Houara, Mother of Flamenco
This is Part IV in a series of articles written by Morocco from a paper which was originally accepted for presentation at a joint conference of the Congress on Research in Dance and the Society of Dance History Scholars in New York, June 11-13, 1993. The conference was hosted by The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center. The name of the conference was “Of, By and For the People,” and it focused on “how dance proclaims political ideals, ethnicity, social class, age group identification, and regional pride.”
South of Agadir, less than ten kilometers inland from the Atlantic coast of Morocco, lies Inezgane, home of the Houara tribe. Branches of the tribe are also found in Ouled Teima, approximately 30 kilometers to the east and slightly north, midway between Inezgane and Taroudant. Although in the heart of the Berber Souss, the Ait Houara speak and sing in Arabic.
The men are all in white thobes and hooded djellabas, with babouches on their feet. Sometimes the djellabas have vertical stripes. The women are in belted kaftans and d’finas. Fringed scarves, tied in the back, hide most of their hair.
The main instrument for the Houara, aside from coordinated staccato clapping (as in flamenco), is a metal tire center, played with two long metal nails or sticks: da-da-dum-da-da, da-da-dum-da-da.
The group is almost entirely composed of men, with one or two women: the best dancers and most daring souls of their sex from within the Houara. This dance is not a religious communion with the spirits and sharing of the soul like Guedra; nor a group courtship, “look each other over” dance, like the Ahouache of Imin Tanout or the Kelaa of the Ait M’Gouna (or all Ahidous); nor an actual ancient wedding rite, like the betrothal dance of Tissint (See Habibi, Vol. 13, No. 1). This is a show-off demonstration of superior skill for one’s friends and peers, pure and simple.
They start by singing in loud voices, short bursts of song followed by crescendos of rapid footwork as a group. Two or three rounds in this manner, then the next bursts of song end with one or two of the men running forward, beating feet like crazy for a few seconds, then rushing back to the line. As it goes on, the men end their “solos” with high leaps or sharp flamenco-like barrel turns, sometimes both.
After several rounds of these macho outbursts/challenges, when the rhythm and excitement reach their peak, one of the women rushes forward. Her footwork is even more skilled and complex than the men’s, her solo longer. Flinging the front halves of her d’fina, she makes several vueltas, quebradas and jumps into the air, bending her knees, tucking her calves to her thighs. Sometimes her hips move with the footwork, sometimes she uses them to manipulate a dagger under her d’fina, moving as if she is on horseback, her feet the horse’s hooves.
After a while, one of the men, unable to resist, rushes forward and, facing each other, they begin to dance together. He blends his footwork with hers, they spin and leap in unison, his arms, elbows bent, in front and behind him as he spins, she flinging her d’fina furiously as she spins. They resemble the courtship fight of a rooster and hen — or Kate and Petrucchio (Taylor and Burton?) in “Taming of the Shrew.” Occasionally, two women from the circle challenge each other.
Like flamenco? Meet its mother. The Moors — that is, the Moroccans — ruled Andalucia for several hundred years. Meknes’ architectural style, what eurocentrics would like to think of as “Spanish” architecture, existed in Morocco well before Moors got to Spain and turned it into a center of architecture, art, music and poetry. Approximately ten per cent of the Spanish language has Arabic roots, e.g. el algodón, el alfombra, el almoada, el aceituna, el Alhambra, el Albaicin, el Cid, ojalá. Better stick with “OLÉ.” (Just try shouting “ALLAH!” under Ferdinand and Isabella, their “most Catholic majesties,” who threw the Moors and Jews out of Spain, and see how fast you’d be turned into a crispy critter by the Inquisition.) The very word “flamenco” comes from Arabic, though Spanish chauvinists try to translate it as “flamingo,” or, worse yet, “Flemish.” The root is the Arabic word “fellah”: peasant, farmer, poor person.
Morocco has performed and taught seminars in the United States, Canada, Europe, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt. Her company, the Casbah Dance Experience, was created in New York City to present Mideastern and North African dance in concert and school settings, and has been awarded numerous choreographic and cultural services grants. She has spent 33 years researching on-site the music, steps and styles of each dance. www.casbahdance.org