Spotlight on Paul Bowles, Musicologist

TALIM Paul Bowles LoC exhibit There's excitement in the air.  In Tangier this week, an ad hoc group of cultural institutions – Moroccan, French, Spanish, and American (us), plus some very dynamic individuals on the cultural scene – is marking the Centenary of the birth of Paul Bowles with a great variety of events (Download TALIM Paul Bowles Centenary brochure).

Usually PB is described as an "American writer who lived in Tangier," and only aficionados know that he was a composer before he became an author.  But very few people know about his service as a roving musicologist for the Library of Congress (here's the LoC's summary).

In 1959, Paul Bowles received a grant to record traditional Moroccan music for the Library of Congress.  He crisscrossed the country in a VW Beetle, loaded with recording equipment and a team of three.  The result is 70 reel-to-reel tapes, considered the definitive collection of Moroccan traditional music.  As Bowles wrote in Their Heads Are Green ("The Rif, To Music")

My stint, in attempting to record the music of Morocco, was to capture in the space of the six months which the Rockefeller Foundation allotted me for the project, examples of every major musical genre to be found within the boundaries of the country… By [December 1959]… I already had more than two hundred and fifty selections… as diversified a body of music as one could find in any land west of India.

Until now, only researchers with the means to get to Washington D.C. have had access to this music.  In 2010, the year of the Centenary of Paul Bowles’ birth, the music that he recorded a half-century ago is being “repatriated” to Morocco.

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Embassy Rabat Public Affairs Office, and to funds raised by the Wilaya of Tangierand the Moroccan Ministry of Culture, the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies – TALIM –  has commissioned the digitization of the Bowles Collection.  Now Moroccans, Americans, and the rest of the world will have access to this unique cultural heritage.

We are rightly proud of this effort, and are pleased to expand the Legation Museum's "Bowles Room" into a Paul Bowles Wing.  The central aspect of the new space is an exhibit of photos, maps, texts and music from his Library of Congress project (photo, above).  If anything illustrates that Bowles wasn't just for alienated expatriates, it's his serious scholarship in helping preserve Morocco's musical heritage.

Gerald Loftus

1 thought on “Spotlight on Paul Bowles, Musicologist”

  1. i have long awaited an opportunity to hear the recordings Paul Bowles did for the library of congress. i would be very interested in knowing the progress of this project.
    best regards and good luck with it!

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