Morocco Conference Features Scholarship, Photography, and Arab, Amazigh and Jewish Music

Lively December 8 concert fuses musical traditions and styles

Morocco Conference Features Scholarship, Photography, and Arab, Amazigh and Jewish Music

It was a sight to behold—Raphael Skouri and Abderrahim Souiri embraced in song as the Sefrou Municipal Orchestra played soul-stirring melodies to the delight of the capacity crowd at the Fowler Lenart Auditorium. People had come from all over southern California to be part of the culminating cultural event of a four-day international conference honoring the legacy of the renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whose field research in Sefrou, Morocco, and seminal publication Islam Observed have had such a profound impact on North American and North African researchers alike.

Twenty-five scholars participated in the conference, coming from Morocco, Egypt, France, Switzerland, and throughout the United States, including Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Fairfield, UCs Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Riverside, and the University of Texas at Austin. "We gathered to discuss Geertz's contributions to sociocultural theory and symbolic anthropology, specifically in relation to Islam, ideas of the sacred, Morocco's cityscapes (notably Sefrou's bazaar or suq), colonialism and economic development, and gender and political structures at the household and village levels," said anthropologist and CNES director Susan Slyomovics, co-organizer of the conference with Lahouari Addi, a visiting professor from the University of Lyon who was based at the UCLA History department during Fall term 2007. The conference papers will be published in a scholarly journal guest edited by Slyomovics.

While the conference generated a lively academic discourse, the musical performances added a passionate and engaging note. The Saturday evening concert began with the pulsing rhythms of AZA, an ensemble of North African and US musicians co-founded by Moroccan Americans Fattah Abbou and Mohamed Aoualou, who brought the captivating sounds of the Imazighen (Berbers) into the mix.

Amazigh segued into Moroccan Arabic, as Abderrahim Souiri took the stage backed by the Sefrou Municipal Orchestra. Souiri is a preeminent performer of Andalusian and Moroccan traditional songs. He was soon joined on stage by Raphael Skouri, a native of Settat and Casablanca, and cantor at Baba Sale Temple in Los Angeles. The duo rendition of favorite songs was truly inspiring: it brought the audience to their feet, singing along.

Representing Sefrou, Mayor Hafid Ouchchak noted that his town has been a haven of tolerance and cultural synergy for centuries, encompassing Arab, Berber, Jewish, and European heritage, and that the concert was testimony to the cultural bond among Moroccans and to the world-wide popularity of Morocco’s musical styles and traditions. This sentiment was echoed by Kamal Oudrhiri of the Grove of Hope Foundation and the Moroccan American Cultural Center, who along with CNES Program Manager Peter Szanton organized the concert and made it memorable.


Photographer Paul Hyman today, with photo taken during his stay in Sefrou, Morocco, in 1969

For the duration of the conference and for several weeks beyond, recorded Moroccan music meandered softly in the Fowler Museum galleria, the site of an exhibition of forty-two compelling images made by photographer Paul Hyman during a four-month stay in Sefrou in 1969, images that offered a fascinating record of anthropological research at a particular period in time, and a telling contrast with present-day Morocco. Sefrou is situated in the foothills of north-central Morocco where the Middle Atlas Mountains meet the western plains. It was the site of research carried out over several decades by American anthropologists Clifford and Hildred Geertz, Paul Rabinow, Lawrence Rosen, Thomas Dichter, Kevin Dwyer and others, beginning in the mid-1960s.


From the exhibit "Sefrou Observed: The Photographs of Paul Hyman," at the Fowler Museum, UCLA

The photographic exhibition featured many images of Sefrou's lively suq, as well as of people and places in other parts of town and in the nearby village of Sidi Lahcen. The exhibition showcased several color images never before published or displayed.

In 2008 the Center for Near Eastern Studies will host a conference celebrating the 1200th anniversary of the founding of the great city of Fez, Morocco.