El Hadj Houcine Toulali
The Malhun of Meknes (Le Malhun de Meknes)
Institut Du Monde Arabe, France

cd cover For nearly thirty years I've struggled to learn and speak Arabic, the language whose beauty captured me from my first exposure to it. My favorite orators were Egyptian President Nasser & His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan. Both were masters of rhetoric whose eloquence made the language soar in a way that could move masses politically and emotionally. El Hadj Toulali (d. 1998) was also a master of the language, one who practiced the Moroccan performing art form known as malhun, an urban style of sung poetry. The CD opens with the wonderful "Sir a naker lehsan" ("Go, you ungrateful"), a 5-verse, 120-line poetic text composed in the 19th century that introduces Toulali's voice, the responsive choir and spare strings and percussion that accompany each piece.

Originally, these songs were restricted to the private domain of the brotherhoods. Later, as themes reached beyond religious mysticism to secular topics and societal commentary, malhun became popular on the radio airwaves and on records. While serving as apprentices of the working class craft guilds, men without women let their imaginations run free. One result, in part, is the flights of poetic imagination of elusive love, beauty and virtue. The setting is as illusory as it is romantic and characterizes the songs on The Malhun of Meknes. Ripe with social taboo, Toulali conveys the passion of sensuous desire competing with the frustration and isolation of celibate bachelorhood.

It's unusual to let music such as this run to its natural length. "Fadhma" runs just over 17 minutes; "Lharras" ("The Cerberus"), at 392 lines grouped into 7 verses, runs just over 31 minutes. The Arab dialect is slow and deliberate, allowing each phrase and syllable to be heard and savored. Text translation to read along would be desirable; but even if you don't understand a word, I assure you, this poetry alone will evoke emotion. A beautiful and satisfying recording. -Richard Dorsett

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