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Rhythms of the Mahgreb

Pete Lockett looks at the Rhythms of the Mahgreb and how to clap properly

Most people have quite a vague idea of the specifics of African drumming. If you were asked what the distinction is between North African and Central/Southern drumming, what would you answer? Would you group all African drumming under one umbrella? As we will see from this article, the drumming of North Africa is very different indeed from the rest of Africa.  The Maghreb is the name given to the five Northern African states, namely Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and Libya. (We’ll look at Egypt a little later.) The word actually means ‘sunset’ in Arabic. The sun sets in the west and therefore, for the Arabic people, the Northern African mainland is in the west; hence, the Maghreb. If you look at a map of Africa you will realise that there is one very important landmark separating these North African countries from the rest of Africa. The Sahara desert, although the perfect place for opening up a speculative ice cream shop, is not ideal for travelling across, camel or not.

For centuries North Africa has been invaded by many diverse cultures. The influence these invasions has had on the countries is enormous and is reflected in the shaping of, amongst other things, the music and percussion. Central and Southern Africa were not invaded in the same fashion because of the shielding and uncompromising desert.  The Berber people were the native in­habitants of Maghreb, and the Berber language still survives today. (For example, one fifth of the population of Algeria speak it while the majority speak Arabic.) Before looking at the music, it is important to realise that these countries have experienced rule from cultures as diverse as French, Roman, Turkish, Arabic and Spanish. Phoenicians and Carthaginians traded with Berbers but never managed to penetrate inland. Romans found them unconquerable and gave them the name Berbers. Berbers called themselves ‘Imazighen’, which means ‘The free men’. It is these eclectic influences that primarily differentiate Maghreb from Africa. The northern part of the Maghreb really is far more South Mediterranean than it is African. Egypt is the one exception in North Africa, being so close to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the general Gulf that is predomin­antly Middle Eastern and Oriental. The southern part, however, is far more African. West African inf­luence is very strong, particularly in the south.

It is often thought that Andalucian music necessarily includes Flamenco. This overlooks the fact that a form of Andalucian music exists in Maghreb. In 711 Spain was invaded by Berbers and Arabs who stayed there until 1492. This period was known as Andalucian Spain. The Arabs of Spain, with influences from Baghdad, Iraq, formulated the beginnings of Andalucsan music. During the Fourteenth Century the Andalucian Muslim and Jewish population were thrown out of Spain and returned to North Africa. This music then became the classical music of Maghreb, and is the style of music in which one is most likely to find odd timings. The construction of the odd timings is not repetitive like in a lot of East European and Middle Eastern music, but presents itself in the juxtaposition of odd and even length bars.

Running alongside this we also get the folkloric tradition, utilising the more common 4/4, 6/8 and 12/8 timings. Simple as this may sound, it is anything but. The rhythms are actually extremely difficult because of their elusive off-beat placement of strategic notes in the bar. The most common misconception is to hear it backwards or in the wrong place. For example, check ex 1 and 2 for the basic four and six beat rhythmic frameworks (called chaabi, simply translating into ‘popular music’ in Arabic). Notice how the bass note is on beat four in the four beat version. Also notice how the six beat rhythm resembles the four beat in its general shape. This framework could be compared to the two basic Afro-Cuban structures of Martillo (for bongos) and basic Tumbao (as played on the tumba, for example, in Rumba). The African influence is unmistakable from this comparison alone.


Now look at Examples 3 and 4. (It is what Examples 1 and 2 would look like if you were hearing them backwards.)


These rhythms are the basic back­bone of a lot of the drumming found in the Maghreb. The patterns are usually built up by keeping the basic framework and decorating it with ruffs and ornaments in the gaps (musically, not incessantly). It’s not quite as simple as that, but one could say that it was a rough synopsis.

The drums of the Maghreb come in many shapes and sizes, and bear a lot more resemblance to their Middle Eastern counterparts than they do to their African. We’re going to begin by looking at a traditional Berber instrument called the bendir. The bendir is a frame drum made from wood and covered with animal hide. The qualification for a frame drum is basically any drum in which the shell is less deep than the head is wide. The wood for these drums is often bent, usually quite thin. Inside the head of the bendir are a number of thin strands which stretch across the inside of the head, causing a vibration not dissimilar to a snare drum when the head is hit. For maximum effect the head needs to be thin whilst the snares are not too thin. Drums such as the snared bendir are rarely found anywhere else in the Middle East because it is a traditional Berber instrument dating centuries.

The chaabi rhythm is often played on the bendir which, like many Maghreb percussion instruments, can be played one-handed. It is held with one hand with the drum head angled downwards, almost facing the floor. The basic rhythms are articulated by using a full-handed open note and a full-handed soft slap closed note. It is only rarely that the bendir is played on the rim, apart from some notes from the hand supporting the drum.
Krakeb, or kakabou (metal castanets), are also essential as building blocks of the rhythm. Heavy metal beaters shaped like double-ended spoons are held, two in each hand, and beaten together, usually contributing a strong semi-quaver level pulse to the groove. The Sufi group most commonly known for using these are the Gnawa. They go around to people’s houses on request and play music for them all night, wiith the intention of healing and trancing them.

The darabuka is another essential percussion instrument in the Maghreh. Traditionally made from clay, goblet shaped and with a fish skin head. The body of the drum is fat at the top, tapering down into a thinner cylinder for most of the length of the shell. The drum is sometimes held between the legs but more often is supported on the thigh and held in place by the forearm in such a way as to allow the hand to come over the top into a position to strike. Sometimes the drum is held on the shoulder or between the legs. It is the first of these three positions which is most common in Maghreb. The drums are imported from Egypt, especially the new alumin­ium, tuneable variety. Anyone who has ever been present at an Algerian or North African concert will be aware of the enthusiastic audience response of getting involved and clapping on the beat in very much the same way as with Qwali music from North India. An authentic clap from this part of the world is quite astonishing, and not easy to copy. By cupping the hands into a particular shape and striking in a particular way, you can hear and feel the air being caught between the two striking hands. The movement of the arms also appears quite important, being quite relaxed and flowing. Traditionally it’s common for groups of people to get together and start clapping. (Similar again to the Spanish tradition) One possible juxtaposition of patterns is given in Example 5 for four people. It is similar to the Cuban bata drum approach of Santeria, which we must not forget also has African roots.

This rhythm is also sometimes played on small drums called tarija. The tarija is a small clay drum shaped like a thin cylinder which splays out at the top and has a skin at this end. It is held with the left hand, the skin angled slightly towards the floor. It is hit with the finger of the other hand. These ensemble drums come in slightly different sizes, thus giving each drum in the ensemble a different pitch. Another drum found in Algeria is the guellal, a drum made from a piece of piping with a skin affixed at one end around the natural bulge of the pipe joint. (Don’t forget, pipes were around as long ago as the Romans, if not longer). There is also a snare which is affixed inside this head. This is the original drum found in Rai music from Algeria. Rai is a youth music dating back to the 1970s; it comes from a folk music called wahrani or le genre oranis. Rai was a music which started to address everyday people’s feelings and emotions through its lyrics. This was a leap ahead from previous, largely religious lyrics Modern Rai music has moved on to include instruments such as the drum kit (a multi-pronged, many headed and peculiar instrument too complex to be encompassed in this short article) and other standard Western instruments. There is one important thing to mention about the way the rhythms — as played on the drum kit — get turned around because of the nature of the traditional music.
For example, let’s take a basic four beat pattern in ex 6.

Now on the kit, the Africans would play this as the basis of the groove (ex 7)

We, with our presuppositions, could end up hearing it as this: (ex 8)

With the knowledge of this, some musicians omitted the first snare of each bar, thus reducing the rhythm to half time but giving it a back beat whilst retaining the natural feel of the music: (ex 9)

At the end of the day, the music is very similar in many ways to Qwali music from North India. It is compelling and draws you into its infectious grooves and melodies. I recommend that you go and listen to some.  Here are a few CDs to get you started:

Cheikha Remitti, LesRacinesDn Rai (Rai Roots 929742 DK 061)

Bellemou Messaoud, Le Pere Du Red (WC DOll)

Khaled, N’SSIN’SSI(519898-2 900)

Houria Aichi, Songs 0/The Aures (Audidis Distribution B6749)

Tabours Du Maroc, Drums 0/Morocco (Aadar Al Sur)



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