Taghlaghalt or The Echo of the Atlas

Rayssa Fatima Tabaamrant

The word rwais denotes two things in Berber: itinerant Chleuh singers, and a typical Berber musical tradition from South Morocco that they perpetuate.

The rwais travel from one town to another, dancing and singing the amarg, a form of oral poetry rooted in daily life, that talks of life, death, nature, and love, as well as politics or society’s ills. Musical accompaniment is provided by a single-stringed fiddle or rribab, lutes, and percussion.

Fatima Tabaamrant is the first woman to have founded her own troupe of rwais. This recording is vivid proof of her commitment to continuing the “oral writing” Berber poetry represents.


1– Instrumental – 5’22
2Sllam/Salutations – 15’26
3- Tirra n yils/Oral Writing – 4’44
4- Ajddig llwrd/Hymn to Nature – 6’40
5- Â bu nniyt/Ô gullible – 9’44
6- Ait l’caql/Common sense – 8’37
7- Farewell Instrumental – 3’03

Interpreters and instruments

Rayssa Fatima Tabaamrant (direction and singing)
Omar Azemz (rabâb)
Bousselam Ouqia (lute)
Ahmed El Ouad (tallunt)
Mohamed Akchour (tam-tam)
Mohamed Anjjar (tam-tam)
Hassan Ajrrar (naqus)
Ijja Khindouf (dance and choir)
Aïcha Bouhmama ( dance and choir )
Kelthoum Lachguer ( dance and choir)


The rwais musical genre

In the Berber language, rwais [1] (singular rais, a word of Arabic origin meaning chief, master) refers to both the Chleuh itinerant singers and the specific musical tradition they perpetuate, a characteristic genre of Southern Morocco mainly found in the High and Anti Atlas range.

The history of this musical genre was the object of a study by Alexis Chottin published in the 1930s, but with many gaps remaining to be filled. Some people like to find similarities between the rwais and the troubadours of European Middle-Ages. Yet, it seems to us they should rather be compared with African griots. Rwais and griots are indeed the guardians of oral tradition and their poems, similarly bearing a sensible, wise and visionary discourse, play the same role in society.

The recordings made by European record labels in the 30s have handed down to us a collection of rwais albums that have contributed to the evolution of the genre – if only for featuring rwais now deceased such as Lhaj Belâid, Bubakr Anshshad or Bubakr Azairi. With independence and the development of communication means, Moroccan radio has taken over and reinforced the media coverage.

As a music genre, the rwais tradition is the art of show and entertainment par excellence. Indeed, its interpreters perform on hlaqi – the public squares of urban centres such as the famous Jamâ El-Fna square in Marrakech – or tour cities and villages, performing for distant tribes or at private celebrations such as weddings etc. They also play in bars and hotels, as well as at national and international festivals, where unfortunately they are sometimes exhibited in a folkoristic fashion that enfeebles the authenticity and nobleness of their art as an expression of a living folk wisdom.

The songs of the rwais are a precious source of information about the evolution of Moroccan society. They treat various subjects in their sung poems, and events both national and international. They reflect the worries and fears of people, as well as express their own standpoints regarding moral order and the transformation of society.

It is advisable to distinguish between the two sides of this musical tradition, the art of the rwais per se and another genre known as ahwash. The rwais singer-poets find in the latter genre their source of inspiration as regards both music and lyrics. It is indeed their ‘place’ of training before they become professionals. Nevertheless, a number of dissimilarities between these two styles of Berber music should be pointed out.

While the ahwash can be qualified as a collective village dance, the art of the rwais is an itinerant phenomenon, and tends to be more urban. Moreover, the rwais are professionals who live off their art, while the ahwash pertains to the social life of a community, and its performing artists have other professions and never get paid for their songs and dances. Lastly, the rwais praise life, pleasure and individual love, whereas in the ahwash moral principles and community concerns are put forward, with great restraint in both gestures and words.

The world of the rwais is an almost closed circle, like a caste with its own traditions, rules and codes that must be gradually assimilated. A beginner first lives alongside a rais and must show his devotion and vocation to integrate into the group by playing an instrument, singing or dancing. Apprenticeship is based on a community life style; the young accompany the troupe wherever they perform and receive practical training as well as mystical faith in predestined fate.

This artistic community, as one might call it, is organised around a leader, the rais, whose authority over the members of the group is actual, not just symbolic. Decisions regarding the troupe are usually his responsibility. He forms it and he has the power to admit or expel members as he likes. The troupe is thus founded on a very strict hierarchic model where every member has his place. To give but one example, the musician who plays the fiddle is better thought of than the one playing the naqus (percussion instrument), even though both are necessary to the music.

Music and instruments

The rwais use the word rrih (plural laryah) for both the melodies and the modes in which they are played. There are three types of modes: ashlhiy (Chleuh), agnaw (stuttering) et amakkl (limping). These modes “are for the most part based on anhemitonic pentatonic scales (five-tone scales with no semi-tones), and they leap up and down fourths or fifths, thus covering up to one and a half octaves. The construction of melodic phrases (each corresponding to a verse line) is also made up of two or four parallel melodic fragments.” (Philip Schuyler: “Berber Professional Musicians in Performance”, quoted by Miriam Rovsing Olsen in “Chants et danses de l’Atlas (Maroc)”, Cité de la Musique /Actes Sud, 1997, p.120). The pentatonic mode in this musical genre brings to mind the music of Java and Bali.

In Berber, the euphoria that comes from listening to music is usually called lhawa – which corresponds to the Arab tarab.

As regards musical instruments, the marked difference between ahwash and rwais is that in the first, the sole accompaniment of songs and dances is percussion –  tilluna drums and ganga tambourines – while the rwais rather use strings, which can play melodies.

The emblematic instrument of the rwais is the rribab monochord fiddle. For that matter, the musician who plays it is also the one who indicates the various moments in the evolution of the pieces being performed and gives the tone for the other instrumentalists and the rest of the band. It is said that the rribab is an advanced form of the Tuareg inzad. It should be noted that among the rwais it is played by men whereas the Tuareg inzad pertains to women.

Often cut from walnut wood, the rribab is played with a bow. Like the bow, the string of the instrument is made of horsehair. The round soundboard is made of goatskin. The sweet and sour sonority which brings to mind a wind instrument comes from the net of small beads (tifilit) fastened to the soundboard.

Generally, the rribab is accompanied by two lutes, also specific of the Chleuh rwais music. The first one is called lutar, the other, smaller and very high-pitched, is the taswisit. Unfortunately, the latter tends to be used less and less and replaced by the banjo.

The naqus marks the beat. It is an unusual instrument, a kind of large cymbal made from a car-wheel rim, which is hit with two iron sticks. The rim has probably replaced an old accessory little adapted to performances on public squares, as deafening sounds are needed to attract the attention of audiences. The dancers use small finger cymbals called nwiqsat to punctuate their movements.

Besides, the rwais use new instruments such as the “tam-tam” (two small tambourines connected to one another), whose recent use has to do with the success of musical groups inspired by Nass El-Ghiwan, the anti-establishment Moroccan band of the seventies.

When performing their songs, the rwais usually follow – roughly – three stages:

1. Astara: (lit: walk, ride) a musical prelude, non-measured and without percussion. It is used both to tune the instruments and to announce the melody on which the song will develop.

2. Amarg: the instrumental piece is followed by the song of the rais, interspersed with a refrain repeated by the chorus after two or three distiches.

3. Tamssust: the final melody. The lively, dancing aspect of the show reaches its peak with the ladhrub (sing. dhrb), the various melodies accompanying the dance. The tamssut melody is interpreted to a light and fast tempo, which accelerates to mark the end of the song. The male and female dancers perform various choreographic figures.

The recordings

1- Instrumental – 5’22
Music by Fatima Tabaamrant
Musical prelude

2- Sllam/Salutations – 15’26
Words, music and singing by Fatima Tabaamrant
Invocation of god and the saints and welcoming greetings to the audience

3- Tirra n yils/Oral writing– 4’44
Words, music and singing by Fatima Tabaamrant
Traditional song presenting the oral art of rwais

shuwr a wddi, ad ur tgim lghsim i lhmm nk;
ashku zzaman ad, ira annit gis ifhm yan (refrain)
inna hnna, gigh lmayyit yusi udar nns;
urta nlli gh lmisan, urta ggwizgh akal
wahli ma kkullu gitngh ijran, nssbr nit;

Careful now, don’t add dupery to your list of worries;
It’s better to be informed these days!
Woe is me, I’m a dead woman still standing on her feet
Before I’m even under the ground or laid on a stretcher.
Afflicted by so many misfortunes, but patient nonetheless!

4- Ajddig llwrd/Hymn to nature – 6’40
Words, music and singing by Fatima Tabaamrant
Traditional song in honour of the beauty of nature

ad ur tallat, ad ur tallat!
a yajjig llwrd, illan gh isaffn
kada n iaashaqn ad ak issutln! (refrain)
ayajddig Ilwrd, illan gh isaffin
ur yi gik iqadda ya usmmaql
igh ur ufigh akk id nkkis s ifassn
aggiwn ssfugh Ighrd inu s titt inw

Don’t cry, don’t cry now!
Oh, rose of the valleys,
You’re surrounded by your admirers.
Oh, rose of the valleys,
Just looking at you is not really right for me
I need to pluck you with my fingers
To satisfy the ardour of my gaze

5- A bu nniyt/Ô gullible – 9’44
Words, music and singing by Fatima Tabaamrant

6- Ait l’aql/Common sense – 8’37
Words, music and singing by Fatima Tabaamrant
Song dealing with morality and conduct

imrbba a lhawa akkm isak tamanw
a ggim afagh abrid Ilangh iliqn
imma amarg ad n lhubb issrmiyangh
idda nit ikkis lhimma, i ishlhyn
a wad izzlumn tizlfin f lkhatr;
ur awn kissnt laz, ur rad kmmlnt

May God put melodies within my reach
So that I can select those to suit my taste.
We’re growing weary of love songs.
All they do is rob Berber songs of their dignity!
Oh you who so love fleeting pleasures!
You’ll never have had your fill and they’re there in abundance!

7- Farewell Instrumental – 3’03
Music by Fatima Tabaamrant

[1] In the Rif and the Middle Atlas, rwais are called imdyazn (sing. amdyaz)

  • Reference : 321.044
  • Ean : 794 881 761 227
  • Main artist : Rayssa Fatima Tabaamrant
  • Year of recording : 2006
  • Year of publishing : 2006
  • Music style: Rways
  • Country : Morocco
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Chleuh
  • Composers : Rayssa Fatima Tabaamrant
  • Lyricists : Rayssa Fatima Tabaamrant ; Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

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