music Abroad among the Berber-Jewish communities

(A survey of a research program) (i)


Mohamed Elmedlaoui

Institut Universitaire de la Recherche Scientifique - Rabat

Sigal Azaryahu ,The Catholic University of Leuven.



In this paper, we well survey the complicated dynamics of change and/or conservation within the repertory of the traditional oral Berber dancing songs called Ahwash, as this genre is still performed among certain Moroccan Berber-Jewish communities immigrated to Israel in the mid 1950’s and early 1960’s.


Definition of ‘ahwash’ with respect to other Moroccan musical genres

The term ‘ahwash’ covers several forms of local varieties of a Berber village collective dance in which participants, men and/or women sing while dancing collectively in the Atlas Mountains and around in Morocco (v. Chottin; Rovsing-Olsen). Despite the lack of a historical concrete picture of how the Judeo-Berber vernacular variants interfered, each time through history, in the everyday life of those Jewish communities (v. Zafrani; Lakhsassi) who lived for centuries in those areas (v. Schroeter), Jewish participation in ahwash, as dancers, singers and even as lyrics improvisers, has been witnessed in such localities as Tifnut, Tidili, Ayt-Bouwulli, Ighil-n-Ughu, etc. (v. Azaryahu; Lakhsassi).

In fact, despite their role in initiating and developing many musical forms of both urban learned and popular music in Morocco, namely the popular Shaabi and the aristocratic Al-Ala genres (v. Chetrit 1998, 2003), and aside the liturgical piyyutim (ex. David Hassin, David Bouzaglo, Jo Amar), the Moroccan Jewry hasn’t developed any ethnic lay musical tradition as that was the case for example with the Hassidim in Eastern Europe or the Yemenites (cf. Shiloah: 269-275).

The point is that while many aspects of the Moroccan urban music are commonly known to have immigrated abroad with the Moroccan Jewry, namely to Israel (ex. Sami El-Maghribi, Emil Zrihan, Shlomo Bar, Asher Knafo’s Israeli Andalusian Orchestra) and the USA (ex. Avi-Eilam Amzallag’s Anda-El East-West Orchestra), it is only  with Azaryahu’s 1999 MA monograph that we learned recently that the Berber musical genre Ahwash also had immigrated. On the basis of  that comparative ethno musicological fieldwork, conducted among certain Moroccan Berber-Jews in the localities of Aderet and Shokeda in Israel and among their old compatriot Moslems in the Moroccan localities they had come from (Tidili, Igloua, Ayt-Bougmmaz in the Atlas Mountains), Azaryahu’s work explored the dimensions along which the new socio-economic and ethno-cultural environment had enforced structural and functional changes in the ahwash ceremony as performed nowadays in those Israeli localities. Among those changes: a merge with another Berber musical genre, the ‘Rways’ instrumental singing music (v. Schuyler), that become sometimes, with artists like Barukh Ben David (Petah Tikva) or late Shalom Swissa (Beer Sheva), a mere final episode in an Israeli ahwash evening (v. Elmedlaoui 2005).


The Ahwash and its Functions among the Berber-Jews

The “Ahwash” is a Berber ceremony that contains musical, poetic, choreographic and behavioral elements, which are typical of the whole Berber musical tradition in Morocco.(ii)  As it is still the case at their original localities in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains (Igloua, Tidili, Ayt Bougmmaz), the Berber-Jews communities studied in the field by one of us (S. Azaryahu) still connect the ahwash ceremony in Israel (Aderet and Shokeda localities namely) to events of the life cycle such as weddings and Bar-Mitzvas (i.e. age of religious majority), or to events of the agricultural calendar, such as the end of the harvest season. It seems that the “ahwash” ceremony and the Rways instrumental singing music are the only event from the Berber cultural activities that are still performed by the Berber-Jews in Israel.(iii)

As it is reported in Azaryahu (1999), on the basis of a fieldwork in the localities of origin of the Berber Jews in the Atlas Mountains, the standard Ahwash ceremony itself is performed in those localities by a group of men alongside a group of women. This form of staging the performance serves as a mirror through which we can understand both the relationships, and the hierarchy among the community members, as well as their artistic cultural-musical aesthetics.


Ahwash as performed nowadays among Berber-Jews in Israel

With the wave of emigration of the Moroccan-Jews in general to Israel during the years 1955 -1963, the emerging Israeli culture received, through the Berber-Jews tradition, a unique addition which, however, has totally failed to be recognized until today because of the westernized prevailing values (v. Elmedlaoui 1995, 1999). According to the prevailing official settlement policy of that time, the Berber-Jews were settled in rural and peripheral areas from the northern of the country till the south. They were settled in rural places by the authorities under the pretext that it would be good for them to be settled in a natural and socio-economic environment as similar as possible to the one they knew in Morocco. The conventional thinking of the government those days was that the state prevails and comes first.(iv) And since it was the beginning of the establishment of the young country, working hands were needed to rearrange the map of modern Israel. As an unexpected result and byproduct, that quartering permitted, or even caused the Berber-Jews to maintain some of their cultural traditions in a communal framework. However, the custodians of this tradition have become fewer and fewer. And today, this endangered cultural tradition is in an obvious danger of extinction, since, among other aspects, only old persons still have access to it through direct memory.

As in most traditional societies, there was, in this community too, a clear cut division of functions, according to which men were the custodians of written tradition (sacred music and texts), whereas women cultivated the oral tradition. Customarily, the latter was considered somewhat inferior (v. Terri Brint 2003, Magrini 2003).


As could be assumed, the passage of the Jewish Berber community from its native place in Morocco to Israel resulted in inevitable changes not only within the social structure of that community, but also in the deep structure of its rituals, the ahwash ceremony included. Thus, as Azaryahu's fieldwork in both Morocco (1998) and in Israel (1997-today) revealed it, a rather unexpected phenomenon occurred with the Berber Jews community’s move to the Israeli European-oriented culture. On the one side, for example, the Ahwash ceremony continues to assign the same apparent functions and roles. For example, the performance continues to involve together both men and women in singing, dancing, while drums are played exclusively by men. The ceremony continues also to be connected to the social life cycle and agricultural season’s celebration. But, on the other side, the status of women within the community has undergone a radical change in the direction of emancipation. This status improvement, due to the disintegration of the social hierarchy on which the canonic ahwash was based, is reflected most clearly in the textual makeup of the ritual as we well see in the last section of this paper.


Background of an area of research:

So far, the research of Berber-Jewish culture has concentrated on social and anthropological aspects of this community and has not dealt with its musical heritage (see for example: Cohen and Shiloah 1986). By contrast, the objective of Azaryahu's 1999 research has been to explore by means of ethno-musicological tools, the Berber-Jewish musical culture in Israel, and in particular the changes that their musical heritage has undergone since they immigrated to Israel. Investigating the Ahwash ceremony was the aim of that research, with special attention to the following topics:


First, it explored the various musical aspects of the Ahwash performed by the Berber-Jewish communities in Israel: preliminary results have shown that the progression of music matches with and follows the temporal progression of the ceremony.

Secondly, the research explored the social aspects of the Ahwash, namely: the inner hierarchy of the musicians who perform the Ahwash, the social contexts of the Ahwash ceremony - mainly rites of passage, pertaining to changes of personal status, and the advent of the agricultural calendar. Here the emphasis lies on the function of the master of the ceremony (called Sheikh n-uhwash among Berber Muslims in Morocco ) as well as on the role of the participants in the ceremony as determined by their musical knowledge and skills.

On the basis of a comparison with facts observed through the above mentioned fieldwork conducted in the localities of origin, Azaryahu described the canonic Ahwash (i.e., Ahwash as performed by the Jews before their emigration to Israel) consisted of four parts: Agwal, Timawashin, Timsaqin and Tahwashin. From these four parts, only the Tahwashin, the main part of an Ahwash event, and a very short version of the Timsaqin are still performed by Berber-Jews in Israel, because time definition and constraints in their new environment which, unlike in the past, compelled the participants to organize the Ahwash in advance within the socio-economic new constraints of formal defined time. The Agwal traditionally serving as a long preparatory part, and the Timawashin, traditionally functioning as a phatic signal for the women to join the ceremony, a signal that is no longer needed, have been omitted. On the other hand, a new part, the Rways, traditionally independent as a genre in Morocca, has been integrated to the ahwash as we pointed it out earlier. The Rways typical content of nostalgic songs and yearning suits the emotional needs of the community today. But the ongoing trend to shorten the Timsaqin part of Ahwash among the Berber-Jews allows us to conjecture about an eventual complete disappearance of the Ahwash among them. Even so, the intense transmission of intimate messages between men and women through sung verses continues.


Conclusion and future prospects

Today, in the more open Israeli society, the Berber-Jewish community has neglected its tradition. One of the main reasons is that the old generation is decreasing in the number of people who still have the knowledge to perform an Ahwash. The consequence, on the social level, is the disintegration of the social hierarchy on which the structural makeup of the canonic Ahwash was based. Thus for example, unlike in the past, women now often take the lead and start the singing or choose the repertoire of the ceremony.

As a conclusion, we say that the Ahwash that is performed today in Israel is clearly revealing the transition that has occurred in this ceremony since immigration to Israel. The Ahwash has become a symbolic-nostalgic event that includes the main traditional social-musical structures within a short and pressed time frame.

The Atlas-Jewish community in Israel is a typical example of the adjustment process of immigrant societies in Israel. These communities have lived since their emigration to Israel in a major conflict between the need to preserve and maintain their cultural-traditional uniqueness, and their willingness to merge into the new way of life in Israel, on the other hand.  As it is still performed in Israel, the ahwash ceremony, with its social-cultural and poetic components, compared to its original contexts in Morocco, reflects clearly these painful conflicts. Azaryahu's ongoing research program for her PhD is intended to deepen the questions already raised and to address other ones with more thoroughness regarding both data and analysis.



Aydoun, Ahmed (1992)  Musique du Maroc. Editions EDIF 1992


Azaryahu, Sigal (1999) :

עזריהו , סיגל  1999 תהליכי שימור ושינוי במוסיקה של יהודי האטלס בישראל – טקס האחוואש. אוניברסיטת תל-אביב . הפקולטה לאמנויות ע"ש יולנדה ודוד כץ . החוג למוסיקולוגיה

<Trad. Processus de préservation et de changements dans la musique des Juifs de l'Atlas    en Israël: la cérémonie de l'ahwash. Université de Tel Aviv. Faculté des Arts.  Département de Musicologie>

Azaryahu, Sigal (in preparation) The Ahwash Singing Ceremony Shift from Morocco to Israel: Forms, Symbols, and Meaning. PhD. Dissertation, in preparation. The Catholic University of Leuven. Belgium.

Cohen, Erik and Amnon, Shiloah “Major Trends of Change in Jewish oriental Ethnic Music in Israel”, Popular Music, 5:199-223. 1986.

Chetrit, Joseph (1998) "L’œuvre poétique de Rabbi David Bozaglo et les traditions musicales judéo-marocaines". Pp 67- in Assaraf, Robert et Michel Abitbol éd. Perceptions et Réalités au Maroc. Relations Judéo-Musulmanes. Actes du Congrès Marrakech-Paris 14-22 octobre 1995. C.R.J.M. Maroc

Chetrit, Joseph (2003) "Les pratiques poético-musicales juives au Maroc et leurs rapports avec les traditions andalouso-marocaines" ;  in  L'élargissement de l'Europe vu du Sud (Dossier préparé par Jean-Paul Chagnollaud). Confluence Méditerranée ; n°46 ; été 2003.

Chottin, Alexis (1933) Corpus de la musique marocaine ; fasc. II « musique et danse berbère du pays chleuh ». Paris, Heugel. Réédition Casablanca ; Librairie Livre-Service 1987.


Emedlaoui, Mohamed (1995):

المدلاوي، محمد (1995-2004)  " صورة المغرب في بعض المكتوبات العبرانية  واليهودية ".  مواســــم (طنجة - المغرب)؛ ع:4  1995، ص: 23-34 . أعيد نشرها في العدد 15 (1997؛ ص17-28) من شؤون مغربـــية، ثم في المدلاوي 1999 (عن الذاكرة والهوية؛ سلسلة 'شراع'، عدد 64)، ثم في كتاب: الدراسات الشرقية؛ واقع وآفاق؛  منشورات كلية الآداب والعلوم الانسانية بالرباط 2004، سلسلة : ندوات ومناظرات رقم 111


Elmedlaoui, Mohamed. (1999) "Les deux ‘al-Maghribiy : Ben Quraysh et as-Samaw'al (un souvenir refoulé par une mémoire sélective). Jewish Identity among Sephardic Jew;s (conference). Dahan Center  for Sephardic Heritage. BIU (Dec. 1999).

Elmedlaoui (2005) "Changement et continuité dans l’ahwash des juifs berbères" Le Matin du Sahara (04 juillet  2005); Maroc.

Elmedlaoui, Mohamed (2006)a “Métrique, rythmes et modes de la chanson amazighe des ‘rways’; un plaidoyer pour la sauvegarde du pentatonisme de la musique marocaine”. Pp. 59-72 in Contribution à l’étude de la Culture Amazighe. En hommage au Recteur Mohamed Chafik. Publication de l’Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe. Rabat 2006


Elmedlaoui, Mohamed (2006)b :

المدلاوي، محمد (2006) "عروض، وطبوع، وإيقاعات أغنية الروايس الأمازيغية (مشروع قاعدة معطيات مؤعددة)". ص91-103 من الأسس الأمازيغية للثقافة المغربية. أشغال الندوة الوطنية التي نظمت بفاس (10-13 مارس 2005) تكريما للعلامة الأستاذ محمد شفيق. منشورات جامعة سيدي محمد بن عبد الله –فاس. سلسلة: مؤتمرات وندوات.


Hassine-Mamane, Lysette (2000) Le Piyyut de David Hassine. Maisonneuve & Larose. Paris

Kapchan, Deborah (2003) "Nashat: The Gender of Musical Celebration in Morocco" in  Magrini, Tullia, editor Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology.

Lakhsassi, Abderrahman (2006) "Pourquoi la langue première  des juifs berbères  n’est pas amazighe". A paper delivered at the International Conference on Morocco Today (Marocco Oggi) organized by the University of Ca’ Foscari Di Venezia (Italy). January 26–28 2006. To appear among the proceedings.

Lorta Jacob, Bernard (1980) Musique et fête au Haut Atlas. Editions Mouton.

Magrini, Tullia 2003, editor; Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology.

Rovsing-Olsen Miriam (1997) Chants et danses de l’Atlas, éd. Cité de la musique / Actes Sud.

Schroeter, Daniel J. (1998) "La découverte des Juifs berbères". Pp. 215-233 in Assaraf & Abitbol, éds. 1998.

Schuyler, Philippe – D. (1979). The music of the Rwayes. University of Washingnton.

Shiloah, Amnon (1995) Les traditions musicales juives. Paris. Maisonneuve & Larose.

Terri Brint, Joseph (1980) ‘Poetry as a strategy of power. The case of Riffian Berber women’, in Signs, 5, 1980, p. 418-434

Zafrani, Haïm (1973) “Le judéo-berbère (langue et littérature). Encyclopédie de l’Islam ; nouvelle édition, Paris 1973, vol. 4, pp. 321-322.




(i)     A paper delivered at MUSIQUES AMAZIGHES ET MUSIQUES DU MONDE: INFLUENCES ET INTERACTION. Colloque organisé, sous le Haut Patronage de Sa Majesté le Roi Mohamed VI, dans le cadre du Festival Timitar-3 (Juillet 2006). Agadir, salle de conférences de la Chambre de Commerce (10 Juillet 2006) and posted since 2006 on the Moroccan British Society’s web-site (http://www.mbs.ma/En/moroccobrit3.htm).


(ii)    See namely: Lorta Jacob 1980, Aydoun 1992, Rovsing Olson 1997, Hoffman 2002.


(iii) In fact, the Berber singing among Berber-Jewish communities immigrated to Israel is not limited to the collective danced singing genre called 'Ahwash'. The genre 'Rways' (See Chottin 1933, Schuyler 1979, Aydoun 1992, Elmedlaoui  2006a,b) is also performed occasionally in a non formal way at the end of some ahwash ceremony cessions by certain amateur 'rays' like Barukh Ben David, from Petah Tikva locality who plays the Souss Berber kind of hurdy-gurdy called 'Rebab'  or late Shalom Swissa from Ber-Sheva, great singer and player of the Souss Berber tetracord called 'Lutar' (see Elmedlaoui 2005).


(iv)    On the conflicting aspects that characterize the Moroccan Jews feeling and sense of identity, see  Elmedlaoui 1995 and Elmedlaoui (1999).


0 Poster un commentaire

Inscrivez-vous au blog

Soyez prévenu par email des prochaines mises à jour

Rejoignez les 330 autres membres