Venturing into a foreign land requires a tweaking of your playlist.  You can’t know a place except through the musical traditions of the people there.  

Music connects people, and you will find that Moroccans–or others in the the Arab world–love to introduce you to their favorite songs and artists.  Talking about music is a great icebreaker! Listening to it is so much fun!

Three years ago, I taught a class on “The Middle East and North Africa.”  I did not want the class to be just event history, a crises generated by heads of state.  This would not get at the heart of the lives of ordinary people.

I played a music video every week for fifteen weeks.   The song exposed students to the musical culture in the Arab world. It also introduced them to images of Arabs that contradicted US media depictions of regional strife and victimized women. I joked that my students would come away from my class prepared for a night out in any dance club in the Arab world!

I have compiled a list of some favorite songs from Morocco and Algeria.  I am fifty-two years old, so my clubbing days are far in the past. That said, my list does include a few more recent hits, songs that interest “kids today.”

This playlist should keep you going for a 2 ½ hour drive from Rabat to Fez!

Some Classics: Everyone in Morocco will recognize these songs, and old timers will tell stories about the music and lyrics, imprinted in their DNA.

The band Nass el Ghiwane of Morocco contributed to shaabi traditions of musical expression, that is a popular form of music.  Formed in the 1970s, the band spoke of angst among ordinary Moroccans. In the song “Ah Ya Ween” (Oh Where Are We), you get a sense of how a traditional rhythm is updated, with, for example, the plucking of modern banjos.   

Umm Kulthum is a musical goddess whose name evokes memories of revolutionary Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, when President Gamel Abdel Nasser exercised pan-Arab, anti-colonial influence throughout the region. Evoking her name and perhaps singing a few lines of her “Al Atlal” (The Ruins) will give you street cred among an older generation of people.

Warda al-Jazairiyya, or “The Rose of Algeria,” made a career for herself in Egypt in the late-1960s and 1970s.   She has the best sing-along music of all time. I learned the words to “Harmt Ahabk” when I first studied Arabic.    A song with a lot of pathos—You don’t love me! Let me live!—women with whom I gather always join in if I start to sing a line from this classic.   

Idir is an Algerian musician who comes from a Berber village in Kabylia and sings in an Amazigh dialect.  “Zwit Rwit” was a big hit in the 1970s. In the 1980s, a Berber nationalist movement threatened the Algeria’s stability (as well as a host of other political and economic conditions).  Idir then teamed with Arab music sensation Khaled on an Algerian variety show to show how the two languages and cultural traditions work best together.

Raï: Raï means “My Opinion”, and this music was a popular form of political expression in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in Algeria.  I came of age listening to some of this music as well as pop songs from the Levant.

Khaled was not the first Raï singer of his era, but he is the most successful.  I saw the so-called “King of Raï” perform in an open-air theater near Tunis in 1996 and, again, four years later, at a packed stadium in Casablanca.  “Didi” was his break out song, and the lyrical “Aicha” a massive global hit.

Rachid Taha remade the song “Ya Rayah” (O, Traveler) in 1993, and it exudes social angst.  Many Algerians, like other North Africans, felt compelled to find jobs overseas in order to make the living required to care for their families.  This song oozes with the heartbreak and disconnection experienced by these immigrants, who lose their sense of belonging.

Cheba Fedela and Cheb Sahraoui’s may not be “visionaries” like Khaled and Rachid Taha, but this Algerian Raï duo—husband and wife—produced “N’sel Fik” (You are Mine), one of the sexiest songs in the world in the 1980s.

Cheb Mammi sung one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs of the Raï era in the 1980s and 1990s.  “Douha Alia” embodies a longing so strong, you want to walk along the Mediterranean Sea and weep for past loves and days gone by.  “Melli Melli” is another hit, a more spritely tune than “Douha Alia,” and Cheb Mammi also collaborated with Sting on “Desert Rose.”

Modern Pop Songs: Luckily, my best friend Aicha has a daughter in her mid-twenties, and she has kept me up to date on some present-day songs.  

Babylone is an Algerian band, and their 2012 song “Zina” is gorgeous.

Fnaïre is a Moroccan hip hop group formed about eighteen years ago, and now so successful that they have played for King Mohamed VI.  “Yed el Henna” offers an offbeat rhyme that promotes Moroccan nationalism.

Sherine is a Big Deal in today’s pop world.  She and Nelly did a popular mash up for Coke Studio programming in 2013.  No matter how hard I try, I cannot sing along with Sherine as she sings “Just a Dream” with Nelly.

Oum sings in a plaintive wailing that reminds me of my days in Mauritania, where women wrapped in melaffas could hit deep notes for days.  “Taragalte” is an ode to a town bordering the Sahara Desert, and it, like Fnaire, repackages a traditional conception of Moroccan identity.      

What songs have I left out!  I want to download more music! Please leave a comment if you know a great tune that should be added to the list!

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