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Morocco-culture-Gnawa Festival
Groups parade along the streets of the Medina of Essaouira during the Gnawa Festival. Photo Stefano Torrione / hemis.fr / HH.

Moroccan music reflects the country’s position as a meeting place of Berber, Arabic, and European cultures. Traditional Berber music uses wind instruments such as an end-blown reed flute (taghanimt), bagpipes (mizwid), and a trumpet (nafir); stringed instruments such as the ginbri, which has a long fretless neck, with the box covered in skin, and the rebab, a long-necked fiddle with only one string; and percussion instruments such as the tabl, a cylindrical double-sided drum, and the qaraqib, a metal castanet-like instrument. Berber music has several functions. One of them is traditionally to preserve a record of the past: Berber songs have repeatedly been used to uncover details of past events in a largely oral tradition. Music is also used in village celebrations and on religious occasions. Professional musicians perform, for example, at weddings or as street artists in venues such as the great Jamaa al-Fnaa square in Marrakesh. It is highly regionalized, and southern Berber music has strong Sahara African influences.

The Hoba Hoba Spirit of Moroccan Music

Hoba Hoba Spirit is a Gnawa fusion band that burst onto Morocco’s musical scene in 1998 and has been delighting young audiences in the north African country and beyond ever since. In 2008, the New York Times described them as a ‘crowd-wowing, multilingual Maroc ‘n’ roll band’ and in 2010, the Guardian called them ‘a furious post-punk guitar band’.

They are often considered a mouthpiece of the rebellious new generation in search of an identity in the face of obscurantism and Islamic radicalism that currently plagues Arab societies.

morocco- culture- The Hoba Hoba Spirit band
The Hoba Hoba Spirit band performing life in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2014. Photo Katie Gentile.

The group sings in French, English and Darija (a Moroccan Arabic dialect) and mixes rock and hip-hop with an energizing form of oriental dance. It is for this reason that the group has been nicknamed ‘the Moroccan Clash’.

Since 2003, Hoba Hoba Spirit has attracted an increasing number of young fans. It is now one of the most popular rock acts in Morocco, frequently playing its major festivals, such as the Mawazine Festival in Rabat, L’Boulevard Tremplin in Casablanca, Timitar Festival in Agadir, and the Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essaouira. It is at the latter that the band has had most success.

In 2007, Hoba Hoba Spirit  won three Maghrib Music Awards for best fusion artist, best album for Trabando and best title for the song ‘Fhamator’. In addition, it has given more than 400 concerts in Morocco and beyond and toured the United States in 2014, cementing its reputation. Its seventh album was released in 2016.

There are several reasons for Hoba Hoba Spirit’s popularity: it uses cultural icons that speak to young people; it fuses various musical styles; and it is composed not only of musicians but also of a journalist and social critics such as Reda Allali. The other band members are Anouar Zehouani, Adil Hanine, Saad Bouidi, Othmane Hmimer and Abdessamad Bourhim. All six are from Casablanca.

The band’s success is due also to the democratization of the media, thanks to the spread of the internet and the ability to access information and build networks across national, religious and social boundaries. The increasingly globalized world is another factor in the group’s visibility.

But the real reason for their popularity is that they simultaneously appeal to ordinary Moroccans and link them to universal themes. Their lyrics are well chosen. For example, when they sing ‘we live in a permanent collective delirium’, they reach people because they sing the way they speak and perform what they feel. This emotional openness and the energy with which it is conveyed are contagious.

Hoba Hoba Spirit’s music has also been influenced by the Arab Spring and its aftermath. It is loud like the voices of the millions of people who took to the streets demanding karamah (dignity), and the ‘fearlessness’ of the lyrics and movements are reminiscent of Bob Marley, The Clash, but most importantly of Morocco’s ancient Gnawa rhythms.

Vocalist and guitarist Allali explained Hoba Hoba Spirit in the following terms: “It is a release of the body, the heart and the soul in a spontaneous and chaotic mixture. It is the will to do something that has a strong impact on the moment without worrying about the image or the rest. We want to change this time, we want people’s heart to beat faster, we want them to sweat, we want them to think that the best place in the world is here, is now. It is this spirit that drives us to feel that we can push back the walls.”

A number of other musicians are now imitating or fusing their music with Hoba Hoba Spirit’s, like the popular singer Abdelaziz Stati, who collaborated with the band on the track ‘Wakel Chareb N3es’ in 2010. The collaboration was well received especially in the cosmopolitan city of Casablanca.

The success of Hoba Hoba Spirit is also a victory over fear, as guitarist Anouar Zehouani explained: “The greatest difficulty has been mental, that is to say, how to overcome this situation where we say that everything is difficult, nothing is possible here in Morocco. But once you exceed the limit, everything is possible!”

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