The Ebb and Flow of Music
by Yasmine Benabdallah
Born and raised to Darija-speaking parents and Francophone older siblings in Casablanca, Morocco, at the age of seventeen, Izza Génini moved to Paris, France. She later returned to Morocco to make more than a dozen documentary films.
One of her most personal and intimate films, Return to Oulad Moumen (1994) retraces her family’s history leading to her own return. Tied together by her mother’s narration, the film mixes interviews, archives, and sceneries, as if grounding inherited memories and feelings in landscapes.
In Arabic and Moroccan Darija, hanan and hanin are two close words that mean tenderness and nostalgia. Génini’s direction is full of both. In the film, she tells her family’s history, the memories diluted and scattered across maps and time, connecting the personal memory of her Jewish family’s return with the country’s history and the Moroccan Jewish community’s experience and unrooting.
In Return to Oulad Moumen, Génini mentions that her return happened through music. She says that Moroccan music pulled her in and reminded her of home, first working as producer for Ahmed El Maanouni’s film Transes (1981), which follows the life of Nass El Ghiwane, one of the most influential music groups of postcolonial Morocco. In a radio interview for RCJ, Génini said, “music is really what brought me back to myself.” 1
In Rhythms of Marrakech (1988), Génini sets music not as a frame, but as the subject itself. She lets her camera linger on long shots of singing and dancing, and the film is tied together only with a very simple and rare narration. The musicians play their instruments in the Menara gardens and the dancers perform the rekza, their feet stomping and marking the rhythm, their bodies thus adding a layer to the music making.
Surrounded by the circle of female percussionists, there is a dizzying feeling. As viewers we ourselves experience this bodily and spiritual experience, often referred to by Moroccan musicians, singers, and dancers as lhal; a state of being where your body is here and your mind is elsewhere.
Escape and landscape are interwoven in Vibrations in Upper Atlas (2004), where the women’s chants meet the water. The ebb and flow of the water and the hands against the drums, the goats’ bleats, the horses’ and donkeys’ hooves and far away the men’s instruments and the women’s voices. In the valley hidden in the mountains, all of these sounds meet in harmony.
The film is a constant dance between the rhythm of nature and the rhythm of the villagers’ music: the ebb and flow of water and bodies. Men and women welcome the sunset as they dance in a circle around the fire, reminiscent of a cosmic circle. We are invited into their sensory experience, away from folklore and onto the spirituality, feelings, escape and trance at the core of their dance.
The film is part of a series Génini made named Maroc, corps et âmes (1987-1992), a title based on the anagram of Morocco, meaning Morocco, body and soul. The first film she directed, entitled Aïta (1988), is also part of the series, and sets women’s chants and voices as an essential trope of her work.
The film revolves around aïta, a singing art form that the cheikhat have upheld for centuries. Female performers, singers and dancers, the cheikhat take an important space in the Moroccan musical imaginary. They are fearless tellers of Moroccan epics, whose subversive freedom has often attracted rumors.
Their singing and the eternal movement of their hair carry our heritage. The gold and silver in their teeth shining, the tears and the pain in their voices, the cheikhat’s cry is a matriarchal and political appeal to the past, to memory, to love, and to resistance.
As I lay on my bed watching the mesmerizing rocking back and forth of their bodies, my hips start moving. All the lyrics rush to my brain. I am being carried away, floating. The music calls on me.
In an interview with Yabiladi, Génini mentioned a question that she asks in one of her films: “what is this mysterious power that music has to bring you back to yourself when you thought you had left everything behind?” 2
As a Moroccan diasporan, these films are a way to connect our bodies and souls to our home. Our minds respond to the music and dances in Génini’s films, as their power lies in calling on our sensory memory and evoking our past and heritage.
Today, these films are of great importance for Morocco and Moroccan diasporas. They respond to the need to keep a record, especially when most of what’s available to us is ethnomusicology made by foreigners such as Paul Bowles and the like. Génini’s films come—with another handful of films by Moroccan filmmakers—as our way to reclaim our space and our music.
Génini’s work is not decontextualized recorded music. In Rhythms of Marrakech and Vibrations in Upper Atlas, she makes a powerful choice to film these musicians, singers, and dancers, within the spaces they exist a space which soul seeps through their movements, words, and voices. As a viewer, you are allowed to see them, accompany them in their journey.
Génini’s in betweenness transpires through her work. As a Moroccan director, she manages to avoid voyeurism and hence break the colonial gaze. As an outsider to these particular singing and dancing communities—by filming them in the space they own—there is no pretension either that we viewers could ever fully know their experience.
In Return to Oulad Moumen, the sound mixing prioritizes the French translation of the dialogues over the original Darija you can faintly hear behind. The voice over, just like in the other films, is also spoken in French.
The linguistic complexity of the films not only speaks to the complexities of language in Morocco—between Darija, Amazigh, Hebrew, and French—but also to the ambiguity that the films’ distribution brings on.
In the interview with Yabiladi, Génini—who has her own distribution company named OHRA—mentions that distribution of Moroccan films in Morocco is a great challenge. Her films have aired on 2M (one of the two main Moroccan TV channels) and the French institutes in Morocco have helped spread the films around the country. 3 However, one cannot help but wonder the reason why French is so present in her films, not only because of her life experience in France, but also the need for French funds and distribution.
Language also raises the question of audience as well as access. Beyond wondering if versions of these films exist entirely in Amazigh and Darija, I imagine what these versions would be like. The voice over mainly serves the purpose of informing and explaining the social and historical context of the films, which probably wouldn’t be needed for a Moroccan audience.
Génini has made her films over the span of twenty years, witnessing and keeping a record of Morocco throughout great changes in its political and societal dynamics. Making art at the beginning—just as Morocco was coming out of the years of lead, a time marked by state repression and censorship—was a political act. Even more so today, her work raises questions in regard to the state’s folklorisation of traditional and indigenous music.
In Aïta, Génini films the cheikhat’s performances in the Moulay Abdallah moussem. A moussem is an annual pilgrimage in celebration of a saint and their life. There are thousands of them in Morocco, celebrated at different times of the year. The ministry of religious instances decides the public funding for these celebrations based on the traditional and religious aspect of the celebration—its “authenticity”—and more and more its potential for tourism and folklore.
These films are even more important in the current political context, where staged presentations of Moroccan folklore have become more subtle instrumentalizations of culture than plain old censorship.
Génini’s films are, then, records for future generations, so that we always know where to find inspiration for our reinvention. When I was two years old, upon being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered that I wanted to be a cheikha. To me, then and now, the cheikhat represent an art that sings the past to the future—just like Génini’s films. As we build our future, we newer generations are slowly forgetting these art forms, and these films are reminders of our music.
- “L’invité du 12/13 Izza Génini sur RCJ,” Radio RCJ, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8u1L5eabAAk
- “Izza Génini, Marocaine corps et âme,” Yabiladi, https://www.yabiladi.com/article-interviews-30.html.
- Génini, “Marocaine corps et âme.”
Yasmine Benabdallah is a filmmaker and writer born and raised in Morocco. She studied Film and Mathematics at Columbia University for four years before moving to Paris to attend the Experimental Programme in Political Arts at Sciences Po (SPEAP). Through filmmaking, visual art, and writing, she explores stories around memory, identity, dance, heritage, diaspora, borders, archive, and rituals. Her films and installations have been shown in France, Egypt, the US, and Palestine, and she has participated as artist-in-residence in Morocco, France, Palestine and Tunisia. In 2016, she directed her first film, The Travel Curiosity, based on her father’s love for travelling. Other works include the short film Observational (2018) which explores images of surveillance; Ojalá: la vuelta al origen (2019), a feature documentary on the dance of the Palestinian diaspora of Santiago, Chile, and Its people, its sky, its scent (in production), a video installation on finding Chile in Palestine. She is currently working on Moussem Trans(e), a documentary on a Moroccan pilgrimage between religion, sorcery, and trans identities, as well as Chebba, a hybrid short about a Moroccan family and a protective ritual.