The Malhun in Marrakech

Ensemble Amenzou with Mohamed Suita AKA “Boustta”

“The attraction of the unknown, devoting oneself to something through a real taste or passion for it, the act of becoming a connoisseur” – these constitute the first requirements for entering the world of the malhun, a sung kind of urban poetry traditionally practised in the exclusively male universe of the craft corporations. The art of the malhun is in three distinct parts: composition, conservation and performance, with a different master for each. Composition and conservation depend entirely on the strength (or otherwise) of individual vocation, whereas performance is a profession that can be learnt. Mohammed Boustta’s career is very typical of what it takes to become a master of this art, and illustrates the changes it has undergone during the course of the 20th century. He appears on this recording with the Amenzou brothers, Mohammed l-Attaui and Ahmed Bednaui.


1Nezha – 10’51
2Meryem – 16’49
3L-Tbib/ The Doctor – 10’31
4Tamu – 9’48
5L-Saqi / The Cup-bearer – 15’35
6Fesl l-rbi‘ gebbel / Spring is here – 4’27

Interpreters and instruments

Mohamed Suita “Boucetta” (taarija)
Ahmed Amenzou (derbuka)
Mohammed El Attaoui (taarija)
Mohammed Amenzou (oud)
Mohamed Ait Brahim (violin)
Abdellah Fekhari (violin)
Ahmad Bednaoui (souisdi)
Mohammed Najib Dalal (tar)


The first approach to the world of the malhun is known as l-wala’, “the attraction of the unknown, devoting oneself to something through a real taste or passion for it, the act of becoming a connoisseur”. Once this first step has been taken, you can either remain in the circle of ordinary admirers of the genre, or maybe, if your means allow it, in that of its patrons; or you can take things further and become a shikh (master). The art of the malhun is divided into three distinct but complementary parts: composition, conservation and performance, with a different shikh responsible for each activity. Composition and conservation depend on the individual’s vocation, whereas performance is a profession that can be learnt.

The career of the Marrakechi singer El Haj Mohammed Boustta is very typical of what it means to acquire a real training in this domain, and a good illustration of the changes it’s undergone during the course of the 20th century.

Boustta is a typical personality from the more popular milieu of Marrakech. His silhouette is a familiar sight, enveloped in his jellaba, his curved hat perched on his head, his babouche slippers, his relaxed posture (albeit misleading!) that masks his watchful attentiveness towards everything happening around him, to what people are saying – and what’s not said too! But only the true Marrakechis are aware of all this. He possesses a caustic wit and a deadpan sense of humour with a biting repartee that his 70 years have not affected in the slightest. He’s put this quick wittedness that in other people often goes under what’s known here as tabrgagt “impertinence, indelicacy, indiscretion” to the service of his profession as a singer or shikh. He is a true master of his art, an unrivalled connoisseur in matters of the malhun tradition and all the elements that have gone to make it what it is. One can have total confidence in his opinion and what he says about it.

One point worth noting: he has remained a bachelor. It’s a well-known fact that the unmarried state is an anomaly in traditional Moroccan society, even a curse (thanks to modern life) in contemporary society. In Boustta’s case, it should be pointed out that his bachelorhood is a deliberate choice. He doesn’t seek any glory out of the fact, he’s simply not interested in sharing his life with someone else.

All adepts of the malhun, whether musicians or audience, were craftsmen or worked at some kind of paid activity that functioned with a craft. A quick review of Boustta’s generation and that of his teachers reveals tanners, dressmakers, shoemakers, doughnut-sellers, innkeepers and café owners, property brokers.

Two aspects of modern life – the radio and the associative movement – have introduced some major changes in the way this art is passed on and disseminated, and they‘ve both had quite an effect on singers’ careers, particularly those whose repertoire is the malhun. Boustta is a privileged witness of the results of these changes, as well as a product of them. In fact, ever since the post-independence years, it’s become possible to earn a living as a professional singer. He therefore stopped working as a craftsman in order to devote all his time to the malhun. “And I wasn’t the only one. All the singers have given up their jobs (here he names them for me one after another). Ever since it’s become possible to make a living out of singing, they’ve all given up their original jobs.”

He himself took up singing in 1956. As the serious adept (mulu’), he’d become, he had to find the words to the songs that form the basis of all malhun; but they can only be tracked down with certain people through acquaintances or a personal introduction or contact. “I’d got the status of mulu’, but I hadn’t got any texts to learn. I went looking amongst the people likely to have some texts, because I wanted to learn them off by heart but I’d nothing to memorize. I could read a little but I couldn’t write. I managed to read a little bit, then I ended up learning how to copy, so that if I’d done the transcription myself, I could read it.”

In 1957 Boustta joined an association for amateurs of the malhun, where singers were admitted without being obliged to become members. The club organised concerts every Friday evening, and is still active in the field nowadays. “In my early days with the malhun, I used to go to the evening sessions. It was during these weekly Friday evening meetings that I really grew to love and appreciate the malhun. These same evening meetings still take place and we still meet up together in the same way. I started going to this club in 1957 and in ‘58 I was paid for my singing for the first time ever.”

The associations founded around the malhun in different towns and cities were all in touch with each other and invited one another to their meetings. This was how Boustta came to sing with the Rabat National Radio Orchestra in 1962 – a real step forward in his going professional.

Amongst his fellow-singers no longer alive, two names, Taher Amenzou and Mohammed Dalal l-Hsika, who both followed a career rather like Boustta’s, should be mentioned. Both were former leather tanners, but became professional musicians. The former had the original idea of forming an orchestra that would offer its services for private parties and other festive occasions. Because of this, his house has become a sort of rehearsal hall for the musicians, a less solemn and more informal copy of the municipal music conservatory. The latter was one of the great copyists and supplied handwritten malhun. At the age of 70 Boustta is still working actively at his profession; his fellow-artists are more often than not the children of these two well-known musicians.

A concert was organised in June 1999 under the aegis of the Year of Morocco in France, by the Institut du Monde Arabe, in partnership with the Abbaye de Royaumont. On this occasion Boustta’s group performed five works by well-known authors.

Hassan Jouad translated by Délia Morris

  • Reference : 321.056
  • Ean : 794 881 742 325
  • Main artist : Ensemble Amenzou
  • Year of recording : 1999
  • Year of publishing : 2004
  • Music style: Malhun
  • Country : Morocco
  • City of recording : Asnières-sur-Oise
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Si Thami l-Mdeghti ; Mohammed Ben Sliman ; Tamu de Sidi Qaddur l-‘Alami ; Chikh l-Jilali Mtired ; Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

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