What does a Bic pen have to do with Marrakech and what do you use it for?
Well, the obvious answer is ‘write’. The original Bic pen was a functional design that allowed a very cheap pen to be produced by mass production. It was not beautiful but it was useful and a great improvement on quills, ink pots and nibs.
The Marrakchis (those living in Marrakesh) have managed to transform this mundane item into something of beauty. Already well-known for their beautiful tassels, tie-backs for drapes, the resourcefulness of designers combined with the skill of the tassel maker was then applied to the humble Bic ….
The result is a beautiful, original and inexpensive pen.
Buy a bunch as gifts for family and friends. They do not weigh much, do not cost much – a great gift solution for our guests. Come and stay with us in our boutique hotel , Riad Ariha, situate in the old city (medina) of Marrakech. We now have the pens for sale in the riad — no haggling!
The hunt for treasure among the trash leads writer Derek Workman to the Thursday market at Bab el Khemis.
When painter and writer Danny Moynihan, friend of avant-garde artist Damien Hirst, and author of Boogie Woogie, a novel that dished the dirt on the New York art world, decided to restore a riad in Marrakech’s medina, he and his wife, actress, film-maker and former showgirl Katrine Boorman – daughter of film director John Boorman trawled the markets and souks of Marrakesh for fabrics and furniture. For “almost everything else” they went to the Bab el Khemis flea market.
“Bab” is the Arabic word for gate and, of the 12 gates in the 12 kilometre long, rose-pink 12th-century wall that wraps around the ancient city, Bab el Khemis is one of the oldest. It takes its name from the Thursday market where once camels, horses, mules and asses were sold. According to Arthur Leared, who travelled the country in 1872, ‘On the sale of each animal a guarantee that it has not been stolen, verified by a notary, is required’. How anyone could guarantee the provenance of a rag-tag assembly of worn out critters, (and you could probably use the same term for the dealers), many of which had walked hundreds of kilometres across sand and mountain to end up as camel meat on the tables in the open-air restaurants of the Jmaa el Fnaa, remains a mystery.
As it is Thursday, and the Bab el Khemis market has been on my ‘must-do’ list for ages, I saunter off to see what has been described as “one of world’s greatest mixes of junk and treasures” has to offer. I’m secretly hoping that I might find a decent second-hand Brooks bike saddle at a bargain price, as I do at every flea-market I go to. I haven’t as yet, but it doesn’t stop me secretly hoping.
When I get to the gate I’m disappointed not to see the hordes of hustlers and cascading bric-à-tat that I’d imagined. What I mainly see is lots of young men selling mobile phones and accessories. Some are as carefully displayed in small glass cases as the sparklers Audrey Hepburn saw in the window of Tiffany’s when she was on her way to breakfast; others are simply tumbled in a ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’, but there’s plenty of action going on. I’m impressed by the chap who has brought a full home gym to sell, and wonder if he brings it every week or simply anchors it to a post until the next Thursday. I hope for the sake of the poor donkeys that he brought it by van, because I’ve got one of them at home, (left by a previous tenant and carefully avoided by me), so I know how much they weigh.
I am equally intrigued by a dentist’s chair, circa 1950. Excellent piece of kit it is, and in fine condition. In fact there were two of them, so the erstwhile punter would be stuck for choice if he only wanted one. Perhaps he was considering opening his own clinic and was looking to bulk buy, and even a pair of chairs nearing pensionable age were a damned site preferable to most of those you see used by peripatetic dentists in the souks, something rescued from the kitchen, where they simply plonk the agonised patient down before delving into the dentures with a pair of ancient pliers.
However, it turns out I’ve got the wrong gate. I’m not at the Bab Khemis – that’s a much grander entrance around the corner. I’m at a side entrance, but I’ve been sufficiently entertained by what I’ve seen so far that I decide to dive into the souk and come out by the main gate later, to see if I’m missing anything. I stroll in through an archway that draws me into a clattering, banging, screeching, grinding, shower-of-sparks-flying pandemonium. To everyone else it’s just the daily noise of the metal-workers souk.
Whether it’s something that involves metal in its construction – mopeds, bicycles, ancient sewing machines – or is something that will be made entirely from metal — window grills, decorative arches, tables and chairs ; there’s someone here who can fix it or make it. Scattered everywhere are large sheets of metal, long strips of steel two fingers wide, pencil-thin rolled rods that are bent and twisted to create intricate designs. Sparks shoot from angle grinders like spinning Catherine wheels as young men, with no protection other than a pair of sunglasses and a cloth wrapped around their face (and sometimes neither of those) cut, burnish and smooth. Everything is covered by a fine black powder, but this is Morocco, and the dusty monotone is alleviated by the brightly colored djellabas of passers-by.
I watch a group of four men working on different parts of an ornate arch, just over two metres high and slightly less wide. The main structure is finished, and a young man draws the curlicue design in chalk on the concrete floor of the workshop that will be created by the thin metal rods at his side. When he is satisfied with the design he measures the first section, a shallow curve, and cuts a piece of the required length from the five-metre rod. With a lump hammer and his cold chisel, he slowly curves the metal until it reproduces perfectly the design he has drawn on the concrete. Everything cut, bent, curved and twisted by hand, and each piece slotting perfectly in place. I’m fascinated and could watch him for hours, but I’m dying for a coffee.
Turning away from the street of the metal workers I wander down a cluttered alleyway of wonderful ancient doors, rolls of antique rugs, Lloyd-loom chairs, exquisitely painted tables, worn and patinated with age, a ’50s pram, plastic garden recliners — and yes, I even see the kitchen sink, as well as one for the bathroom, along with its bath, toilet and bidet, all in the chunky cut-corner style of Art Deco.
I also pass men and women squatting on the ground behind a pile of odds and ends that can have no conceivable value other than to someone who has nothing of value at all; a Kodak cartridge camera, a pair of stiletto-heeled shoes with one stiletto, an alarm clock with no hands, odd socks, seven-year old magazines in Spanish — similar detritus you can see on every flea-market in the world.
I hear the Koran being sung, the beautiful a cappella coming from a tinny-sounding loudspeaker hung outside a café at an alley junction bustling with second-hand clothes vendors. Anticipating a hot coffee, the sound draws me towards a table like the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Parking myself in one of those plastic garden chairs that succumb to too much time in the sun and bend when you lean backwards, I wave at a passing waiter and ask for a café au lait. It could well be my accent, or he may not speak French, but he casts a bemused look around the other clients, obviously not having understood any of the three words I’ve just spoken. “Mint tea,” a voice says in English, but I’ve no idea which table it came from. Obviously coffee’s off the menu. “Bien”, I say, and the waiter goes off to get it.
He comes back a couple of minutes later with a glass of something that looks as if it has been sitting around for a while, probably at the bottom of a u-bend of a kitchen sink. I reach into my pocket for some money. “One dirham,” a different voice says. “One dirham” I think, ten centimos, cheap in any currency, about one-tenth what you would pay elsewhere. I hand the coin over — never look a gift glass in the mouth.
“A mange,” says the chap with the grey stubble and wool bobble hat at the next table. They may not be big conversationalists, but they all helpfully want to get in on the act. I suddenly realise that I’m sat at a workers caff, and everyone else is getting stuck-in to bowls of bean soup or something made from bits of innards whose origin I’d really rather not know. But it’s cheap and fortifying and obviously pretty popular. No-one objects that I’m taking up a table with only a cup of mint sludge, so I sit for a while and watch the second-hand clothes salesman hawking their wares.
Afterwards, I wander into an enclosed part of the furniture makers souk, piled to the ceiling with beds, tables, fat mattresses and, it has to be said, some painfully ugly “mogernised” pieces, (that’s not a typo, it’ a derogatory word a friend invented to cover all the ugliest aspects of modern design).
One of the things that always amazes me is that in Europe, and most probably in the US and elsewhere, so much of the furniture is made from composites; plywood, block-board, chip-board, MDF — sawdust, wood shavings and a lot of glue — but in Morocco furniture is usually made out of proper wood, the stuff that actually comes direct from the trees. Okay, some of it might look as if it has been rescued from pallets, but it’s still wood.
I pass a young lad in his teens carving intricate scroll work in the top of a small table. His curved chisels are almost worn to nothing, from generations of grinding and sharpening. He uses a squared-off length of wood with one end roughly round as a handle as he carefully taps the chisel, turning his hand slowly to create a curve in the scroll, all the while chatting to his friend whose busy planing the sixty degree angle of one of the joints that will form the traditional hexagonal table.
I’m back at my workshop in the Lake District thirty years ago, choosing a length of wood from my scrap box to use as a mallet to carve the finer points of a design, my usual rounded mallet being too weighty for fine work. I’m suddenly brought back to reality when I look further into the workshop and see a large band saw where, beneath as sign that tells you without any subtlety, ATTENZIONE ALLE MANI! “watch your hands in any language” a worker is cutting a fine curve in a piece of wood without any guard on the blade. I shiver at the thought that there’s someone could easily lose one of his mani if he doesn’t pay enough attenzione.
In the wider alleyways you can hear the rattling sounds of mopeds and small vans long enough ahead in time to get out of the way and let them pass. It’s not the same with the donkeys and carts, though. The carts usually have rubber tyres, although nine times out of ten, worn down to the webbing, and the donkeys don’t exactly make the coconut clacking sound of horses galloping, given their docility and sedate pace. The first thing you know that you are stopping someone in pursuance of their livelihood is when you hear someone shouting, “Balek, balek,” which means, “Make way, make way,” but is usually said in a tone that more realistically says, “Oi, you, shift your arse!”
More by chance than design, I find myself back at the door through which I entered the souk. No, I didn’t find my Brooks saddle, but there again, I have refrained from being tempted by any of its multitude of offerings. Still, there is always next Thursday at Bab el Khemis.
Our guest blogger, Derek Workman, is an English journalist living in Valencia City, Spain — although he admits to a love of Morocco and would love to up sticks and move here. To read more about life in Spain visitSpain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.
An innovative recording studio in Marrakesh is opening doors for promising Moroccan musicians, writes our regular contributor, Derek Workman.
When the gods of rock and roll tell you it’s time to move on by flooding your recording studio twice in six months and then setting fire to it, just to make sure you got the message, you really do need to take notice.Nick Wilde lost everything in 2007 when his London-based production house, Fat Fox, went up in flames, so he and his wife Tatiana decided to step back for six months and see where life took them. It took them to Marrakesh, which, according to Nick, is the farthest you can get from London culturally in a three-and-a-half hour flight. The mixture of hedonism and history, the ancient narrow streets of the Medina and the up-beat modernity of Guèliz create an intoxicating brew. “There are some brilliant young musicians living in the Medina,” says Nick, “but most of them come from very meagre backgrounds, and there’s no way they could ever get produced, so when Tatiana and I bought an old riad and began to restore it, it seemed an obvious idea to convert part of it into a studio.” Mix in the rhythms of ribab, the Berber and Sufi songs of Gnawa, rap based on traditional African beats heard in the alleyways of the souks, and Nick’s own experience of house, electronic and hip-hop, and you begin to get a heady cross-cultural blend that’s particularly special. “We didn’t intend to start a business, but once I got a bit known, more and more people began to come to the studio. There’s a very rich network of talent to work with here and eventually I was working with some very interesting musicians from the Sahara, Agadir, Casablanca, all over Morocco. The whole thing just came together organically. I didn’t particularly plan it to happen.” Marrakchi Records was born.Nick and Marrakchi got their first major break when Café del Mar contacted him to produce a couple of tracks. He brought together a group of young musicians, who became Blue Medina, and although Café del Mar didn’t eventually use the material, the brother of one of the band sent a copy of the CD to 2M, the national radio and TV station. Their track, The Edge of the World, did very well on Moroccan radio and found its way on to several compilations in Europe.As a result, Nick had a phone call from Younes Lazrak, one of the main presenters, who loved the work Nick was doing. He offered Nick a forty-minute TV programme based on the bands and musicians working with Marrakchi Records. “That was Monday and I was in England,” recalls Nick. “The live show was on Saturday in Casablanca. We had four days to rehearse, and these were kids who had never even performed live, never mind in front of a camera. They went down an absolute storm.”
According to Nick, it’s this someone-passing-something-onto-someone-else that is the essence of working in Morocco. “Here almost everything is done through word of mouth, family and friends. So much happens out of the blue. It’s much more difficult to approach someone in London, but here everyone is helpful because they know it’s difficult to operate in the music business in Morocco, because it’s actually a very small industry.”
The new album is now available
It was through Younes Lazrak that Nick found some of the musicians for his new album, Caravane (pictured above), which he describes as down-tempo and laid-back, a mixture of electronic and acoustic with a lot of Moroccan sounds. The vocals are in Arabic, but done in a way that is accessible to an international audience. During its recording, he was surprised to find that no-matter how contemporary the music seemed, it was still highly influenced by traditional themes. “Moroccans are highly patriotic people and have enormous respect for their musical traditions. It even shows itself in the rap scene, which is huge here,” he says.
At first glance, it’s not easy to uncover the music scene in Marrakech, beyond the westernised versions of Moroccan music found in the main clubs and hotels, but for Nick that can be a good thing. “It’s part of travel. You don’t always want to be spoon-fed everything; it can be a lot more interesting to go and find things yourself. Some of the smaller bars and clubs are beginning to put on traditional music, often mixed with European beats, but some of the best events are spontaneous. Occasionally you’ll hear of a group of Gnawa musicians taking over an old warehouse or large space and playing and dancing through the night. They are incredible, but never publicised. Perhaps that’s why there is no recognised “scene” as such. There is no sort of ‘What’s On’ guide to publicise things.”
Like anywhere in the world, throughout Marrakesh there are hundreds of kids recording music on computers in ‘bedroom studios’, but these are mainly backing tracks for rap. Marrakchi Records is one of only a handful of studios that can take budding musicians on to the next step.
“There’s a brilliant Moroccan producer called DJ Van, who’s probably the top producer for rap in the country. He’s having a lot of success with Fnaire. Kamar Studios are also in the Medina, and they’ve just released a three CD set of minimal trance called The Black Album, but they work mainly with bigger names, and most of their work is for films and major sound-scapes. They did the music for the opening of La Mamoumia, Marrakesh’s iconic hotel, after its €40 million re-fit. Apart from them, I’m the only small independent producer in the City, and the only one who actually works a lot with local kids. On the other hand, though, Marrakesh is becoming a major destination for international bands to record in because it’s such a great place to come to. There are a number of top-flight – and very, very expensive – studios springing up around the city.”
Oum in performance mode
Marrakchi’s reputation has reached the point where Nick was able to call on the amazing vocals of Oum and the ribab and violin of Foulane, two of Morocco’s top musicians, who also have large followings in Europe, when he produced Caravane, but it was a long time getting there.
Nick and Foulane in the studio
“It’s very slow getting established here. It took me about three years to begin to make any money at all, but even now, four years since I began producing in Marrakech, I still have to rely on about fifty percent of my income from the work I do in the UK.” And following his intention to get music from the Magreb known to a wider international audience can also be pretty time consuming. Nick spent over a year travelling around Morocco recording the music for Caravane, which finally comes out on release in November this year.Marrakech is in the musical eye at the moment, but there are plenty of other places on the up. “Essaouira is a great place to explore for music. There’s always live music on somewhere, and one of the best times to go is in June for the World Music Festival. It’s incredible, and bands come from all over the world. Agadir is also good, but for me the most interesting place at the moment is M’hammid, a town on the edge of the Sahara, about a ten-hour drive south from Marrakech. There’s music everywhere, every street corner has someone playing. They have the Nomads Festival every March, where you have both international musicians and nomadic bands from the desert playing. That’s my next project; I’m going to go to the area with a camera crew to record the desert rock that’s coming out of the region for release on CD and as a TV programme. Caravane has just been released and is now available from : Click hereTo listen to a sample,click here.
In Marrakech? — Come and see the Art exhibition by self-taught Moroccan artist, Moulay Hicham El Mansour, from February 7 to 25, 2012 at the Lawrence Arnott Gallery, Immeuble El Khalil, Avenue des Nations Unies, Marrakech (opposite the Royal Gendarmerie).
The artist was discovered by the Lawrence Arnott Gallery in Tangiers in 2007. His first exhibition was such a success that a TV program was made about him by Channel 2 Moroccan TV.
His art is colourful, joyful and original — in an abstract impressionistic way.
The writer certainly has an eye for detail catching the atmosphere of the Medina of Marrakech. THE VIEW FROM FEZ: Marrakech Art Fair: The Marrakech Art Fair has just closed, but all reports indicate that the event’s founder,Vanessa Devereux, is extremely pleased with the p…
Luxury for less – great accommodation in Marrakech