The prefigurative temple: On spirit possession, aesthetic perception, intuition, and exorcism among the brotherhoods of Morocco
Three a.m. in Tangiers’ Socco Chico and the usual alley-lurkers’ muffled murmurs are overpowered by the sounds of the pipes, swinging out of orbit and then reeling the atmosphere back in. The sounds absorb every inch of flesh present, taking in each thrust of brittle black hair, each organ’s pulse as their own.
The aging glass windowpanes are rattling on the balconies of the flat above the red light district’s emblematic establishment, Café Najja. Occasionally, one can sight moving black streaks made by the loose hair of those in hadra tossing to the Hamatcha’s pipes. Inside is a traditional salon, dimly lit by a single incandescent bulb suspended from the arched high ceiling. The crowd of bodies on the floor blocks the French balconies that line the room, overlooking Tangiers’ narrow alleys and the old fisher’s port two stories below. Each time the Muqaddim beats his derbouka (drum), off-white chips of old paint sprinkle onto the mass. Dense smoke rises from the center of the percussion. Its source--the aaf’ia--is masked by the colorfully striped derboukas.
The two pipes are slightly elevated along the room’s octagonal perimeter. Their melodies float over the swarm of heads directly to Fatima’s, which orbits as if it were bound to nothing. Her violent repeated bows from the hip defeat gravity in their timeless levitations with each beating of the derbouka. Her scarf leaves a black trail as her head shoots towards the pipes. The rif changes, the pace quickens, and now Fatima’s hands rise. She is released from the earthward pulsing but now spins around, facing away from the rhaita players. Her hands meet her face. She lets out a sustained shriek and begins to beat both cheeks with open palms. The lights do not change. Only Rashida reacts. She gets up and gently takes a hold of Fatima’s palms, pacifying her scream, and gestures to me for something strongly scented. I spray my left wrist and extend it to Fatima who immed-iately resumes her earthward throbbing. She collides with the fragrance and is lifted back into the music.
The house is full beyond its capacity. Guests pile themselves onto dusty sofas, bookshelves, and dilapidated antique chairs in the unlit hallway. The adjacent sea-facing salon--a square--is the most jovial of rooms. The chandelier is lit, but seems to dim when hit by the rhaitas. Some men carry light conver-sations while passing around kif, but most stare intently at the walls, absorbed in the sounds from the next room. Down the hallway, another set of paneled doors is ajar. Inside, six women sit around a mahogany dining table, chain-smoking from a common pack of Gitanes. Aziza lies stiffly asleep on the tufted sofa--her bones deaf to the mingling of the women’s animated stories with the loud pipes. She has just arrived from her late-night factory shift, exhausted.
I venture down the round marble staircase to check if any newcomers are waiting at the front door. The Hamatcha sounds blare into the alleyway. The usual crowd of cigarette vendors and night owls stationed along the former Rue des Postes are out later than usual. The neighbors nod to the Hamatcha but continue their nightly business. Houda has joined them, lightly swinging her head to the music but with a fixedly stern expression. I let her in and we climb the round marble steps framed by a crumbling iron railing. Seema, my twelve-year-old neighbor exits her flat and insists on joining upstairs. “What else am I to do? Of course there is no sleep tonight.” I am silently pleased. Seema does not stay in the room of gyrating women, nor that of smoking men. She goes directly to the balcony, falling into a light trance by herself until dawn.
I, too, found the ritual spaces of the Hamatcha irresistible upon first encounter. Never before had I been so intensely pulled into a music--fully vulnerable to its traject-ories. The organic presence (translated as hadra) is not to be found in traditional rhaita music, played at weddings and celebrations, nor popular recorded versions of Moroccan “sufi”-inspired music, often featuring well known ma’aalems singing along to traditional melodies.
Ritual music follows and in turn, dictates, the ritual space and all those bodies (and spirits) present. All members of the Hamatcha share certain riffs and can react similarly to particular energies or convulsions of the body. Their sonic navigation of the space is an improvisation directed at inducing a state of possession and extracting harmful spirits.
The hadra and sensory perception
The lila is not an extended music recital or concert. Rather, it is an open-ended navigation of space and spirits by the brotherhood. The language for accessing certain djinn is embedded within the various rhythms and musical riffs within the Hamatcha repertoire.
Lilas and the weekly Friday hadra at the zaouia (public gathering place of the Hamatcha) enables a deeper consciousness of the affective potential of all aesthetic stimuli. It feels like being born into a space for the first time--a burst of sensations release, each gesture raw. This heightened awareness strengthened that which I could already intuitively sense – for instance, the aura of a room, street corner, or individual. Those reactions that may seem only slight intuitions, overpowered by rational thought in everyday life, are fully realized during this presence. During the lila it is not uncommon for the lights to change, people to have radical reactions to certain colors, scents, and of course--the sounds themselves. In inducing presence in this way, the hadra opens us to the potency of everything in our present environment – dispelling a sensory numbness inherited through increased dependence on rational thought.
The Gnaoua brotherhood is particularly explicit in linking the various sonic elements of their lila to colors. For instance, they begin in blue, move to red, and dip into black at a later part of the night. The Hamatcha do not structure their ritual according to this schema. However, each individual that falls is usually aware of which colors penetrate them most strongly. This includes visual and sonic representations of a color. My mauve colored scarf is very utile at the zaouia on Fridays. A woman often grabs the shawl off my shoulders in a frenzy to conceal – usually some element of red or black – on her own or on another’s body if it is triggering someone to experience an unnecessarily dark presence.
These deeper accessions of spirits are most often reserved for the hadras that last at least a whole night, so that the possession can take its full course. The ill – psychologically – are particularly recommended to experience healing through a lila ceremony. A radical opening and experience of the present state (in its infinite aesthetic and spiritual capacities) can release harmful spirits caught within oneself. A f’qih (healer) may recomm-end a sick individual to host a lila by the Hamatcha, Aissoua, Jilala, Gnaoua, Derkaoua, or one of numerous other brotherhoods even if he does not usually “fall” to such music. The f’qih usually can tell which of the djinn is most responsible for the illness and summons a brotherhood that has a close relationship with this djinn.
Even for those who are not especially ill, the hadra is intensely cleansing. A state of possession is one of total clarity; for the possessed is not restricted in vision to the limited non-spirit realm. Sometimes those in hadra can feel very dark energies, but more than often experience a clarifying ecstasy and loss of all fear. These fears are instigated by being trapped into the limited realm. With a total surrender to the space and comes this realization of the infinite and abandonment of fear.
The hadra and faith
The faith – belief in, and thus willing to surrender oneself and all that is known to a divine presence – is the foundation for experiencing hadra. This faith is strengthened through the lila ritual. Though without this deep sense of faith, those present do not have the ability to so fully surrender. This involves a piercing of time and space, and an evasion of all rational and time-bound identities. The unfaithful cling onto false comforts from fear of the abstract, unknown, infinite. So while they may listen to the sounds of the Hamatcha and even experience some of its presence-inducing effects, they remain shut to a divine grace that is the source of the ultimate ecstasy during the hadra. The full aesthetic potency of the environment is blocked. To a fearful mind, things seem to remain as they are from one moment to the next.
The lila prescribes a liminality that does not subscribe to the notion of sameness and sustained identities as does everyday life. With the suspension of rationality comes a suspension of all that is said to be true from one moment to the next. Spirits can be experienced. Colors are set free. Our limbs are released from their set trajectories. We can be more attentive to the already present djinn, simply by listening. The Hamatcha sounds, too, take their full impact, interacting with organs and spirits and the lights. What can be seen as music in secular contexts is now a divine conversation. It is a sacred architecture that induces, sustains, and conducts one’s present state. The music navigates the spirits in order to heal, celebrate, exorcize, as needed.
A Hamatcha night sets its first rhythm to an acknowledgment of this faith. We arrive at the host’s home hours after dusk. The early few may be sitting patiently awaiting the rest. Trays of water glasses are brought out. The conversation is genuine, but light - usually restricted to inquiring as to the health and wellbeing of those who have not met in some time. Some of the women rearrange themselves so as to remove certain colors they may have worn, or borrow a djellaba from the host. We sit. Many give coins to Hoema with special requests--“two Marlboro,” “three Gauloises,” ”bring me two Marquis.” She takes her fistful of coins and runs downstairs to buy individual cigarettes from the boys watching football in the café. The rest of the Hamatcha arrive hours later – some coming in from other towns. They settle in slowly, livening conversation with their presence. The glasses are now filled with sweet mint tea. The coals are burned and the room is graced with the scent of aaf’ia. Accomp-anied only by one or two elements of percussion, the chant – Allahuma sa’liy’allah, muhammad’a va’ali mohammed. Everyone’s voices ring together. The chants are not compulsory, nor rehearsed, but begin often by one of the brotherhood or those very close to the musicians.
Once the space is cohesive and has acquired a certain tangibility of belief, Abdeslam picks up his rhaita and gives it a few solitary blows. Some eyes widen, some heads lift. Others’ bodies do not shift with the insertion of this element. They may even maintain their recitation of the salvat. The Muqaddim joins the pipe music with his feet. He is now in the center. Everyone nods in unison to the energetic classic Hamatcha riff. Two men rise and along with the Muqaddim they settle, limb by limb, into the music. As they move, they have hold no claim whatsoever on the placement of their head. It tosses freely conscious only to the tempo. It belongs to the pipes.
The hadra does not dictate how one’s physical form is to react or experience these sounds. Each person’s body follows the sounds around them. There is no inter-mediary mode of experiencing, or following the Hamatcha music. It is not a dance, to which one can frivolously move but still retain their identity or their safety. During the lila one is either seated, or when compelled, in the music.
We move in this way with the sounds until either the musicians lifts those in hadra out of their possession, ending with a dump of moment, sound, and energy, or until we drop.
Throughout the hadra, consciousness is sustained--heightened, in fact. Wrapped up in this clarity is the ultimate security for it comes from a very close experience of God--of the divine infinity within and through material reality. This is the ultimate love and the ultimate security. During, and after such a possession, if in fact ecstatic, one can feel a softening of the heart and a collapse of boundaries surrounding individuals. One can not only understand, but also digest the infinite possibility that resides within each moment and find comfort, rather than fear, within this possibility.
Later on in the evening, Mohammed “S’tito”, the Muqaddim has shifted out of his usual buoyancy and is now dripping a thick line of blood from the top of his bald skull. In his right hand, a knife. His energy is as usual, though now his feet do not lift as high off the ground with each sounding of the derbouka. He is caught in the music in a way that I have never before seen, for he is usually watching over the others and dictating another’s possession. Now Mohammed is jumping without the usual glances directed at the whole room but he himself is in this ecstatic state. I have just come out of the hadra, still dizzy with joy, the back of my head very heavy. The knots in my stomach prevent long thoughts and are a constant reminder of how much love I am experiencing. Though when covered in another’s blood at other lilas and moussems I found the smell and texture concerning, I now can share Mohammed’s blood and feel only joy alongside.
“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” – Hassin-i-Sabbah
After dawn, we all sit on the floor around round tables covered in plastic mats, tearing meat from a common dish with our hands before returning home along Tangier’s empty beach. Mohammed apologizes to six-year-old Wissal if his expressions of ecstasy earlier frightened them. It is unusual for him to enter hadra at a lila at which he is in charge. She shows no acknowledgment of being even remotely afraid upon the sight of his skull streaked with fresh blood. Wissal experienced her hadra that night for the first time.
The story of Zahjouka (Joujouka, Jajouka)
The phenomenon of rhaita music has been popularized by a village by the name of Zahjouka in the Rif mountains, just forty minutes east of the market town of Ksar El-Kebir. References of music in Zahjouka prior to the village’s commercialization of their powers parrallel the lilas and hadras of the Sufi brotherhoods. The village is home to the tomb of the saint Sidi Ahmed Sheikh. Zahjouka (in recordings referred to as Joujouka and Jajouka) has magical abilities towards the curing of insanity and infertility. The musicians, too, use their presence-inducing rhythms for healing rituals.
During the twentieth century, these same musicians were discovered by artist Brion Gysin. Gysin describes his discovery of Zahjouka’s music in an interview with Terry Wilson: “I heard some music at that festival about which I said: ‘I Just want to hear that music for the rest of my life. I wanna hear it everyday all day. And uh, there were a great many other kinds of extraordinary music offered to one, mostly of the Ecstatic Brotherhood who enter into trance, so that in itself – it was the first time I’d seen large groups of people going into trance – was enough to have kept my attention, but beyond and above all of that somewhere I heard this funny little music, and I said: ‘Ah! That’s my music! And I must find out where it comes from.’ So I stayed and within a year I found that it came from Jajouka…[tape stops]” (Vale 1982: 47). Gysin proceeded to develop an economic relationship with the musicians in which he could hear this music all day everyday. “Oh the restaurant [1001 Nights] came about entirely because of them…I said ‘I would like to hear your music everyday’ and, uh, they said ‘Well, why don’t you just stick around and live in the village?’ And I said, ‘No, that isn’t possible, I have to go back and earn my living”…and they said, “Well, then why don’t you open a little café, a little joint, some place in Tangier, and we’ll come down and make the music and, uh, we’ll split the money?”
This little café, set up in Tangiers as the 1001 Nights, was not an entrepreneurial success, but did break significant ground in making the Zahjouka musicians known among musicians and record labels on the global scale. Subsequent visits to Zahjouka included William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Ornette Coleman, Robert Palmer, Bill Laswell, and Brian Jones. Brian Jones created an LP with the musicians, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka on Rolling Stones Records in 1971, giving Zahjouka’s music international prominence.
Through the generations, the group of village musicians has split into two bands, with Bachir Attar leading the Master Musicians of Jajouka - a group that often tours in Europe and North America but no longer resides in the village itself; and another composed of descendants of the Zahjouka musicians that continues to reside and play in the village known as the Master Musicians of Joujouka (note the spelling difference). The Master Musicians of Joujouka perform shows in the village itself that serve as “lilas” for enjoyment and entertainment. The sounds regurgitate the melodies of Zahjouka’s sacred music, acknowledging the ritual from which this music stems but straying from it by using the same forms without the improvisation and cohesive faith.
Still, the village retains its magic. The land and abilities of the resident families of Zahjouka retain their curative powers – and in some ways this is sustained in Zahjouka’s music. Yet, the rhaita and lute tunes that once formed an integral part of the village’s powers have been overshadowed through the groups’ continued exposure in the west and re-adaptation of their own ritual music to Western performance traditions and under-standing of what music is.
Certain groups of the Sufi brotherhoods have fallen into similar patterns as with the case of Zahjouka. The Gnaoua frequently record albums of music and collaborate with foreign musicians. The space of secular festival and sacred ritual gradually blur together. The Hamatcha brotherhood from Fes has begun to perform elements of their ritual for mixed audiences as a concert of their lila.
Despite this penetration of sacred rituals by rationalizing economic pressures, the spirit world persists. In this way, presence – the hadra – too, persists. Specific sites and situations are altered with circumstance, but our most human quality of understanding clarity, having faith, knowing fear, and experiencing ecstasy in its absence remains. The Hamatcha--and other brotherhoods--maintain their ritual as it was performed for many generations--allowing it to naturally adapt to the present circumstances.
To this day, the Aissoua and Hamatcha brotherhoods commemorate the birth of Prophet Mohamed by walking from Sidi Ali to Moulay Idriss Zerhoun In the Atlas mountains on Meloud. Meloud, for the brotherhoods, is the largest and longest hadra. It takes place outdoors over the course of several days. It is common during meloud for many to bleed joyfully by throwing their bodies onto the Hindiye cactus plants. The sounds induce bodily presence that can then unfold within nature and the natural landscape. New gestures are born into this environment. Interactions with humans and the spirits take are more keen. Many sight or have long direct interactions with visible apparitions of close djinn. This extended presence unhinges the heads, clarifies the mind, and releases the possibilities of becoming.
Return to table of contents