The Malhûn of Meknes

El Hadj Houcine Toulali

In Morocco the word malhûn denotes an urban style of sung poetry, traditionally performed in the exclusively male craftsmens’ corporations. In this setting, the men derive immense esthetic and imaginative pleasure from this highly appreciated art form. The traditional themes of the malhûn are of course religious, but secular themes abound too. El Hadj Toulali, who died in 1998, was a master, indeed a living embodiment of this art with its finely carved verses and sweet-sounding music.


1Sir a nâker lehsân/Go, you ungrateful – 14’48
2Fadhma (feminine first name) – 17’05
3Lharrâz/The Cerberus – 31’07
4Ruf a dabel le’yan/Take pity on me, o Beloved with your languid gaze – 8’51

Interpreters and instruments

El Hadj Houcine Toulali (singing, lute and direction)
Mohamed Ben Saïd (singing and castagnets)
Ahmed Agoumi (choir and derbouka)
Abdelhadi Bennouna (choir and violin)
Mustapha Neia (choir and sousân)
Abdallah Ramdani, Abderrahim Tazi (choir and taarija)


In Morocco, the word malhûn designates a kind of urban, sung poetry, composed in dialectal Arabic and which comes from the exclusively masculine working-class milieu of craftsmen’s corporations. Long reserved to a very restricted public of fans, its audience has enlarged to a public which is more and more numerous and young, particularly under the influence of radio and records.

The poetry of malhûn talks about religious themes inspired by the brotherhoods’ devout mysticism : passionate desire of spiritual communion with the Prophet, celebration of holiness as a moral ideal and a model of individual life worthy of survival in memory. But it also deals in a large manner with profane themes which, in an elliptical language, attest to a deep penetration of the contradictions and deadlocks of society.

These include, among others, a whole repertory of “ ballads ” which present typical characters living imaginary ordeals : lâchq “ the sentimental ” or “ the lover ” who plays the main role and assumes the story in the first person, his beloved and his enemy the harrâz, “ the Cerberus ”.

The main character lâchq, is a sort of medium of the emotional states ahwâl lhubb. His life is dedicated to his love for his beloved, whose love and fidelity he seeks to merit.

The beloved is blessed with all kinds of beauty, all virtues, but being mysterious and elusive, unpredictable both in her favours and disdain towards the passionate lover, she emerges from the unknown at her own whim and fancy. Eluding the vigilance of her chaperons, she can appear for just one evening of bliss and disappear at sunrise without the lover knowing whether he will ever see her again. Thus begins the lover’s infinite waiting for an uncertain reunion and suffering, fanned by the sentiment of abandonment.

The bad guy is played by the character of the harrâz  “ Cerberus ”, “ watchman ” or “ censor ”. The many known pieces on this theme, composed by the greatest masters of malhûn over three centuries, describe him as a character possessing all the aspects of virtue. He is initiated and omniscient in every field : esoteric sciences, magic, witchcraft, practices of brotherhoods and corporatism, habits and customs of cities and tribes.

Sensual and jealous, he only has one passion : to hound beautiful maidens, kidnap them, confine them in strongholds hidden from view and to use his science to deprive them of their will and submit them to his desires. His adversaries are all those who are guided by sentiment (ahl lhawâ) who obtain the favours of the beautiful maidens by seduction alone, and headed by the character of the lover. In order to find the beloved who has been abducted, he must enter into a ruthless battle with the harrâz. He finally triumphs at the expense of long trials and punishes him in the pitiless manner of all tales.

Needless to say the fabulous pieces describing the hazards of the quest for love must be considered as projections of situations in the imaginary universe of desires but which, in reality, are absolutely improbable.

Indeed, in the traditional society, what the social ideal asks for is that the individual only completely fulfill himself in married life with all that this state implies about agreed participation of family solidarity. However, once you talk about marriage, you talk about the sexual distribution of tasks, of spaces and the ritualization of their use. Each individual must learn to assume his role and to find his happiness in the mutual adherence to the rituals, habits and customs. In exchange, he benefits from an unconditional partiality and enjoys a permanent affective solicitude. But this solicitude is, at the same time, a coercive presence that makes illusory any inclination towards personal desires or thoughts. Intimacy does not exist and, far from being considered as a vice, indiscretion is lived as a moral obligation. Except for rare cases of admitted marginal social behaviour, like the ascetics for example, the search for refuge is interpreted as a sign of rebellion or sickness. Moreover, be he sick or well, the individual can never hide from the benevolent presence of the family.

The apprenticeship of the profession of craftsman is a form of initiation ruled by a strict hierarchy. Before reaching, after many years, the stage of the m’allem  “ master craftsman ”, the candidate must first pass by two successive stages : that of mett’allem  “ apprentice ” and then the stage of sâne’, “ companion ”. During a long period of their lives, the companions — and all the more so in what concerns the apprentices — live as bachelors. They are forced to lead a chaste life, not only out of ethical necessities but also as a sign of subordination to the master. Be that as it may, the length of the celibacy is long enough for that even the most thoughtful of those concerned to start aspiring to new relationships between the sexes where the women would be more free in their choices and in their feelings. In short, an upside-down world.

Thus, in these ballads, it is the man who is shut away and in waiting. His lover appears or disappears at her own desire, only following her own feelings, assured that she will always find her lover, submissive, loyal and solely attached to life in hope of seeing her again. For their reunions, the lovers have at their disposal luxurious and secret palaces reserved solely for their pleasures where only the members who are party to this secret brotherhood, “ the people of emotions ”, are allowed. In these places which are both sumptuous and invisible, the lovers reunite and abandon themselves to the most precious of all sentiments hdit lhubh  “ the sweet outpourings ”, always interrupted too soon by daybreak.

Omission being doubtlessly the surest of all protections, the family is totally absent from these texts.

The character of the harrâz, the monster who is vanquished at the end of the ballad, evidently personifies the omnipotence of social taboos. Thus, in the piece presented here on this theme, the hero transforms himself into the governor empowered by the king, the liberated slave offering his zeal to serve, the soothsayer, the rich merchant,… in order to get to elude his vigilance and to force entry into his abode but each time he comes up against an impregnable fortress. Even when faced with the “ governor ”, who is sure of his authority, the harrâz can find the arguments that reduce him to naught. However, only a symbol of the social forces and moral values on which depends the political order may thus foil the will of one of its representatives.

This is why the account of these fabulous adventures, where the surges of the sentimental prevail over conventions, always ends by the admission that they are only pure fiction. Obscurely conscious of attacking one of the foundations of traditional moral order, in this case the separation of the sexes, the sacralizing of family values, while at the same time putting their name to their works and presenting them proudly as ornaments of fantasy offered in meditation to shrewd people, the poets never fail to recognize in them the sins of imagination for which they ask forgiveness from God and indulgence from men.

The creation and transmission of the malhûn demands the combined help of three actors : a versifier poet (nâdhem), a guardian or narrator (hâfedh or râwî) and a singer (cheikh). The first one composes, the second collects and transmits to the third who diffuses. The poet may be completely illiterate — the greatest ones are generally so — and when he is not, he does not use writing, either for composing or recording his poems. This is the task of the guardian. Creation being considered as an inspired science ‘ilm mawhûb, in order to be authentic, it should not need to be put down in writing, which is considered an artifice, to be practiced.

Indeed, if the poet, persuaded of the authenticity of his inspiration, clearly avoids using writing to compose, it is because he has a powerful mental guide at his disposition, a sort of invisible “ calculating machine ” of which he is the sole master : a rythmical matrix. This is a formula representing a translexical model of verse. While improvising, the poet makes a mental review of this matrix and uses it as an algorithm by which he submits the syllabic flow to a numerical regulation, thereby achieving the repetitive effect.

The composed pieces are called qasîda (like the great texts of classical Arabic poetry). They can include hundreds of lines and are characterized by their organization into verses called qsam  (divisions), separated by a refrain called harba  (pike) with which the songs start and which is sung again by the choir after each verse. As for the sheikh, he is above all a musician or, more precisely, a singer whose mission is to show the text to its advantage. This is sung on a declamatory melody, that is to say a very discreet melodic presentation of the rhythmical structure of the verse which must remain perceptible. The text of the ballad is generally preceded by an anonymous piece which has its own theme, called serrâba and ends by a rhythmical piece called goubbâhî or by a rhythmical acceleration called dridga.

As interpreter, the singer plays a role of utmost importance. Aside from an infallible memory and clarity of diction it is mainly in the linking of the modes that he demonstrates his own genius. He uses the same modes as those of Arabo-Andalusian music, but contrary to what happens in Andalusian music, where they stay on one mode from the beginning to the end of a piece, a malhûn piece is characterized by the passage from one mode to the other during a same rendition. Each one being associated with a certain feeling, the modes thus make up a language of their own, an implied language which doubles that of the text and which can, according to the way the two are linked, reinforce or contradict it.

In between the poet and the singer fits the third link, the narrator. He is the privileged interlocutor of the poet. It is to him that is addressed the last verse, wherein the poet dissociates his “ I ” from that of the hero of the ballad in order to repossess his real identity. He marks this verse by his signature, by his salute, by recalling the profoundness of his faith and it is here that he stigmatizes the malevolent ignorance of his detractors. The râwî might just as well not be a real person, but only an archetype of all the true connoisseurs “ ahl lme’na ”, those who know how to look beyond appearances and to distinguish the real meaning of things.

The malhûn tradition remains attached to the great ancient city centres, Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes, Salé… But, originating from all regions of Morocco, the authors of the malhûn do not feel linked to their hometown even though they may sometimes be named after them. The singers, on the other hand, consider themselves as city people and as representatives of their cities. These, in return, support them, put them in the forefront and grade them according to a hierarchy accepted by all. For the city of Meknes, El Hadj Houcine Toulali is without doubt the greatest of all contemporary singers.

Hassan Jouad
Translated by Mona Khazindar

The recordings

1- Sir a nâker lehsân/Go, you ungrateful – 14’48

Sung by H. H. Toulali. Bitter and vengeful poem about betrayal, composed in the second half of the 19th century by el-Hajj Mohammed Anjjar.

The text is composed of 120 lines arranged into 5 verses separated by this refrain :

Go, you ungrateful,
May you live long years of misery
And bear the scars of your infidelity,
You who betrayed your love.

After an off-cadence instrumental prelude, the piece is introduced by a serrâba, on the theme of spring rebirth, sung alternately by the cheikh and the choir; it ends by rhythmic acceleration dridga .

2- Fadhma/(feminine first name) – 17’05

Sung by H. H. Toulali. Poem about the agony of waiting for the return of the sweetheart, composed by Driss ben Ali al-Malki, who died in 1901. He is given the nickname of lhench (the snake) by the connoisseurs of the malhûn because of his technique of composing which consisted of “ rolling ” the verses together in order to hide their “ heads ”, like a coil of snakes.

After the off-cadence instrumental prelude, the piece is directly introduced by the refrain :

Have pity on me, give me peace, you shall be blessed.
Because of your coldness, my pain lingers on,
Heedless, how can you leave me like this ?
Share my suffering, Oh beautiful Fadhma.

3- Lharrâz/The Cerberus – 31’07

Sung by H. H. Toulali. One of the most ancient versions known on this theme, doubtlessly composed during the XVIIIthcentury and signed by numbers, with the help of the ciphering alphabetical table in use by the learned men of the traditional school.

The poem written by Moulay Ali Al-Baghdadi is comprised of 392 lines, regrouped in 7 verses and talks about the ruthless fight between the lover and the gaoler of the beloved. The piece is introduced by the refrain :

How is it that this vile Cerberus foretells all my ruses ?
Although he has never missed the hour of prayers ?
He is only a good Moslem in appearance, his acts are those of a real barbarian!

4- Ruf a dabel le’yan/Take pity on me, o Beloved, with your languid gaze – 8’51

Prayer of the lover, pleading with the beloved in order to cut short his

waiting. Poem by Sidi Kaddour Al-Alami, who died in 1849, (unfinished in this presentation), sung by Mohammed Ben Saïd.

  • Reference : 321.005
  • Ean : 794 188 148 722 6
  • Main artist : El Hadj Houcine Toulali (الحاج حسين التولالي)
  • Year of recording : 1994
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music style: Malhun
  • Country : Morocco
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

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