Diary of a Caymanian gypsy: Desert spells, lofty and musical

Made from moulded earth and clay brick, the fortified city that was a stopping point on the caravan routes through the Sahara desert, lie camouflaged in the blood-orange earth. Phthalo-blue silhouettes of the Tuareg tribe dotted the roads with camels.  

When I arrived at AïtBenhaddou, young boys greeted me enthusiastically with an offer to take me across the shallow river that divided me from the clay ksar ahead. Examining the journey, I could have crossed it effortlessly on foot but prospects of a ride on a donkey for the price of one dinar and a smile were much too tempting.  

Regal and common, AïtBenhaddou laid on the foot of the Atlas Mountains along the Ouarzazate River, its clay arches welcoming me like a Bedouin princess. The earth itself seemed to rise up to create this disguise of desert architecture.  

A friendly young Berber man offered to be my guide. He was dressed in a traditional blue dress and Adidas trainers. We walked through the small winding roads that ascended through the city to the top of the hill. We passed through rooms that once were homes and played with artefacts that once were valuable household objects. When we reached the top, I breathed in the sight of the descending city and the boys with their donkeys who now looked like colourful specks on the golden river. On our way back down I stumbled through a room of men drinking mint tea.  


Prayer and celebration  

Then I heard it, the sound of the guimbri that echoed through the walls of the Kasbah. This beautiful instrument beloved by the Berber people is common in Gnawa music of Morocco and other parts of North Africa. A man dressed in blue sat against the mud threshold playing. The guimbri’s long neck held three goat-gut strings that stretched from the camel hide soundboard to the wooden tuning pegs. Metal jingles and decorative tassels hung at the top of the neck, gently bouncing as he played. His voice, inhaling and exhaling in song, was exalting in prayer and the celebration of life. The notes of the guimbri imitated his syllables and melodic phrases that appeared over and over again. His melody centred on a string of only a few notes and rhythmically bounced off his fingers and consonants in a spell.  

Typically Gnawa rituals, called lila or derdeba, consist of a larger group of people and instruments. A series of chants join together to form one long piece, sometimes an hour long, when spirits are called to possess the dancers and participants as they enter a trance – a trance induced by only music. But there in that moment, there was only me and him.  

I stood in the sun and he sat in the shade of the doorway, his song leading me to a state of abstraction. My feet no longer touched the ground. Scheherazade’s tales filled my breath and eyes as I lived a thousand and one nights in the streets of this desert dream. With each archway of his phrase I rose higher into the firmament until AïtBenhaddou disappeared into the sand.