Songs of rejoicing

The women of Tetouan

In the 12th century, people would often travel to Seville to find women musicians, so great was their fame and so unanimously praised was their virtuosity. This would be overshadowed when Arab-Andalusian art became the privilege of men only. So it was partly to bring back the memory of the time when women set the palace on fire that the Ikhlas ensemble was founded in 1989 by Wafa Laasri, a graduate of Tetouan’s music school. The band plays a repertoire blending popular songs of lively rhythms and exhilarating melodies—some of them by the master Abdessadek Chekkara— with the Andalusian heritage in its most refined forms. In the ‘ala style (the Moroccan Andalusian school), the tone colour of female voices is unfamiliar and weaves a veil of sound contrasting with that of men, whose characteristic is to chant the poems powerfully.


1- Ya bent bledi/The girl from my country – 9’30
2- Kif na’mal ma nebkich/How can one not cry – 5’16
3- Laghram mana’ wa s’ib/The difficulty to love – 9’08
4- Laghram ma’andou dwa/There is no remedy for love – 7’44
5- A l’ouchaq fnît ana/I am dying – 16’33
6- Laghram bayen fiyya/Madly besotted – 9’47
7- Al mout ba-ddra’/To die of love – 5’33
8- Lahbiba aw jarrahtini/My beloved one, you have hurt me – 9’49

Interpreters and instruments

Wafae Laasri (direction, singing, violin)
Mustapha Laasri (choir et violin)
Fathia Laasri, Naïma Laasri, Hisham
Zubeiri (choir et lute)
Touria El Zaroualy, Meriem Oulas Benali, Amina Elhri (choir et bendir)


Women and music

In older days, Moroccan women who chose an artistic career usually turned to singing or dancing, and additionally played percussion. They rarely used melodic instruments, with the notable exception of the ardil Saharian harp or the two-string lute called swisdi. In this context, special mention should be made of Tetouan’s women instrumentalists, who represent a specific case of musical practice and a quasi unique example of a female orchestra in Morocco.

Their trade, generally inherited from family tradition or specific circumstances, was not always a deliberate artistic choice. But socially, they have been as highly respected as the women musicians of medieval Andalusia once were.

Indeed, the glorious Andalusian civilisation, whose women singers and poetesses were called qiyyan (plural: qayna), has remained the best reference for today’s musicians. But modern-day qayna live in a different environment than their ancestors, i.e. outside of the traditional harems.

If women musicians from other parts of Morocco have not enjoyed such esteem, it is because until the sixties, the few women who sang publicly were the chikhat professional singers. In the mind of the public, they were associated with entertainment in all its dimensions and forms, and generally considered women of easy virtue.

Since the sixties, girls have been attending music schools and societies, and Moroccan women have progressively taken up instrumental music. Nevertheless, it is in genres already valued by society that women present themselves as instrumentalists (cultural concerts of traditional art music, piano recitals or appearances in philharmonic orchestras). They exclude themselves from open celebrations and certain demeaning kind of professionalism.

A Tetouan specificity

Tetouan’s female orchestras are actually not so much an opening in this traditional society as an answer to the women’s need for entertainment in the intimacy of their private houses. While in Andalusian harems, blind musicians were requested to entertain the women, nowadays the women of Tetouan, conservative yet bonnes vivantes, are keen to organise their own social gatherings, which can only feature women musicians. The latter, who perform wearing traditional dress and jewellery, have inherited their repertoire from the cultural environment that has for centuries pervaded the prestigious white town of Tetouan. To the corpus of Andalusian music have been added such contradictory influences as the taqtouqa jabaliya, the gharnati, the Sufi songs of the fqirat‘s or cheikh al-Harrak’s barwala, as well as more recent productions, like those by the late Abdessadek Chekkara.

Equally referring to this master and to Mennana l-Kharraz, a famous woman singer from the sixties, each orchestra has built up its own repertoire. From a standpoint of instrumental organisation (violins, lute, percussion etc), nothing differentiates female bands from their male counterparts, except the absence of rebab fiddles.

The repertoire

The sung repertoire of the Tetouan’s women orchestras is generally twofold, featuring folk songs from Northern Morocco and excerpts of Andalusian nuba-s. When interpreting Andalusian music, the whole group sang, while for folk songs they alternated between a soloist and a chorus, periodically relayed by instrumental responses.

Performances always start with a taqsîm (instrumental solo, in free rhythm, without percussion accompaniment), which sets both the musicians and the audience in the atmosphere of the musical mode. Then comes a sequence of songs, in a progressively accelerated movement that sometimes ends in an invitation to dance.

Several influences can thus be heard, notably Andalusian music, taqtouqa jabaliya, gharnati and, by extension, all the secondary genres that gravitate around the three main genres (malhoun, hawzi, qsida, barwala, gubbahi, al aïta al jabaliya, etc…).

The folk songs are made of distiches or quatrains that are relatively independent and freely organised, only following the requirements of metrics and rhyming.

Among the ten or so women orchestras in Tetouan, the ensemble Ikhlas (meaning devotion, dedication), led by Wafae Laasri, is by far the most in demand, both in Morocco and abroad, for its high quality playing and subtle repertoire.

Ahmed Aydoun, musicologist

The school of women singers

The first recordings of Moroccan women ensembles date back to the forties, yet bands of women singers performing at family celebrations had started in the 19th century. In Tetouan, the music school created in 1940 has helped train a generation of women singers. Abdessadek Chekkara (who died in 1998), the absolute master and creator of a new style of interpretation of traditional songs, evoked with much respect the name of Mennana Al-Kharraz, a woman he recognised as his master in this art. You can still find recordings of some of her hit songs, like Ma zayn da nhar l-youm (This day is so beautiful!) et Ya Layamni F’lîti (Oh ! the one who criticises me for my passion). Another well-known woman singer, Alia Al-Mjahed, is featured on some of Chekkara’s recordings, and Zohra Bttiwa has lent her voice to several recordings by the Tangiers’ master Muhammed Ben Larbi Temsamani.

In the sixties, Clara, a Spanish dance teacher at the Tetouan conservatoire, created an original choreography to accompany urban popular songs interpreted by the clear voice of Chekkara. In a different æsthetical style, she has rehabilitated classical dance in the Andalus-Maghreb style, using the repertoire of the ‘ala.

Around the same period, Abdessadek Chekkara recorded a single with the female choir of the conservatoire: the famous song Chamsou laâchia (the sunset), in the san’a mode. This widely-known song has participated in the building of a new and positive image of a Morocco thirsting after modernity. The very long list of Tetouan women singers represents a musical heritage of priceless value.

Tradition and modernity

In the eighties, families living in large cities started to tolerate the mixing of men and women and to accept male orchestras performing at celebrations for women only. This was to play an important role in the choice of repertoires. Indeed, women prefer lively dancing rhythms and do not allow the long, fastidious sequences of the ‘ala. The logical consequence is that traditional bands have had to make concessions and introduce urban popular songs into their music.

Formerly, the musical session of female orchestras often started with the repertoire of the ‘ala or a praise song. Immediately afterwards followed a mawwal that set the mode (tab’) of the following piece.

All this is based on a dialogue between the solo voice and the instruments, using a given mode. A single song or a sequence of various songs, generally in the same mode, may follow, or the singers may interpret a song in one mode and transpose it into a different mode during their performance. Another artifice is to transpose the same tune one tone higher, so that spontaneously the new, higher-pitched sound freshens up sensations of somnolence. All these combinations serve to break the monotony that takes hold when the poem is long and the monody repetitive. After the song, the instrumental response allows the instrumentalists to play the same melody and enrich it with ornaments.

Omar Métioui, Musician and musicologist

  • Reference : 321.042
  • Ean : 794 881 707 324
  • Main artist : The women of Tetouan
  • Year of recording : 2000
  • Year of publishing : 2002
  • Music style : Populare music
  • Country : Morocco
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Abdessadek Chekkar ; Traditional
  • Lyricists : Abdessadek Chekkar ; Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

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