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Poet’s Progress: Flying to Casablanca

Aqueducts, Meknas, Morocco


On March 15, 2007, I made a vow to spend the next ten years studying anything that caught my interest, doing everything I wanted to do, reading everything I wanted to read, seeing everything I wanted to see, traveling everywhere I wanted to travel, and writing my way through the process. I’d talked a lot about—and experimented with—having my life be my artwork, with the writing something that fell from me naturally, like leaves from a tree. But would that story be interesting as writing? Well, it’s still just a theory, so no one knows, and I certainly didn’t at the time I began. But why not give the idea at least ten years of my life? It was the perfect time for me. I wasn’t in a relationship, I lived cheaply, I made more money than I spent.

Actually, at first it was just to be for a year. But at the end of the year I‘d developed a process that created a considerable amount of writing, and at that point the habit was dragging me behind it.  So it just continued. That’s when I began thinking about it as a two-year project.  The first year had produced more material than I’d imagined possible, but would I have enough for another book, two books in two years?  Perhaps it was just a lucky year, beginner’s luck. Anyone can write for a year.

But at the end of the second year I had more material than the first, and the third year more than the second. So a few months before the end of the fourth year it was easy to change from thinking about this as a four-year-plan to a decade-long one. A book a year, from the Ides of March to the Ides of March. The Decalogue, I would call it.

A lot of what I wanted to do involved travel. Last year—year four of the project—was Africa. I spent fifteen days in Morocco in September, and three weeks on safari in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe in December. This year has been Asia: India and Nepal in April; China, Tibet, and Cambodia in October and November.  The only really expensive trip I have left on my list is to travel through Europe by boat, just like they did in the 1700s.

At least for the next year, the column “Poet’s Progress” will focus on my travel writings, beginning with my trip Morocco in September 2010, less than three months before the revolution in neighboring Tunisia. They will continue for nine weeks. Then it’s off to southern Africa, then India, Nepal, China, Tibet, and Cambodia. In April 2012, a friend and  I plan to recreate Ezra’s Pound’s walk through Provence studying the troubadours on its centenary. After that, who knows?

Each column will also feature a few of my photographs and some of the music I’ve discovered during my travels. A track listing and notes for the music will follow the end of every column. But be quick: the written columns with their photos will be archived and available after the week is over, but the music will be replaced each week by a new collection.

I would like to express my appreciation to Darren Carter who has taken the music and that week’s photos and made the videos that accompany each week’s playlists.

Floor Tile, Fes

 September 14, 2010

Row 12, Seats D and E, Royal Maroc Airlines Flight 009, JFK to Casablanca

Flying out of JFK, my connecting flight is late and the plane is over-sold, so I get bumped up to business class, where I sit beside a teenage Muslim girl. I’m reading Paul Bowles. She is reading Zola in French—his longest novel, Germinal. She notices that I am having trouble turning on my overhead light and shows me how to do it by pointing to her own. I first push the wrong button, thinking she is showing me which button to press, but she is pointing to the correct one with her fingertip, the way a model would.

She pulls a fashion magazine out of her bag. The article is written in French and Arabic and English. Every time she comes across an unfamiliar English word, she underlines it and opens her English-Arabic dictionary—then mouths the word under her breath until she finds the right inflection. As she reads, her left hand rises into the air, swimming back and forth. She has two phone numbers written in henna on her left palm which I can see every time she flips her wrist, like a flashcard. It’s as if I’m watching an actor rehearse for a part, imagining herself onstage, tying what she’s saying to a gesture, seeking the correct rhythm and posture and accentuation and tone.

When dinner arrives, she wipes her hands with a Wet Wipe, then eats quickly, her left hand following her right as it brings a piece of bread up to her mouth, covering her mouth as she chews, bent over, face down in her lap. She pulls out a plastic bag with plastic utensils from her bag. She cracks open the plastic wrap and the spoon shoots into the air and lands somewhere between us. We both turn to look for it at the same moment, and she looks up at me, her face very close to mine, and smiles. “It is gone … Insh’allah.” She shrugs and laughs. I laugh out loud and she smiles an even bigger smile and her eyes light up as well.

She’s drinking Coke Light and reading an article about a French fashion show. Although she is dark-skinned, the back of her hands are pale, almost white. She has a gold ring on the middle finger of her right hand. On her left wrist she is wearing a slim black and silver watch and a plastic yellow “Live Strong” bracelet.

She stops to read an article on how to cook a whole goat on a spit. She leaves the magazine open and pulls a journal out of her carry-on. I can see several greeting cards, most of them with roses, and color photographs of watches and bracelets and diamond necklaces cut out of fashion magazines. When she steps into the aisle to open the overhead compartment I can see a thin strip of skin exposed between her jeans and the hem of her brown woolen sweater. She finds a pen and opens her journal and enters something in French, writing right-handed from right to left. The pages are made of graph paper, and she writes on every other line. When she has finished a sentence she goes back to the beginning and re-reads everything, sliding her finger under the words as she reads from right to left, moving her lips as she reads, bent over as if to shield what she has written.

When the man in front of her suddenly drops his seat all the way back, almost crashing into her head, she gasps and sits up quickly, her hands shooting over her head and shrieking, then shrugging her shoulders and rolling her eyes. She gets up and comes back with her iPod, the same strip of muscled belly as she stretches. I can see her hip bones. She brushes her scarf over her ears to put in the earphones, exposing a small silver diamond earring. She searches through her music and I can hear a tenor singing in Italian. Adjusting her earplugs, I can see her fingernails are bitten down to the soft skin, the puffy pads around her nails red and swollen.

The in-flight movie is “Cop Out” and she puts on her headphones and turns it up loud enough that I can almost follow the dialogue. She occasionally giggles and because she’s wearing earphones doesn’t realize how loud she’s laughing—it’s the light happy laugh of a child and everyone around her starts to smile as well.

After dark she falls asleep, her head sliding onto my shoulder. When the lights come on in the morning she sits up, unaware for a moment where she is, then looks up at me and sleepily smiles.

She fills out her customs form, counting out the numbers with her fingers. When she’s finished, she asks me if she can get me anything to drink from the cabin, and looks confused and then genuinely offended when she realizes I’m telling her that I’m not thirsty. “How can you not be thirsty,” she sniffs, turning away, frowning. She gets up and comes back with hot tea, orange juice, and a bottle of water she’s refilled. She puts the cups on her tray and says, “If you want either of these, you can have anything you want.” Then she takes out two paper cups and pours us each a cup of water.

As we get ready to disembark, she pulls down her carry-on bag and takes out a white pork pie hat with a black satin bow and a silver hummingbird clasp. Then she takes out a pair of large round black sunglasses with golden clasps, puts them on and walks onto the tarmac, blinking up into the sun, searching for her family.

Herb Store, Erfoud

Prelude to the Music

I want to note at the onset that I am not an expert on African music. I also want to acknowledge that my taste in non-western music is extremely conservative. In other words, I like music that sounds like music that I like. That’s not a defense, it’s just a fact. But it is important to acknowledge that the music one hears in Africa is much broader than what you will hear here.

When I travel I ask people, “What do you listen to?” Or I show up at music stores and if it’s a slow day (it always is) I have the proprietors play some of their favorite local music for me. This is how I came to first hear much of the music collected in these columns.

I also want to acknowledge that the notes below come from reading about the musicians on-line or in the booklets that come with some of the music I’ve bought. For too many, I have almost no information at all.

These songlists will be available for one week only. I have included information on where to purchase the individual tracks or more like them when I have it. Find out more about these labels and support them and the bands you like by buying their music. I do.

Rest Stop, Rif Mountains, Morocco

 North African Music, Volume I: Number One: Modern Moroccan Music:


Arab-Andalusian Music of the Gharnati Tradition, Ahmed Piro Ensemble with Amina Alaoui, from “Hamdulillah—Fes Festival of World Sacred Music II”; Sounds True.

Amina Alaoui was born in Fes in 1964.  She is a scholar of philology, linguistics, and dance, and as a singer specializes in the ancient musical form known as gharnati (Arabic for Granada). This Andalusian music came to Morocco from Granada in the 15th century when the Spanish persecution of Moslems reached a peak and many of them migrated, particularly to Fes. This traditional music of the Muslim dynasties of medieval Spain was at the time already over 800 years old.

It’s apt to begin with a track from Sounds True, for whom I work, especially one produced by Joel Davis, who has brought—and continues to bring through his Terrasonic Facebook page—an amazing amount of important music from all over the world to anyone interested in hearing it.

Track 2: Syada Ana, Hassan Hakmoun, from “The Gift”; Triloka Records.

Hassan Hakmoun was born in Fes in 1963, and began performing in the streets of Marrakech at the age of four. His mother is a mystical healer and he participated in her derdeba trance ceremonies, all-night rituals where hypnotic rhythms and chanting were performed to exorcise evil spirits. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Hassan were the first two artists signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. Hassan plays the sinter, a 3-stringed long-neck African bass lute. He’s performed at Woodstock ’94, the ’94 WOMAD world tour, and on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. On his CD “The Gift,” over one hundred musicians were used. During those sessions Hakmoun fell in love with one of those one hundred musicians—Grammy-Award winning singer-songwriter Paula Cole—whom he married and with whom he had a son before they divorced.

Track 3: Bab Aadi, Jil Jilala, from ‘The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco”; World Music Network.

Jil Jilala (or the Jilala Generation) was formed in Marrakech in 1972, based on a traditional form of Moroccan music called Malhun—which is sung in ancient Moroccan Arabic—mixed with the spiritual music of the Sufis known as Jilala, also the name of a religious movement in Morocco.

Track 4: Dayamallah, Majid Bekkas, from “Reves d’Oasis: Blues du Desert”; Network Germany.

Majid Bekkas is from Sale, Morocco. He was trained by Ba Houmane, a traditional maalem, or master of Gnawa music. The lyrics of “Dayamallah” are:

God is great
God is eternal
I pray to the Prophet Mohammed
who protects the nation
with a heart full of tenderness
Visiting the holy places
we go on a pilgrimage
Praying to Mohammed, our prophet
Nabina, Nabina, we pray for Nabina

Track 5: Bay-Bay, Najm El Farah Essafi, from “The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco”; World Music Network.

Track 6: Mahmouna, Nass El Ghiwane, “The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco”; World Music Network.

Martin Scorsese described this band as “The Rolling Stones of Morocco.” They formed in 1971 in Casablanca, an outgrowth of an avant-garde political theater group. They were the first chaabi band (one that performs mostly at weddings and festivals) to incorporate western instruments—such as the banjo—and were also deeply influenced by the trance music of gnawa. Their song “Ya Sah” appears in the film “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Track 7: Hamdushi II, Nass Marrakech, from “Bouderbala”; World Village USA.

Nass Marrakech is a gnawa band formed in 1991 that has since incorporated instruments foreign to gnawa music, such as djembe, tam-tam, mandolin, tabla, and Afro-Cuban percussion.

Track 8: Khaliou Loudid Lamimtou, Mustapha Bourgogne, from “The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco”; World Music Network.

Track 9: Dios Miro!, Aziz Brahim & Tarba Bibo, from “Reves d’Oasis: Blues du Desert”; Network Germany.

Aziz Brahim and Tarba Bibo are Sahraui, a people who have been displaced by the Moroccan military in order to confiscate their land (both for its access to offshore fishing grounds and the rich minerals under it) and have settled in refugee camps in southern Algeria. This version of “Dios Miro!” was recorded in a tent. Percussionists without drums, they used the carpet in their tent as their drums. The lyrics are:

My God!
How generous you are with those who follow you!
Richly donating to those who are in need!
We plead humbly to you, our protector, for your blessing
we plead also for your help….

Track 10: Gaibi, Abdy, from “Arabic Groove”; Putamoya.

Abdy was born in Kengari, Morocco. He dropped out of high school to attend music school, where he studied guitar, piano, and oud. He performed for six years in Essimoud, an off-shoot of Nass El-Ghiwane and Jil Jilala, before teaming up with Algeria jazz musician, Outella on his debut album, Gaibi. The lyrics of “Gaibi (My Heart)” are:

Let my cry.
I’ve thrown away the terrible letter.
Let me weep.
You are the reason for my heartache.
My hair has turned grey.
I wear the clothes of mourning.
My heart doesn’t want to settle down.

Track 11: Ana Leh Bamel Keda, Laila Ghofran, from “El Garh Men Naseby”; LamaPower.

Born Jamila Omar Bouamout on March 19, 1961, she performs under the name Laila Ghofran. In 2009, Laila’s daughter was gruesomely murdered along with another girl in Egypt. The fact that her mother was a popular musician took over the story, and the issue of the daughter’s lifestyle came into play, and an official investigation was conducted to prove that she had, in fact, died a virgin, which was apparently more important to the locals than that she was a murder victim.  It was as if being the daughter of a popular musician was enough to make it okay if you were murdered, and if she wasn’t a virgin, probably her fault.

Track 12: Hijra (traditional mix), U-Cef Featuring Dar Gnawa; dargnawa.org; u-cef.halalmonk.com

Dar Gnawa means House of Gnawa. They consist of a group of healers well-known for their purification ceremonies, led by Abdellah El Gourd, who is a master healer and musician born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1947. They have recorded with jazz great Archie Shepp. U-Cef was born in Rabat, Morocco, and is a drummer, producer, and a DJ known as The Moroccan Digitalizer.

Tile Fountain, Riad Salam Hotel, Casablanca


Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.


One thought on “Poet’s Progress: Flying to Casablanca

  1. I loved this journal entry. It so beautifully captured the cross cultural aspects of your encounter, yet maintaining the differences. I like, also, how you managed to create an entire relationship in just a few moments, and in a few paragraphs. Can’t wait to read more. The music is also a gift you’re kindly sharing with us readers. Thanks for opening the world a little wider.

    Posted by peacereader | October 18, 2011, 6:19 am

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