Loreena McKennitt in Morocco

Loreena McKennitt in Morocco

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Niema had organised a trip to Morocco so that Loreena could experience the culture, listen to the music and meet the people of North Africa. In this excerpt Loreena, Niema and her friend Jeremy head deep into the desert. Niema’s journal paints an evocative picture of their trip out of Marrakesh and into the heart of the forbidding Sahara

by Niema Ash

Niema had organised a trip to Morocco so that Loreena could experience the culture, listen to the music and meet the people of North Africa. In this excerpt Loreena, Niema and her friend Jeremy head deep into the desert. Niema’s journal paints an evocative picture of their trip out of Marrakesh and into the heart of the forbidding Sahara.

A bit scary driving in the desert with track marks crisscrossing each other and no clues to go by: it certainly is easy to get lost. The sand makes driving painful – slipping and churning. Hassan is hardly any help as sands keep shifting and tracks keep changing – anxiety all around. But by 7:00 o’clock we crawl into Merzuga, triumphant. It’s just getting dark – we make it before nightfall by a hair’s breath. Drop Hassan on outskirts. The village is right up against dunes, absolutely quiet, not a soul about, what noise? What hassle? We could use some hassle, some noise, some sign of life. Fortunately Hotel Marzouga is not far away. Arrive with the last rays of light. Seems like the edge of the universe, the edge of time.

We are given two adjoining rooms with three beds for less than £8. Loreena has back problems and I make sure she gets the best bed. She has one room, Jeremy and I share the other – very primitive. No electricity or running water, but surprisingly clean. We are the only guests. Even more surprisingly, we can get dinner later on. We order salad, tagine, oranges. Outside, clear starry night, absolute stillness.

I ask about the possibility of listening to Moroccan music. The two boys who run the place say they play drums and sing and will invite some friends and play for us. Although there is no sign of cooking, dinner somehow appears by 9:30 and is surprisingly good – probably prepared in one of the village houses and couriered over. French boy and girl arrive and a blue-eyed Berber who, at first, we think is also French. The three Moroccans play and sing. They are very much in tune with each other and we’re told they play at weddings, festivals, etc. They make fabulous music together – I’m so pleased for Loreena. It’s amazing how Moroccans are able to conjure up meals and music from nowhere. The French people are simpatico, especially the guy, Michael, a traveller, very much into the spiritual aspect of things.

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I suggest playing one of Loreena’s tapes. Jeremy thinks it’s a great idea: Loreena resists, feeling her music would be out of place. She’s constantly worried about inappropriate behaviour, a concern which mounts in proportion to her growing fame, but Jeremy and I who have no growing fame, manage to convince her. We play some tracks from ‘The Visit’ on a battery-operated cassette player and they are thrilled to bits. Michael insists on hearing more – says he finds the music very spiritual. He looks like he’s caught some of the spiritual and has broken into a glow. The Moroccans are dumbstruck, can’t believe their good fortune. They love the music – are lit up by the event of it. Rather than being out of place Loreena’s music is wonderfully in place, it seems to fit the special qualities of the desert, to enhance the stillness, the haunting nature of silence and space. The Moroccans are alight with pleasure and the French people with the mystery, the magical synchronicity, the karmic significance – radiance all around.

At one point when the tape is playing, they can’t believe it’s Loreena singing. They keep pointing to her in disbelief and saying, “Non, c’est pas toi,” (“It’s not you”). Jeremy shows them her photo on the cassette cover and asks if they want to see her passport. They laugh, overwhelmed by the sense of occasion. Loreena gets into the high spirit of things and sings along with the tape; standing ovation – how wonderful to be able to give such pleasure.

Michael advises us to get up early as sunrise in the desert is spectacular – we’re right by the largest dune in Morocco, Erg Chebbi. Approach my bed replete with the satisfaction of a special night in a very special place. Before going to sleep I step from the front door into the sand – absolute stillness – get caught up in the stars and the dark outline of dunes.

I was gratified a year later, in 1994, when she released ‘The Mask and the Mirror’. The sounds of Morocco were unmistakable. In her recording of ‘Marrakesh Night Market’, even the images we had encountered were etched into her lyrics: the swirling smoke, the circles of people in the market place, the dancing cobras, the hooded men; and her album notes included the rooftop café, the night market experience, the magic of the Moroccan adventure. The richness of the musical arrangements, using a wide variety of instruments, prevalent in ‘The Mask and the Mirror’, was even more evident in ‘The Book of Secrets’, released in 1997, with her eclectic use of instruments. She even included a hurdy gurdy. Thirty-two musicians participated in that album, playing a diverse range of instruments, including such little known ones as the serangi, bodhran, rebec, shawm, timba, esraj, as well as four types of guitars and the more usual cello, violin, percussion, all playing together with her piano, harp, accordion and vocals. The arrangements were hers, a measure of her exceptional talent. Even more remarkable was the fact that no one else in her family had the slightest musical aptitude. Hers was a unique gift, or, as she preferred to call it, a special visit. So was our visit to Morocco.

Extracted from Travels with Loreena McKennitt by Niema Ash, Purple Inc Press, 2005 ISBN 0-9550301-0-2.

Niema Ash is the author of Travels with Loreena McKennitt: My Life as a Friend, Touching Tibet, and Travels With My Daughter. Her website is www.niemaash.com.

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