A brief history of Casa / Back-pocket Medina recordings

Jun 15, 2011 by        Blog, Morocco 2011

Like so many ports in Africa, Casablanca is a post-colonial palimpsest.  To a casual visitor, it looks like a single city: blockish off-white buildings in the center, shanty towns at the periphery, satellite dishes everywhere.  But despite the apparent uniformity of the modern commercial districts, a slow walk across town reveals something very different.  Casablanca is not one city but several, each built around and on top of the last by a new wave of Berber or European conquerors.

First settled by Berbers in the 7th century BC and subsequently used as a port by both Phoenicia and Rome, Casablanca had already been sacked twice – by the Almoravids and the Marinids – before European imperialism arrived on the scene.  From the 15th to the 19th centuries the city changed hands between Portugal, Spain, and the Marrakech Sultanate, before being annexed to the French Protectorate in 1910.  It was the French, in particular the architect Henri Prost, who designed the look and layout of contemporary downtown Casablanca, and the French colonial urban planning has remained largely intact since Moroccan independence in 1956.

Pre-French Casablanca still survives, but it’s hidden: behind the old city walls, the Ancienne Medina is another world entirely from the taxi-choked thoroughfares and WWI-era office buildings just outside.  Part souq and part residential neighborhood, the Medina is a maze of shops and homes retrofitted into buildings that mostly date from the 19th century.  While not as sprawling as some of the city’s other souqs, in the Medina you can still buy anything from a bootleg Louis bag to a live rooster, and we stopped at several stalls there on our quest to buy enough CD’s for all of our Kickstarter backers.  Although this neighborhood contains some of the poorer parts of Casablanca proper, there is no sense of decay.  The people are friendly and seem to be doing good business; the architecture is fairly well preserved, and many homes are adorned with beautiful antique tilework.

Sonically and visually the Ancienne Medina is totally disparate from the rest of Casablanca, and this morning I set out with my camera and Tally’s digital voice recorder in the hope of capturing some of its unique vibe.  In addition to the photos throughout this post, I took a continuous recording of my walk through the neighborhood in the style of Sarah Peebles’ 108.  Two excerpts are embedded below; listening to them, you get the dubious privilege of riding through the Medina in my back pocket.  The mic brushing the seat of my pants keeps time; when it pauses, I either saw something interesting or got stuck behind a vegetable cart.

Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of these recordings is the ubiquity of music in the background.  We’ve been telling you about Moroccan music in the abstract for quite some time now (and our backers will be getting CD’s very soon!), but here you can hear the music in everyday use, a refreshing contrast to studio recordings stripped of their performative and social contexts.

Medina pocket recording #1:

Medina pocket recording #2:





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