Ahwach, the Amazigh tradition in Morocco

The traditional Berber dance, symbol of Ouarzazate and South-East Morocco

Troupe Ahwach au festival d'Ouarzazate - 2012

The art of the Amazigh tribes

Ahwach represents one of the great traditional cultures of the Moroccan Amazigh communities.  It is an art form directly linked to the rural world.  It exists principally in the High Atlas and in the Anti-Atlas. Ahwach combines song, poetry, moving the body and percussion instruments

It is a collective dance involving the women with the men in the same choreography.

In an exclusively oral Amazigh culture, Ahwach represents a mode of expression and transmission of individual experience as well as that of the tribe as a whole.  Rich connotations specific to its culture, this artistic tradition brings the immortal epochs of Amazigh communities.

Previously, Awach was practised at a place situated at the heart of the village, known in Amazigh as “Assarag” or “Assais”. It was a large courtyard dedicated to all the ceremonies of the community.

Dressed in white djellabas, and turbans, the men place themselves in the middle of the courtyard equipped with tambourines and drums. One man, bringing his hand to his mouth to increase the resonance, launches into a full throated yet haunting song. This is the Anksalim.  He announces that Ahwach has begun.

The women in white, pink and blue dresses …. their heads prettily covered in fringed scarves and trimmed with authentic Berber jewels then form a circle around the men. The beating of the tambourines echoes this haunting chant.  The ululations of the women punctuate the introduction.  The women slowly begin their dance round the group of men.  The rhythms reach a crescendo.

The sinusous undulation of the dancers, swinging their bodies up and down, is complemented by the beauty of the poetry that enchants an ecstatic crowd.  Together these women and men fascinate through their talent as lyricists. They vye in the composition of verses challenging each other through a fluid variation of themes:  from the sacred to the profane, with an invocation of divinities, a quest for origins, outpourings of the heart, seduction … This beautiful poetic versifying is in complete harmony  with the effervescence of their bodies.

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An official art form

Ahwach continues to be a popular dance practised during ceremonious gatherings of Amazigh tribes of South East Morocco. However, this nocturnal ceremony took on an official and more solemn aspect during  the time of the Glaoua caïds. These powerful overlords, who reigned over the entire South-East for decades during the colonial period were passionate about this art. Obsessed with the pomp of their social rank and their institutional image, the caïds safeguarded the aesthetics and poetry of Ahwach.

Troupe d'Ahwach autrefois dans la casbah de Tifoultoute

As a result, all the Glaoua strongholds, and especially the kasbahs of Telouet, Taourirte and Tifoultoute were Ahwach arenas par excellence. The Glaoua chiefs themselves dictated the rules for these events and played the role of master of ceremonies. Their wives and their harem watched the Ahwach shows hidden behind the windows of their rooms overlooking the central courtyard where the festivities were taking place. The performers from these kasbahs are still the most renowned Ahwach specialists.

Ahwach, the expression of the intimate

For Amazigh women and men alike, Ahwach is a space for expression and emancipation. It is a breach of restraints, a time for dreams, intoxication and fantasy … as their bodies become ignited in a mystical ritual where the dancer-singers create their own ideal universe. Each woman and each man is animated by a pwoerful desire to assert their individuality through the magic of the word; the fruit of an inexhaustible inspiration.

Ahwach is a beloved opportunity for expressing the passions of the heart. Love is expressed in all its forms: betrayal, separation, the beginnings of affection, memories of love, an outpouring from the lovers in great eloquence. But the conservative framework of the tribes and the deep concern for morality lead the speakers to resort to a pictorial style with a strong use of analogies. Only the zealous and the speakers involved, male or female, are able to decipher the hidden message with any ease.

The elegance of Berber women during Ahwach
The elegance of Berber women during Ahwach

Igh ourta inni yan awal anguiss itguiwir.
Igh ourta chrriguent as mkkar tnt igna yan.
Ouada d gnnough adagh youkern ifoulan.
Wala tasmi ingha guingh laman.
Tassank as ttaggat yan trit irak.
Tasa nou assen ougguigh kiyyi anguiss oufigh.
Isso kan aggiss ttazzal oura ettenouallat.
Ddimma nnek afas nga i tassa tannalin.
A ghghad izouren s lbelght ami tousaaent.
A gghad ihwan ami douchkant f oudar nes.
Llah oualem llah ouaelm nnigh nekki.
Mra ssinhg i sra ddigrou laz i tamment.
Ikout nhsar adad i nou four tint irouh.
Attamment nou lilil dou ghroum nk a kerziz.
Adagh ifka ouhbib ifk lqoul i wyyad.

Words are controllable before being uttered.
Things need to be sewn before they are torn.
It was my sewing companion who stole the thread.
And the needle too. He betrayed me.
Look at your heart! The one you love cherishes you too.
There is only you in my heart.
You walk it without fatigue.
It is only you I love.
The first one who tries on the slippers will not fit them.
The one who is patient will be his good point.
Maybe that’s me.
If I had known that after honey there would be hunger.
I wouldn’t have dipped my finger into it.
It is the honey of colocynth and sour bread
That my beloved made me taste, and gave promise to the other.

At the beginning, the singer talks about his ardent passion for his beloved. He then expresses his disappointment at seeing her leave with another man. He compares love to honey and betrayal to coloquine; a reference to the elements of nature that are very well known in the region. The former symbolises happiness and satisfaction through its sweet taste, the latter is a symbol of discomfort and suffering due to its sour taste.

Ahwach groups at the Ouarzazate Festival

The poetry at the heart of Ahwach

In the past, large Ahwach festivities were organised with the gathering of several tribes. Each tribe was represented by a storyteller. The honour of the community then depended on the talent of its poet and his ability to “defeat” his opponents. Each storyteller-singer was thus confronted with the challenge of improvisation and the best of them received the title of poet, the “anddame” in the Amazigh language, in honour of the community they represented.

At the beginning of an Ahwach performance, the poets taunt their opponents pretending not to know them. This is a common ploy to provoke a duel, as the following verse demonstrates:

Igh Iharka yan izam iffagh tissental.
Ar ikkat s lbaroud as isslla kiwan.
A dour isker tissemzay i mattak issen.
Agh nnit a lmounad achkou niwi fllak.
Agh nnit i oujbad awrak infergh lmenchar.
Agh nnit a yazerg lhmoul rsan fllak.
Yan izdan imendi nss atmen i wyyad.

Face me! Don’t hide!
Pull hard so that everyone can hear you!
Beware of being small in front of your own people!
Hey amateur! You’re within my reach, I’ll get you.
Pull the saw well. Beware of twisting it.
Oh Mill, you’re carrying heavy weights. Watch out!

The poetic spell of Ahwach
The poetic spell of Ahwach

Ahwach costumes

The costumes and props used by Ahwach participants provide a visual message as well as bearing symbolic value. 

Women have recourse to a variety of ways to enhance their bodies. The Tatterft, a sheet about six metres long, is white, blue or pink. Their hair is covered with a typical red scarf called Leqtib. The Talhzamin n’Tammassin is the traditional cloth that serves as a belt. They place a piece of cloth called Tassebnit on their foreheads.

Adornments often of silver or bronze offer a rare sumptuousness to the dancers. The fibulae or Tikhllalin, plural of Takhlalt, literally thorn, are linked by a chain from which charms are suspended. This jewel of great decorative value is also used to attach the Tatterft to the shoulders. The Lalwah is a triangular piece of silver attached to the hair braids. One also distinguishes the Tazra or necklace enriched with coins called Talwizin. For beauty, women put kohl on their eyes and sprigs of basil on their hair.

The female costumes of Ahwach
The female costumes of Ahwach
The male costumes of Ahwach

The men wear white djellabas and turbans, and white or yellow babouches. Daggers and bags are hung over the shoulder. If the appearance of the women dancers appears richer, that of the men remains simpler.

Ahwach instruments

Different instruments are used in Ahwach. They are all percussion instruments. Some are struck with the hands. Others are struck with sticks. Percussion is entirely the function of men. The main instruments are :

Taguenza or Tambourine: this is a single membrane frame with a timbre, single or multiple strings that produces a rippling sound. Etymologically this name could refer to the rippling sound, the Iguenzi, produced by this instrument. The membrane is often made of goat or sheep skin. It is stretched over a wooden frame and struck with the hand.

Dendoum: this is a cylindrical drum with two membranes, one of which is struck with a piece of pipe. Cow skins are stretched over the drumhead. According to some sources, the integration of the drum in Ahwach is due to the Gnawa as its other name indicates Ganga. This instrument is often placed at the centre of the stage and is used to set the rhythm of the music and the pace of the dance.

Naqouss or gong: this is a metal percussion instrument, sometimes consisting of a brake drum, which is struck lightly with metal sticks. It is secondary in the performance of Ahwach according to the region.

The Dendoum of Ahwach
The instruments of Ahwach
The instruments of Ahwach

Testimonies from the past

The testimonies of travellers and expatriates living in Morocco during the French Protectorate (1912-1956) provide valuable information on both the cultural richness of the Ahwach tradition and the importance that the Glaoui caïds attached to it.

“Si Hammadi, the master in Ouarzazate, has reserved a place for us as guests; tea is served by his black eunuchs in splendid crockery. The peasants are continuously feeding fires with palm fronds downstairs, and whose shadows lick the gigantic red walls of the residence; around the fireplaces, seven or eight hundred women are lined up, a fabulous vision of gaudy finery in the night, fringed purple scarves, long colourful dresses tied with gold belts. They sing and dance; the dialogue of voices, sometimes strident, sometimes raucous like the muffled clamour in the dunes, follows the haunting rhythm of the musicians crouching by large, low-sounding drums; and their dance is a constant, sensual swaying of the hips.

Little by little this rhythm penetrates your consciousness, confuses you; you begin to sway without ever noticing it; the phantasmagorical unreality of the spectacle helps, your eyes close; you waver, overcome by an inexplicable intoxication that weighs down your head, you have to flee, flee as quickly as possible for fear of this mysterious temptation. The Ahouach of the fire will continue until morning, in a sort of delirium, the songs becoming more accentuated, the swaying expressing a call to voluptuousness with an increasing vehemence, while behind the grilles of the only window piercing the very top of the wall, the women of the harem, in small groups, will launch their ululations like cries for death. Always “Antinea, Antinea! »The brief madness of one night for these miserable serfs in the land of famine and thirst…”.

Source : Jean Ravennes.
Aux portes du Sud – le Maroc. Ed. Alexis Redier

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