Music

Time Traveling with Musical Recordings from Mid-20th-Century Morocco

In 1959, Paul Bowles traveled around Morocco with an audio recording device to capture a cultural moment he knew was on the verge of disappearing.

Paul Bowles's VW bug along a Morocco mountain road, with a small group (image courtesy Dust-to-Digital / Library of Congress)
Paul Bowles’s VW bug along a Morocco mountain road, with a small group (image courtesy Dust-to-Digital / Library of Congress)

Always without formulating the concept, I had based my sense of being in the world partly on an unreasoned conviction that certain areas of the earth’s surface contained more magic than others. Had anyone asked me what I meant by magic, I should probably have defined the word by calling it a secret connection between the world of nature and the consciousness of man, a hidden but direct passage which bypassed the mind. Like any Romantic, I had always been vaguely certain that sometime during my life I should come into a magic place which in disclosing its secrets would give me wisdom and ecstasy—perhaps even death. And now, as I stood in the wind looking at the mountains ahead, I felt the stirring of the engine within, and it was as if I were drawing close to the solution of an as-yet-unposed problem.

—Paul Bowles, Without Stopping: An Autobiography

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If you’re unfamiliar with Paul Bowles and hoping to get a primer, this article will only lead you further astray. It won’t help you understand his writing style, composing quirks, or cultural significance. Instead, it’s an appeal for the value of winding, irregular melodies and enigmatic rhythms. It’s a defense of the love of dust. And also a strong recommendation that you track down this collection of music and figure out how to make it work for you.

Sometimes the best way into something completely unfamiliar and complex is to try to get a picture of how it operates on a purely mechanical level. For example, here’s Paul Bowles — in 1970 and under the deluded impression that he’s European — describing the way that Moroccan folk music, like the material collected in this box set, is best enjoyed:

It’s not required that you slice yourself while listening to this majestically packaged four-CD set of recordings, but as you launch these digital treasures from your hard drive or cloud or compact disc machine, keep in mind that the folk music performances captured by Paul Bowles in 1959 — and collected here by Dust-to-Digital as Music of Morocco — were recorded on ¼-inch reel-to-reel tape, on an Ampex 601.

That is a “portable” audio recording device that weighs 26 pounds, before the addition of a microphone or a power supply to the package.

Hand-drawn map by Paul Bowles, showing his itinerary through Morocco in 1959, aboard a VW Beetle, filled with recording equipment, supplies, and recording team (image courtesy Dust-to-Digital / Library of Congress)
Hand-drawn map by Paul Bowles, showing his itinerary through Morocco in 1959, aboard a VW Beetle, filled with recording equipment, supplies, and recording team (image courtesy Dust-to-Digital / Library of Congress)

Think about that while looking at Bowles’s hand-drawn map of his six-month journey. Imagine the elevation it doesn’t articulate in any detail, the amount of dust, the stamina of the kinds of automobiles that existed in the 1950s and might have made their way to Africa, and the conversations and negotiations and setup that must have been involved in producing each individual recording. The resulting audio quality is astounding. It takes you, right now, at least 66 years back in time to a cultural moment that Bowles knew was on the verge of disappearing, and immerses you in it so vividly that you can almost smell it. Close your eyes; feel yourself jostled among a curious, generous crowd, gathered under the open sky to watch neighbors and cousins play and sing around a strange, earnest little white man and his bizarre, clunky machine.

Double horn group by building (image courtesy Dust-to-Digital / Library of Congress)
Double horn group by building (image courtesy Dust-to-Digital / Library of Congress)

Everything on these tapes is immediate and alive and true: there are chickens, laughter, a car motor unable to turn over, thunder in the background sometimes. You know nothing has been manipulated here. Neither Bowles nor Dust-to-Digital is trying to conform this collection to you — to your needs, to a market’s desires for a structure of passive listening. This is improv and ethnography pure and simple. The tape is rolling until it or the performance stops. Bowles was, and now we are, just along for the ride.

It’s worth stepping back from this to reflect on who Bowles is in our art pantheon. He’s not an ethnomusicologist or a famous field-recording engineer like Harry Smith. He’s not even best known for his musical compositions. In descending order, what he’s probably recognized for most frequently is 1) being part of a milieu that included William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gertrude Stein, and Tennessee Williams; 2) writing the novel The Sheltering Sky, which people often complain is a very difficult read; 3) being one half of an openly queer couple with Jane Bowles.

The Tangier Group (William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg) (image courtesy Allen Ginsberg Estate / Dust-to-Digital)
The Tangier Group (William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg) (image courtesy Allen Ginsberg Estate / Dust-to-Digital)

But he actually was a serious recording engineer, you’ll find, when you read the extensive Music of Morocco liner notes. These naturalistic-sounding recordings were in fact very contrived. He made musicians come to him, wherever he could get electrical power. He moved them around so that the sounds he liked best would be most dominant in the recordings. He fought with local and regional officials to record instruments the way he wanted, not the way they wanted them recorded. He was crafting sound as meticulously as he crafted language, and so this is not simply an extraordinary documentation — it’s also another route into this artist’s work. One that’s desperately needed if we are to understand his work in any vividness or depth.

Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo describes a common first encounter with Bowles’s writing:

I slogged through 40, 60, 90 pages, really having to push myself to keep at it as it was somehow not what I imagined it would be. …. I slogged ahead nonetheless. Then, somewhere past 100 pages, the book wrapped its fingers around my head like kif smoke swirling from the bowl of a sebsi, and grabbed tight. The book opened up a world and a vision that astounded me. Suddenly Bowles’s voice became clear, his tone, his stance—a crystal of a story. The rest of it through to the end came at me with the undescribable rush of something very new and wonderful opening up, a new world to explore in great depth. Suddenly it was over too soon …

There is somehow, always, a mystical or psychic blur between audiences and Bowles’s work.

Music of Morocco (image courtesy Dust-to-Digital)
Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959 (image courtesy Dust-to-Digital)

So it’s bit of an uphill battle to find your way in, but a worthwhile one. Because once you’re on the other side of the wall, amid the swirling sounds (or language, in the case of his writing), there is an unearthly sharpness and clarity: a hypnotizing world with an intricate amount of detail has sprung up around you, and you can lose yourself in it to a degree bordering on what we hope for from VR. Only the orientation cues are polyrhythms and unnamable intonations, not high-resolution pixelation.

Music of Morocco is a time machine in a box. It takes you to a place you could otherwise never go, thanks to the meticulous work of a mastercraftsman.

Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959 is released by Dust-to-Digital.

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