The Desert Pigeons of Khamlia: Moroccan Music of the Sahara
In Morocco, cultures, customs & traditions vary greatly across regions. Moroccan music is no exception.
Genres of Moroccan music range from the traditional chaabi you’ll hear during a wedding to the modern electronica that will fill the speakers during the after-party.
We came to Morocco free of expectations or preconceived notions about Moroccan music. We left having experienced a musical, spiritual & cultural performance that we will never forget. It was unlike anything we’d ever witnessed.
And it all happened in a tiny village of less than 400 people, at the eastern edge of Morocco’s Sahara Desert.
The Gnawa musical tradition
The village of Khamlia lies hidden amongst the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, 15 minutes from our riad in Merzouga. Its Gnawa residents boast a strong history of ritual spirituality that includes healing, dancing, and music.
Visit Khamlia, and you can experience the Gnawa musical tradition in the most intimate of settings, from an internationally-celebrated musical group called Les Pigeons du Sable.
Les Pigeons du Sable translates to → The Sand Pigeons, although they’re also called The Desert Pigeons
Walking through the sun-soaked village, we observe locals–both human and canine–seeking shelter amongst the modest clay houses. For some reason, we sense something spiritual is about to take place.
We approach the doorway of one dwelling, and our driver–Hicham–gestures for us to duck our heads and enter.
The room is surrounded with clay benches covered in blankets and cushions. A man dressed in all white greets us. He exchanges pleasantries with Hicham in Arabic, then gestures for us to sit. The man leaves momentarily, then returns with a small bowl of nuts that he sets on the table in front of us.
Enter: The Desert Pigeons
A few minutes pass before 5 more men enter the room. They’re dressed identically, each carrying instruments. Each man acknowledges us as he enters–with deliberate eye contact and a silent nod of the head.
The performance begins.
Four Pigeons stand in the center of the room, playing krakebs (handheld, cymbal-like percussion instruments) and singing in a call-and-response style. The fifth man stands against the wall behind them, keeping the beat with a large bass drum.
Ten minutes pass. The musicians take a brief intermission. The 4 with krakebs join the drummer in the back, and all 5 take a seat against the wall.
Soon, they bring out new instruments–both percussion and string. The music and singing resume.
Suddenly, one of the Pigeons sets his instrument down and stands up. He continues to keep rhythm with his feet, and approaches D with arms outstretched.
D is on the dance floor before she realizes what’s happening. Maybe 30 seconds pass, and they bring me into the mix. A couple of backpackers had silently entered the room midway through the performance. They too join the dance circle.
The energy grows more intense–circulating through our interlocking hands–as the tempo of the music accelerates.
A climax in the music, and suddenly the circle breaks. The leader drops his hands and resumes his position against the back wall. The 4 of us (DnA + the backpacker couple) sit back down on our cushions. The methodical drum beat and chanting continue, but the tempo begins to slow.
Soon, there is silence.
Each of the Pigeons looks up and re-establishes eye contact. We all share a final moment of visual acknowledgment and appreciation.
The man in white who had greeted us 45 minutes earlier, approaches us once more. He tells us that the performance is over. We stand, thank the Pigeons again, and exit.
Moroccan music calendar
Visit in June
The annual Gnawa World Music Festival takes place in the coastal Atlantic city of Essaouira, about a 12-hour drive from Khamlia. This major international music festival celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017. You’ll hear some Gnawa music, but also jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop & reggae.
Visit in July/August
Khamlia village holds its own annual festival called Sadaka (“a religious offering”) where you can experience 3 days and 3 nights of nonstop music–on a much smaller scale than the Essaouira festival.
When you make the long trip out to Merzouga, set aside a few hours to visit The Desert Pigeons of Khamlia. You’ll leave with an experience in Moroccan music & spirituality that’s as unique as it is memorable.
Check out The Desert Pigeons on YouTube!