A familiar song accompanied the massive protests that began on February 20, 2011 in Morocco.

The song, “Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya” (Where Are You Taking Me, Brother?), was first released in 1973 by Nass el Ghiwane, the venerable folk-pop group that continues to dominate Moroccan popular music — its aesthetics and social conscience. It resurfaced in a 2003 cover by the band Hoba Hoba Spirit. And it was broadcast again in the background of the 2011 demonstrations that had much in common with the uprisings across the Arab world, but which in Morocco never became a revolt.

In each of these iterations, the classic tune has been political, if subtly so. Its various versions, in fact, track with the changes in the country’s political economy over the past four decades. Read this way, the song even helps to explain why the February 20 movement petered out in frustration.

High Nationalism

Formed in 1971 by four working-class youth from Casablanca, Nass el Ghiwane hit superstardom by decade’s end. The group composed lyrics in darija, the colloquial Arabic of Morocco, but they intentionally used old-fashioned phrases, often drawn from folk songs, religious poetry and the elite oral poetry genre called malhoun. They also drew on traditional melodies and rhythms, seeking to incorporate many of the nation’s diverse idioms — Berber music, Arab sounds and the Gnawa of black former slaves — and to draw from rural and urban styles. Millions of Moroccans have memorized the lyrics to several songs from the band’s repertoire. Those who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s form the core of its fan base, sustained by strong memories of listening to the music and attending live performances; nevertheless, younger generations also know the tunes well and attend reunion concerts, at which the band performs with two original members, as well as younger additions who are needed to hit the high notes. These high notes are important in Nass el Ghiwane songs, and indeed in nostalgia for 1970s Morocco.

In their eclectic synthesis of styles, Nass el Ghiwane performed the unity of the modern Moroccan nation. By singing only in darija, they ensured that non-Maghribi audiences would be even less certain of the lyrical content than Moroccan audiences were (though Nass el Ghiwane was appreciated across the Arab world). Moreover, with their long hair, beards and Afros, their mohair vests and blue jeans, they embodied a domesticated cosmopolitanism that provided a sense of contemporaneity for those Moroccans whose main encounter with the Sixties might have been trying to avoid the hordes of stoned European youth on the hippie trail. While Nass looked like hippies, they were not singing for outsiders.

The songs were written and performed amid political disorder and outright oppression. Percussionist and singer Omar Sayyed (along with banjo player Allal Yalla, one of the two original members) contends that scholars and fans are overstating the case when they impute significant political force to the band’s songs. Indeed, King Hassan II, the supposed main target of criticism in the songs, is said to have been a huge fan, inviting Nass el Ghiwane to perform at numerous state dinners. Nevertheless, despite later disavowals and lyrics that are often obscure, some say deliberately so, political content is clearly evident in some of the lyrics. An excellent early example is “Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya,” from the 1973 debut album, al-Siniyya. Indeed, the point is proven by the song’s reprise at the 2011 protests in Rabat.

By the early 1970s, a mature domestic market in Morocco for music spoke directly to Moroccans. At the same time, it was a period of intense political repression. The low point, between 1972 and the mid-1980s, became known as the “years of lead.” In 1971 and 1972, the king survived several assassination attempts, and the resulting paranoia and violence were terrible to behold, particularly for political activists, but also for all classes and communities. Numerous people were “disappeared,” picked up without warning and without acknowledgment to their families. Some sons and husbands would reappear after a few days or months; others never did. Often it was an anonymous informer who tipped off the secret police to arrest a given person. Ordinary citizens spent their lives in fear of who was listening; thus, any expression of pain or anxiety was a welcome means of mass auto-therapy. The subtle protest songs of Nass el Ghiwane, however, captured the solidarity of the 1970s as well. By singing in darija and foregrounding broad national genres, rhythms and instruments, Nass proposed a counter-public, an appeal to Moroccans to build up and support the nation despite the state terror machine. This deft focus on national unity helps to explain the state’s toleration and even tacit support of Nass. The nationalist subtext is evident in the music.

“Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya” begins with a plucked banjo solo by Allal Yaala, soon joined by the lone voice of Laarbi Batma (1948-1998), who wrote the song, both banjo and voice following a slow, irregular rhythm. The voice is modified by a slight echo chamber, so it resounds beyond the intimacy afforded by the sparse instrumentation. The introductory segment, which comprises the poetic stanzas of the song, lasts for two minutes. After that other instruments and voices begin the chorus, which dominates the remainder of the song: “Where are you taking me, brother? Where are you taking me?”

The song continues to build through the latter segment. In the first two choruses, Batma skips the first line, which is sung in unison only by the other band members. In the third, one band member adds a harmony part. Then, Boujemaa Hagour of the impossibly clear, high voice, who died in a car accident in 1974, leads the chorus three times before Batma returns in the seventh and the eighth, the last including the same harmonizing. Finally, in one of the last choruses, that clear, high voice continues directly into the climax.

An exemplary verse from the first two minutes:

To each falcon in a cage
To each rooster showing off up on the bridge
To each mule feeling the dig of spurs
To each wolf howling far off in pain;
I have never seen a palm tree bear dates,
Never seen a gazelle shod in iron,
Nor knights turned into shepherds.

The writer uses direct address to speak to four animals: a caged falcon, a crowing rooster, a working mule and a faraway, howling wolf. Although these are no doubt well-established poetic figures, perhaps taken whole cloth from malhoun poetry, it is tempting to interpret the figures as representing principal segments of the Moroccan population. For example, the falcon might be cultured elites and intellectuals hobbled by the regime, and the rooster, publicity-hounding and coopted politicians. The mule must be the overburdened working class and poor; and the wolf could represent exiled figures like rebel leader Abdelkrim al-Khattabi, the hero of the Rif War (1920-1926) and its short-lived Rif Republic.

These four iconic animals are addressed directly; in contrast, only oblique reference is made to an unknown subject who “has endured so much [that] evil has tanned his hide.” Given the very real danger associated with directly addressing the king, even implicitly, it is not unreasonable to presume that the “evil” that has been endured referred to the attempted assassinations of Hassan II in 1971 and 1972, while the “tanning of his hide” referred to his perceived lack of empathy for his subjects suffering under the ensuing crackdown, the worst of which was still to come when the song was released in 1973.

In the second section of the song, the phrase “Where are you taking me, brother?” is repeated 34 times, once every 6.7 seconds on average. Such an enduring question begs to be answered. But to whom is it addressed? The king? Perhaps the band is expressing the worried questions of his subjects: Where would it all end? Would there be a return to constitutional monarchy, a goal that had been promised by Mohammed V in 1956 and to which Hassan II renewed his commitment in 1963 and 1970? Or would the monarchy even survive? Would there be a federal republic, as republican revolutionaries had proposed during the coup attempt the year before? Would the new nation, then merely 17 years old, remain viable? Would there ever be adequate jobs and education, food and shelter?

Alternatively, and more likely, the addressee in the question is the Moroccan people themselves: “Where are we going to take this country?” There is more hope here, and perhaps it would even be favored by the band, who claim universal goals for their music rather than banal political commentary. In this scenario, Nass el Ghiwane are calling on the strength of the people to determine their own fate. The chorus echoes the question of Marvin Gaye in his classic song “What’s Going On?” that had been released two years before, or more directly a second song from that album, “What’s Happening, Brother?” All three songs ask the listener to take a look around at war, police brutality, declining personal and social security, domestic violence and other ills that have altered their society, once familiar and comforting but now scary and dangerous.

It is clear that the times demanded a nationalist spirit, one of ordinary people arising to do extraordinary things. Coming on the heels of the activism necessary to throw off the colonial yoke of France and Spain, the lyrics evoked revolutionary fervor. The 1940s and 1950s had been years of sacrifice and hope for Moroccans, and these feelings persisted despite the state terror campaign.

Finally, dominant in the oeuvre of Nass el Ghiwane is a sense that they are striving together with the rest of the nation. This communal identity is an artifact of state-sponsored efforts such as public education, mass media and the systematic emphasis upon national rather than regional, tribal, ethnic and religious affiliation. Import controls created jobs by mandating state-regulated factories (even if owned by private investors with close ties to the crown) in import-substitution schemes of self-reliance. Utopian projects predominated that sought self-sustainability and economic and cultural independence. That era, weakened after 1972 with a turn toward the right after 1981, came to an end in 1991 alongside the collapse worldwide of an alternative to capitalist globalization. In the 1990s in Morocco, a few more citizens were permitted access to the middle and upper-middle classes. In the face of a declining economy among cyclical droughts, meanwhile, ordinary folk either bore up, put up and shut up, or looked to clandestine emigration. The emphasis turned from investment in a proposed sustainable national economy to the realization of a dependent economy built on the model of a flexible labor pool serving as “Europe’s Mexico,” in the reputed words of Hassan II.

In 1981, Morocco, an ally of the capitalist West during the Cold War, saw the beginning of the end to Western financial largesse and was forced to adopt structural adjustment reforms. Social and political transformations begun during the transitional phase of the 1990s, during which the economy sputtered, took new life following the death of Hassan II in 1999. Upon his ascension to the throne, one of the first acts of Mohammed VI was to dismiss the hated interior minister who had been responsible for the “years of lead.” In its attempt to “turn the page,” the state was at least acknowledging past atrocities and seeking to atone for them, no matter how much it was later perceived by some as clumsily trying to cover up the past. In any case, new challenges were rising to meet Moroccans. It is fitting, perhaps, that the theme song of the 1970s, a paean to communal values and nationalist pride, was revived in 2003, 30 years after it debuted, by an upstart band named Hoba Hoba Spirit. In this remix, the chorus remains the same, but the message is very different.

Emigrant Neoliberalism

Hoba Hoba Spirit was formed in Casablanca in 1998 by Reda Allali and Abu Bakr Zehouani, middle-class professionals who had played in bands in college. At first, their repertoire was mostly covers, but they began to write and develop their own songs, as well as transform some of the covers, like “Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya,” so dramatically that they made them their own. The group has continued since with four to five members comprising two stable middle-class professionals and avocational musicians, alongside professional musicians who have accordingly seen far less stability in their livelihoods. In this sense, the band is a microcosm of the Moroccan labor force since the 1970s. They are a reggae, rock and pop-Gnawa band squarely within the “fusion marocain” genre identified by Jeffrey Callen. [1] Their “Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya” cover comes from their first, eponymous album. As is the case for Nass el Ghiwane, the album has almost no love songs, focusing instead on social issues.

One of the social and economic transformations of the 1990s was the local development of global pop culture. In the late 1990s, as Western tourism picked up, music festivals began to be developed to attract Western tourists to a Moroccan cultural space constructed as “tolerant” while simultaneously showcasing local bands. Meanwhile, the privatization of many state-owned and state-protected factories, alongside capital investment in those industries that rendered many of the workers’ skills obsolete, meant that more and more Moroccans were hoping to emigrate to Europe for jobs. When successful emigrants returned during the summers (and attended the festivals), they brought back with them different musical tastes. By the mid-2000s, people in Moroccan cities also got access to high-speed Internet connections, which made it possible to swap music online.

Political dissent became more possible in the period of “opening” that followed the accession of Mohammed VI. Suddenly, people could vote for Parliament, protest in the streets and publish articles critical of the government. At the same time, however, the cost of living went up quickly but wages did not. Unemployment remained high. Many Moroccans dreamed only of getting a job “inside” — in Europe. There remained some political repression — the press was not free to criticize the king, merely the government, and many journalists and publishers were prosecuted and jailed, in particular after 2004. But overall, the concerns of the populace switched from an unstated but ever present political terror to a clear and present economic threat of unemployment. And the desire to get to Europe.

While Hoba Hoba Spirit’s cover appears at first blush to be more conventional than the original in structure, closer analysis shows it to be fully as complex as Nass el Ghiwane’s version. The song begins with the crackle of digital effects, “disk scratches” that imply an old LP being played on a hi-fi — presumably a nod to the way the original sounded in the 1970s. A strummed introduction begins on acoustic guitar, in a “contemporary” rhythm, followed by a bass guitar picking a little melody over the rhythm of the chords. At 30 seconds, the bass goes into reggae-style riffs as the vocal begins, a soft rap in French for two stanzas. The last two lines of the second stanza switch to darija, the first appearance of the strict language of Nass el Ghiwane. The first line of this couplet rhymes with the last, which is a rapped but conversational and friendly “Fine ghadi biya, khouya?” The chorus is sung in unison by the other members of the band in imitation of Nass el Ghiwane. By this time, more instruments have joined in: a trap set and some hand drumming, perhaps a darbouka drum, as well as an occasional shaker and a keyboard. They sing two rounds of the two-line chorus before the rapper starts the third stanza, the rapper continuing with darija. But he switches back to French by the end and continues in French until the end of the fourth stanza, when he again returns to darija to introduce the Nass el Ghiwane chorus. Nevertheless, he ends the fourth stanza as he did the second, with the two-line rhymed couplet ending in the phrase from the chorus. This time it is less conversational than confrontational in tone. The rapper then begins the fifth stanza, in which we see language boundaries breaking down (below, roman type indicates French, bold-face indicates formal Arabic and italics indicate darija):

The official Arabic language [that you speak] is a little low-class
Go a little ways out of Casa[blanca] and there’s only Shilha [Berber spoken] And if you want to make up a resume you have to write it in French
But how will we do it so that we understand?
But all that we know to do is ask our friends
“Who were you with and when did you go to Europe?”
“Did you sin and drink alcohol?”
“Did you make your own way and rise to the challenge?”
“Just let me live my life and make my account with my Lord”

That’s how it is:
“Just let me live my life and make my account with my Lord” [repeated seven times] Where…are you…taking me…brother!
Where are you taking me, brother? [repeated four times] [In English] Exodus! Movement of harraga!

In this fifth stanza, the more or less systematic division between darija and French that had heretofore been maintained — entire stanzas in French, then in darija — breaks down. The rapper begins in formal Arabic, then switches to darija in mid-line. The second line begins in French, then switches back to darija again by the end of the line. The third line is in French, but the fourth stays in French for only one word before switching back again to darija. Such is the street patois of Casablanca. The last line is repeated seven times, in a bridge. The bridge forms the climax of the song; the rapper’s voice gets more emphatic: He draws in his breath, his voice gets ragged and he almost loses the beat, showing his vulnerability as he reaches the crescendo: “Fine…ghadi…biya…khouya!” stated in a descending tone that is low, angry, indignant, but also terrified. When the third chorus begins at 3:47, the same repetition of the Nass el Ghiwane stanza, it now sounds stale. Then there are six cymbal clashes — a disruption — as the band immediately launches into the chorus from Bob Marley’s 1977 reggae anthem “Exodus”: “Exodus! Movement of Jah People!” When Hoba Hoba Spirit sing this line in English, however, they substitute for “Jah People” harraga, “emigrants” in darija but literally “the ones who burn their papers.” The cymbal clashes invade the nostalgia and interrupt the good feelings engendered by the hopeful, nationalistic Nass el Ghiwane chorus. The insertion of Marley’s chorus changes the frame to a critique of European racism. The solution to the problem of the failed promises of modernity is not to become unified, nationalist Moroccans but to become immigrants in Europe without nationality.

It is significant that the “nationalist” Nass el Ghiwane version is all in darija, while Hoba Hoba Spirit’s version, coming out of the emigration moment of the late 1990s, switches between darija and French and also throws in some Jamaican English. This situation says a lot about the status of popular culture and its relationship to globalization. Nass el Ghiwane looked like hippies but never sang in anything but darija; in contrast, Hoba Hoba Spirit have made a point of singing in multiple languages.

The three questions from the last stanza — “How and when did you go to Europe?” “Have you sinned?” “Did you make it over there?” — encapsulate the fears of the labor migrants: Will I survive the crossing and stay away from the immigration police long enough to make it worthwhile? Will I be able to live as I please, including practicing my faith without compromising? Will I be able to go with a friend, to become embedded in some kind of generous, trustworthy community? Will this work?

In this version, the principal question — “Where are you taking me?” — shares its privileged position with the statement from the penultimate line of the stanza, “Just let me live my life and make my account with my Lord.” This statement is repeated seven times during the climax, for a total of eight times in 21 seconds, or once every 2.6 seconds. Thus, the heart of the song becomes no longer a spirited question but a hesitant demand — for steady income and the right to be left alone. The mention of “my Lord” accounts for the increasing role of religious identities in Muslim life, both in Morocco and in Europe, but the total implication of “leave me alone” also indexes a desire to engage with religious norms more on individual terms and less on corporate ones.

The main question — “Where are you taking me?” — is unchanged from the original version, but the addressee has changed. It is no longer addressed to the ruler or to the masses; instead, it is directed to a single person. If one interprets the single person to be an everyman whom the speaker might know and ask for help, then the question mirrors the individualism wrought by neoliberal policies, where every person is enabled (or doomed) to fend for himself or herself, with only the kindness of family and friends to carry one through the rough patches of life.

In contrast, one could also interpret the question to refer to an actual individual — the speaker’s best friend or cousin, perhaps, “son frère” from the song — who might be a bit older, a bit wiser to the ways of the world. Trust is expected but not assured — “You would tell me if only you knew, right?” — the last word betraying the seeds of doubt. These lyrics recall the experiences of the clandestine emigrants trying to make it across the wire fence from Morocco to one of the Spanish towns on the African mainland, Ceuta and Melilla, both completely surrounded by Moroccan territory. Inside these tiny urban enclaves can be found the Europe of one’s dreams: a euro economy, European Union regulations, high wages and standards of living, crosswalks, health care, insurance, helpful and well-paid police officers, legal protections — everything that is missing from a poor person’s experience of Morocco. Before they arrive here, numerous North Africans and West Africans, having paid a huge sum of money up front, might meet at an agreed-upon café, to be led and abandoned by various guides, cough up more money on the spot as demanded, get transported in old taxis and closed vans, walk for hours alone and with a guide through the heat and dust, maybe even spend nights in the wilderness without sufficient food or water. A suspicious young emigrant might well ask the guide of the hour, “Where are you taking us, brother?” — a palpable demand, but softened by “brother,” since to be abandoned by an angry guide might mean hunger, arrest or even death.

Overall, the song changed from a message about the promises of a modern post-colonial state that pledges economic security in exchange for unquestioning support of the regime, even if these promises are unfulfilled, to a message that completely ignores the state. Instead, the song now imagined larger, transnational structures and their benefits (a European passport, spouse or children, or asylum status) that might result in a better life. Nass el Ghiwane’s musical ethos required writing lyrics in a language understood only by Moroccans and Algerians. In contrast, Hoba Hoba Spirit saw the need to write songs that were fully comprehensible only to urban, Arabic-speaking Francophones, but that were accessible in a partial way to many more across North and West Africa and southern Europe. This globalization in music reflects the globalization in identities: Where once Nass el Ghiwane envisioned a purer, more cohesive Moroccan citizen, Hoba Hoba Spirit drew attention to the urge Moroccans feel to burn their papers, renounce their national identities and become universalized non-citizens (even if only for a season) who rely for their basic security on the commitment of European governments and supra-national organizations to recognize their undifferentiated (non-national) humanity and protect their human rights.

Revolution Redux

This situation still very much obtained in Morocco in 2011, when suddenly the world of optimistic politics opened again. Inspired by the events in Tunisia, young Moroccan activists called for a “day of rage” on February 20. The largest event took place in Rabat, with between 4,000 and 20,000 protesters, but other events took place across the country, in all the major cities and in many minor ones. Property was damaged, but the police did not respond with gunfire, as had been the case during the 18 days in Egypt between January 25 and February 11, when more than 800 were killed. In Morocco in February and March, less than a dozen deaths were reported. In its latest cover, sung on the street in the large central square of Casablanca on February 20 and distributed on YouTube, the song “Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya” performed its original task of political critique. It was sung very clearly over a megaphone:

For the one who spent the night and disappeared without celebrating his victory
I have never seen a lion turn into a bear nor a rooster into a cuckoo
Where are you taking me, Commander? Where are you taking me?
Are you taking me to Saudi Arabia?
Blow after blow, who will find me shelter? Even Sarkozy doesn’t want me!
The elites don’t want me! Where will I live?
Where are you taking me, Commander? Where are you taking me?

In this cover, once again all in darija, the iconic animals are replaced with an unnamed person who “spent the night and disappeared” and by a lion that should not turn into a bear nor a rooster into a cuckoo. [2] The Nass el Ghiwane chorus is transformed: The singer appeals directly to the commander or ruler (hakim). He then asks, “Are we going to Saudi Arabia?” The line can be understood in at least three ways: a reference to labor migration to the Gulf (unlikely, since most Moroccans go to Europe); the possible evacuation of the leader to Saudi Arabia; and domination of the political field by Gulf-sponsored religious parties. The second interpretation is more fun to imagine, but the third is most likely; indeed, in the election held in November 2011, the Islamist Party for Justice and Development won the largest number of votes, and its leader Abdelilah Benkirane became prime minister.

Finally, there is the short section — “Who will find me shelter? Even Sarkozy doesn’t want me! The elites don’t want me! Where while I live?” Again, it is tempting to think of the leader fleeing and being rejected by the erstwhile French president. On January 14, it was reported that while deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia, his first choice had been France. It was only after the French government denied his plane landing rights on French territory that he turned to Jidda. This reading, however, is contradicted by the next statement: Even the elites do not want the speaker. Such an assertion suggests that the persona is envisioned to be an ordinary migrant laborer, or even an educated professional, who has been rejected by Europe (“Sarkozy”) after the economic downturn of 2008, and moreover someone who was already excluded from regular or adequate employment in Morocco due to a lack of connections among the elite. As a result, one can conclude that the singer is probably more influenced here by Hoba Hoba Spirit than by Nass el Ghiwane. It is a commentary on emigrant labor, but like songwriter Reda Allali of Hoba Hoba Spirit, the protest singer cannot or does not try to resolve the problem. He merely points it out in a question, while demanding alternatives.

A Neoliberal World?

Morocco stands with Jordan and the Arab Gulf states (minus Bahrain) as the Arab countries where the events of 2011 did little to challenge the regime. To his credit, Mohammed VI did propose a full slate of reforms, and he also restrained to a certain extent the forces of state security in responding to the protests that continued through that spring and summer. Many scholars have trotted out the old thesis of Moroccan exceptionalism — the king is also a spiritual leader who bears a mystical aura of authenticity — to explain the failures of numerous liberal or leftist impulses over the past century. The trajectory of “Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya” offers a more compelling thesis: The song’s recurrence in popular culture is a symptom of, or even a tentative explanation for, why the February 20 movement largely failed in Morocco. To wit, the Moroccan economy has been incorporated ever more tightly into a increasingly neoliberal fortress Europe.

As such, in Morocco, emigration continues to be the hope of most workers. There are some bright points, such as intense investment by the crown in Tangier’s economy, which has lifted the north of Morocco in contrast to the rest of the country. Meanwhile, as a whole Morocco continues to lag behind the rest of Arab North Africa, with much lower average incomes than Algeria, Tunisia, Libya or Egypt (Morocco is wealthier only than Mauritania and Sudan). But even the existing investment comes at a cost, with a few winners (managers and administrators) and many losers: Transnational companies will build assembly plants in the north of Morocco only because skilled labor is so cheap there. Emigration is still the most attractive means of making a living wage. Fine…ghadi…biya…khouya!


[1] Jeffrey Callen, “French Fries in the Tagine: Reimagining Moroccan Popular Music,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California-Los Angeles, 2006.
[2] My thanks to Oumnia Abaza for her help in translating the lyrics.

How to cite this article:

John Schaefer "Protest Song Marocaine," Middle East Report 263 (Summer 2012).

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