The Marrakesh Folk Festival

While Morocco (the country, not me) is simply a gorgeous place to visit at just about any time of the year, the only time an ethnic dance freak should go is during the fabulous Marrakesh folk festival. To go at any other time is simply wasting it, dancewise, that is, for several reasons.

  1. If you think you’re going to see top quality Oriental dance in Morocco at this point in history, forget it. In any Islamic country, public performances by a woman, especially as a dancer are looked on as a very serious breach of honor / reputation not only for herself, but for her entire family. Therefore, any woman who would become a dancer, unless she comes from a “show biz” family, is usually desperately poor and alone in the world. There are very few exceptions.
  2. Dancers in Morocco do not earn that much money in comparison with the local economy, whereas in Egypt, when there was still a great Oriental dance scene, the difference, even for a 4th class dancer, was enormous. Therefore, there is not much of an incentive to break social taboos for Moroccan women.
  3. Not that there are all that many places to see Oriental dance. Most are primarily for tourists, who are condescendingly assumed to know zilch about real Raks Sharki and are therfore thrown the cheapest available (or the manager’s mistress!). Places that cater to locals make female entertainers do “consummation” — sit and drink with customers. Not much incentive for art. This isn’t true for Oriental dance in the top clubs and hotels in Cairo.
  4. However real Moroccan Berber dance is the most varied and beautiful of all the North African / Near Eastern dance traditions that is still intact for the most part.
  5. The only time that you could see the majority of these dances at one time in one place was during the fabulous Marrakesh Folk Festival, when real Berber tribes accepted the honor of the King’s invitation to represent their particular Berber nation and its own dance in full ceremonial dress.
  6. Otherwise, you would have had to spend years finding out when each particular Nation was having its festival, where it was being held, how to get there, would you be allowed anywhere near it, etc. This the REAL “tribal” dancing / ceremonies. Unfortunately, at the moment, it appears as if the Marrakesh Folk Festival is over.

I am about to describe a few of the goodies that would have unfolded before your very eyes if you were smart / fortunate enough to have attended the Folk Festival in Marrakesh with me.

The bus leaves us at the entrance to the old Badia Palace grounds and we camp out with our box suppers to be first in line when the doors open and to drink in the atmosphere while it is still light out. Moroccans think storks are good luck and many of them have taken up residence in the old turrets along the crumbling walls. The young stork cries out for food and the parents deliver. How often do we get the opprtunity to see that in the U.S.?! Their nests are tremendous and the young birds are bigger than my fat, pampered Persian cats.

Beautiful big-eyed Moroccan children gather around and stare at us. Who are we? Not Moroccan — that’s for sure; but we do not dress or act like the usual tour groups.

“Hey Ahmed, look here, this is better than TV!”

They come closer, stare harder, giggle. We stare back and smile. (Moroccan mothers expect their children to get dirty at play and don’t mind it as much as Western neat-freaks, because some parents believe the evil eye will pass them by as a result, letting them live, and take, instead, the clean, rich, foreign children. Unfortunately, since dirt breeds germs, the opposite often occurs. Folk mores are not always correct.)

We share fruit from our dinner boxes. I go to a small cart selling fruit and buy a kilo or two of apricots to give away. The police have no feeling for international friendship and understanding and chase the kids away. It does not phase the children in the least. As soon as the cop turns his back they reappear, as if by magic. We all giggle, caught in the same conspiracy of people -to- people against bureaucracy.

Sunset: the birds flying in flocks almost kamikaze at a few befuddled German tourists on their way back to their nesting in the turrets and our street urchins run home to mama.


The nerve of those other tourists. They saw us standing / sitting at the gate and try to push in ahead, but I’ve warned my little duckies and we form a flying wedge. I have the tickets and my Press Credentials at the ready (which comes in handy from time to time), and everyone has dirhams ready to buy a souvenir program, if one is available. (Under the category of “insha’Allah”, some years there are programs of sorts for sale, other years, not..)

I maneuver for the best seats possible and we pile in like the army of occupation. Vendors squeeze in between knees and chair backs, selling ice cream, sticky buns, hot tea, cold sodas. They never have change, so I horde small coins for just this occasion.

Get your cameras ready, powder the head of that bald guy sitting in front of you, so the gleam from his dome doesn’t white out your photos. Fix skirts so you don’t get a full tail of splinters from the seats.


Look straight ahead: a big bonfire and gorgeous horses with Berber riders. The booming sounds of tremendous Berber drums. Announcements in French and English:

“Messiers et Mesdames, bienvenus a le Festival Folklorique de Marrakech”(“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Folklore Festival of Marrakesh”)

Big banks of lights go on. The stage is humongous. It is set up over what was once the pool of the great Badia Palace and is at least five times the size of an Olympic swimming pool. We can see shadowy figures: hundreds of people huddled in tents at the sides of the stage, shrouded in mystery. The riders on their dancing horses advance to the front.

The Festival has begun!

Each year they choose some sort of loose “theme” for the Festival: a Berber wedding, the path of Islam, tribute to women (love to see THAT carried into real life!), circumcision party, etc. It doesn’t matter. Any excuse is a good one for a celebration. It is gratifying to see that a lot of Moroccans are in the audience, there to see their own dances and Folkloric traditions.

I’ve noticed that where the French colonized, they (the French) exploited the area economically and were racist, but they left the folk traditions — music, dance, dress, customs — alone. The British Raj bureaucrats, on the other hand, could not keep their hands off of anything and succeeded in making the local population ashamed of their “backward” clothing, music, dance, etc.

Perhaps this is why most Egyptians or Lebanese “folkloric” groups look like Moscow or Hollywood -on -the – Nile; Moroccan and Tunisian groups, no matter how large, do not — because they usually do the dances for real without adding obvious ballet or baloney.

My favorite theme is when they pretend it’s a wedding of a girl from one Berber nation with a boy from another!

What a sight! Under moonlight, as well as spotlights, with muted voices singing, more riders on horses visible in the background, the young bride and groom are on the opposite sides of the stage, being prepared and dressed according to their local traditions, which differ greatly from region to region and tribe to tribe. This year the “bride” is supposed to be from the Ait Hadidou (Ait means tribe or nation), who live on the upper plateaus of the Assif Melloul in the High Atlas.

While all the dancing is going on, the bride will have her hands and feet hennaed, her hair done in elaborate style, wear much jewelry and her striped cape and hood will be slipped over her head and shoulders. She will be placed in a small, enclosed sedan chair and be carried around to various parts of the stage in an elaborate procession.

At the same time, on the other side of the stage, the young “groom” will have his head shaven, his feet washed, his head wound with a beautiful wrap and a wide blue ghandura will be slipped over his head. He will meet the bride’s father at center stage and symbolically exchange rifles with him; then both males will meet the guests, receive presents, and present the dowry. (All this goes on between dances or as intros to the dances.)

The Rais or leader glides back and forth in front of the long line of men, who stand shoulder to shoulder across the vast stage. His beautiful, full white burnoose is lined in black and flares out around his ankles as he beats his bendir, urging them to greater energy and enthusiasm. His movement is so smooth, it seems as if he’s on wheels. His men and women are all in white, swaying back and forth, bobbing to and fro, turning and snaking as one, all the time drumming complicated rhythms on their Bendirs.

The marvelous Gnaouas are even more adept and spectacular on a large stage than they were close up at the “Es Saadi Casino” or the “El Morocco”. Just imagine excellent Ukrainian – style leaping with deep knee bends and jump-splits accompanied by the beat of large drums instead of balalaikas. While executing all these pyrotechnical acrobatics, the dancers play large clappers, called “karaksh” and keep the large tassels on the top of their skull caps twirling at the same time!

These are the descendents of the Ghanaian and Senegalese slaves, who managed to escape as they were being transported across Africa to be shipped to the New World. They are as much in demand for their skill as exorcists as they are as entertainers, and they have their own trance dance, which is never done for public audiences.

The girls and women of Imin Tanout stand shoulder to shoulder on one side, the men, likewise, on the other side, meeting each other in the middle. The men beat bendirs and sing. Women’s voices answer them in the half-light.

In their best attire, glittering with spangles and silver jewelry, the women step forward and back, swaying gracefully, their feet beating the rhythm on the floor, chests heaving up and down, making the heavy breast plates bounce and jiggle in precise rhythm with the music, swinging their linked arms back and forth, up and down, going into a circle in front of the men and sinking to their knees again, arms pumping up and down, coins on the breast plates jingling. They retreat back into their line.

It is now the men’s turn. Arms linked across their chests, their turbans weave and bob, knees bend and release as if in a human caterpillar ride, feet stamping in unison. The Ahouache.

Only the unmarried men and women of the Ait M’Gouna take part in this dance — the Kela’a — because it is their only socially acceptable form of flirting and looking each other over. Married women are prohibited from the Kela’a.

They wear braided wigs in a style much resembling the Ouled Nail or the Lady of Elche, and very beautiful, elaborate, colorful headdresses that reminded me of Ukrainian female headdresses. They wear very large amber necklaces and long tasseled belts over their kaftans; a black wrap over one shoulder completes the girls’ dress. The men are in white dishdashas and djellabas with white turbans.

The dance master (or Rais) in the center calls out the figures of the dance with his body language and bendir, making sure that the groups never actually touch. They face each other in lines, cross over and around each other in quick, forward steps and large backward strides. With arms linked across their chests, they form squares and circles, lines and crosses: all gaiety and enthusiasm. (Their town is on the Casbah road between Ourzazate and Tinneghir.)

A blue and white robed acapella male choir masses and fills the night air with hauntingly sweet melodies. This is when the groom and bride’s father exchange the ritual rifles and stand front and center to receive the dowry and presents. The chorus is supposed to represent the groom’s friends and male relatives of the bride and groom.

The strange dance of the Ait Hadidou is comprised of participants standing shoulder to shoulder, alternating male and female, clapping, playing bendirs and singing. At various points in the music, every other couple bends their knees slowly, until they are about a foot lower than their neighboring couple and, on the beat, pops up simultaneously, like jack-in-the-boxes. The other couples then do likewise.

The men wear long burnooses and turbans. The women wear white striped capes with pointed hoods called “handiras”. Elaborate silver ornaments and tassels adorn the hoods. Heavy amber beads hang from their necks. Their cheeks are rouged in deliberately artificial doll-like circles, black or red lightning streaks painted at the corners of their eyes. It amazed me that such a simple dance could be so intense and fascinating: like waiting for a cobra to strike.

For the Dekka of Marrakesh, craftsmen and merchants form an unusual orchestra of ceremonial greeting. Holding clay drums of various sizes, the small drums are held in one hand and played with the other. Some have tremendous karaksh in both hands, or blow long brass claxons.

Simple, somewhat solemn rhythms start the ritual. Beats accelerate, with low and high-pitched sounds mingling, voices rise in a powerful chorus. Long claxons join in. The rhythm changes several times, without a break. It is a disciplined outburst of ecstasy that has a magic all its own. For some deep, unexplained reason, it always makes me cry.

The Houara. Ah, the Houara. This is the dance that most definitely and clearly shows shows the roots of Flamenco (fellah al mengu).

The group forms a long line of men with one or two women at the end. Three men sit on the ground and play bendirs. A fourth plays an old tire iron with two long nails, da-ba-ra-ba-dum, da-ba-ra-ba-dum. They sing in unison.

At various points in the rhythm two men break away from the line, run front and center and do frantic and intricate footwork, beating the ground in elaborate rhythms, leaping into the air once or twice, then running back into the line as if nothing happened. This repeats five or six times during the dance, feet beating ever more complicated rhythms.

Then a man comes running from one end of the line, a woman from the other. They cross and turn to face each other doing the most complicated footwork so far, while the woman flings the front panels of herd’fina to and fro, exactly as a Flamenco dancer would work her ruffled skirts. Then they both leap high into the air twice and disappear into the line as if nothing happened.

Sometimes this woman will put one of the men’s daggers under her d’fina, holding the cord away from her body, swaying her hips as she does her footwork, as if she were riding a horse and holding the reins. Both the man and woman do abrupt, arm-propelled turns: vueltas quebradas in their original form.

There are the young acrobats: Ouled Sidi Ahmed Ou Moussa, the brotherhood of the saint ofTazeroualt, whose shrine is located to the south of the Anti-Atlas.

Originally, young boys performed these exercises to train themselves to become members of the brotherhood of archers and shooters upon maturity. With the disappearance of the warrior brotherhoods, they cultivated acrobatics as a means of livelihood and now provide acrobats for the circuses of Europe and America.

The costumes have remained unchanged throughout the centuries: red with blue and green enbroidery and appliques. They form pyramids and towers and bend into impossible positions. My back hurts just watching them.

From Zagora men dressed in white perform a sabre dance. A small square drum provides the rhythm while two men face each other in front of the massed group, shouting wildly, striking and brandishing their swords menacingly, twirling and kneeling. They are very macho, but delicate and graceful at the same time.

Another dance is almost exactly like the sword dance, but with bendirs instead of weapons played aggressively at each other by the two male participants, banged along the floor, etc. In this dance, one or two women will come out and dance between the two men flirtatiously, as if she/they were the reason for this simulated duel.

From the Taza region, brown robed Ghiatas are the celebrated warriors. Holding flintlock rifles, they dance to the music of drums and musettes in long snaking lines. They simulate charges, point the rifles at an imaginary enemy — playing with them as if they were toys, balancing them on their heads, swinging them from the tips, holding them overhead and behind their backs, circling around the stage, stamping rhythmically or hopping on one foot, strutting in an exaggerated march. They bring their rifles to their shoulders, point them toward the sky and, at a signal from the leader, fire a powder charge. Even though I know what is coming, I still jump from my seat!

The Brothers of Boujemaa: this is a deliberate staged entertainment, a tradition rather than actual folklore, done with 211b. flintlock rifles by two men. It involves juggling the rifles back and forth and doing elaborate passes, twirling them as if they were featherweight batons. They wear red silk shalvarwith white stripes down the side and white shirts.

Again, a war dance in which only men take part, from Oujda. Dressed in white ghanduras and turbans, they hold each other by the arms, as if glued together and punctuate their song with a perpetual to and fro movement. This dance seems to signify the indissoluble unity which must bind the tribal warriors in the face of the enemy. These men constitute an insuperable barrier. They have become a single body, a single will, animated by the same rhythm.

The Taskouine dance from the Seksoua tribe is another male war dance: dressed in white with crossed bandoliers and tassseled powder kegs slung prominently over one shoulder. They beat out the rhythm on small hand-drums, standing shoulder to shoulder facing the audience. Then they turn and snake around in Indian file. Rapid up and down shaking of the shoulder with the powder keg is followed by sudden halts, punctuated by foot stomping in perfect unison. It is frank, powerful, athletic, without any pretense of sophistication.

The Ait Bougemaz is the only tribe that hires a professional musician for their ritual: a flute player, dressed in a green robe with a pointed hood. Reminds me of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He stays mainly in the center of the circle with the Rais and bendir players. The dancers hop and kick into the circle, then to the outside, scurrying in their backless babouches.

From Ouarzazate, the Ahouache dancers of Pasha Glaoui, musicians as well as dancers, are almost entirely women. Wearing draped, colorful haiks over rich kaftans and d’finas, attached at the shoulders by fibulae, they face each other in lines.

Holding small clay drums in one hand, and a couple of larger drums and bendirs, they strike these instruments in complex rhythms as they move forward and back, as in an American square dance. Two women break away from each line and, shoulders quivering smoothly and constantly, turn and begin to gravitate towards the center of the stage, where they face each other briefly, incline their heads as if to acknowledge their mutual presence and return to their original places in the line, shoulders still quivering like bird’s wings.

Sometimes one of the four featured dancers is a man, in which case he would do quick maneuvers with two daggers. He and his partner would fall on their backs, in what has in America been misnamed the“Turkish” drop, while he continues to brandish the daggers over his own body. These rituals are repeated four times, while the circle of dancers around them continues singing and dancing the basic step.

After this dance, the bride, now seated in her open sedan chair, is carried around the stage several times, while all the previous and coming dancers mass around her. Some of them carry large dolls, dressed in kaftans and held up on sticks — to divert evil spirits from the bride.

The lights dim. There is a spotlight on the stage-left corner: Black women dressed in fabulous black haiks, with elaborate silver jewelry hanging over their forheads and on their chests stand waiting. A Black man in a large blue ghandura starts a gliding, circling dance in front of the line of four of these beautiful women. He holds a cord at arm’s length, from which an elaborate silver dagger dangles. He dips, glides, turns.

One of the women glides forward, shoulders quivering constantly, arms slightly out from her body, palms facing up. She too dips and glides, first towards him, then away. Her shoulders never falter, never stop. Finally she stays in one place long enough for him to drop the cord with the dagger over her head and around her neck. They are now engaged. She continues her gliding, quivering movements. He slowly kneels before her beauty.

In giving his dagger, he has offered his love and protection. By allowing it, she accepts him. These are people of Tissint, south of Agadir. They also do the Ahouache in their village, but choose to present thisbetrothal ritual as performed at their marriages.

In the dark behind the spotlight, the compelling beat of the Guedra drum is heard. Dim seated figures can be discerned. Two of them detach themselves from the group, cover their heads and faces with their haiks and the Guedra begins.

The Guedra is the trance ritual of the Blue People of the Sahara. There are staccato movements of the hands and fingers, and smooth gliding back and forth. They drop to their knees, fingers and hands in constant motion, heads swinging to and fro, many braids falling, faster and faster back and forth. They collapse in a heap followed by a blackout.

Now the bride and groom stand in front of the Imam, who reads the marriage ceremony. They put a tent around them, while the people on stage cheer, and zaghareet. The bride’s father comes out, carrying a silver tray on which are supposed to be sheets with proof of the bride’s virginity. He swoops around the stage, showing the tray to all assembled. The tent is removed and the bride and groom reappear. A final song is sung and a procession of all the dancers and singers circles the stage three times, comes to the center and all bow.


We hold our breath for a while, recover, get up and file out of the seats.

Outside the palace gates, the performers get on buses to return to their accomodations on the palace grounds. They are staying as guests of his Majesty, King Hassan II, for the duration of the Festival. We pile into our bus and head back to our hotel.