Writer Tally Bower Went to Casablanca, Morocco to find out Why Berber Artists Fell In Love With Auto-Tune
When Cher’s comeback single “Believe” debuted in 1998, it sounded like nothing anyone had heard before. By cranking up the dials on Antares’ Auto-Tune pitch correction, software engineers transformed Cher’s distinctive croon into a hybridized, disembodied, digital doppelganger. A program built to smooth out all variation in singers’ pitch abilities was turned on its head to illuminate discordance and the space between notes. Fast forward to 2011 and Auto-Tune’s distinctive mechanical twitter can be heard dripping from hooks across the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Auto-Tuned hooks first hit American R&B through Florida rapper T-Pain. The effect was so heavily associated with the rapper that it became known as “The T-Pain Effect,” prompting Antares to develop a T-Pain branded iPhone app of the same name.
I was surprised to find out that long before T-Pain went Platinum and his so-called “effect” became ubiquitous in the industry, traditional Moroccan musicians were modifying their work with over-driven Auto-Tune.
When you first hear Moroccan Auto-Tune music, it’s disorienting, especially if you’re mostly familiar with the ice cold computerization of western R&B. The first North African musician to use Auto-Tune to accent the movement between pitches was Algerian pop star Chaba Djenet. Chaba Djenet released “Kwit Galbi Wahd” in 2000 and the song was a hit spreading to Morocco and the Algerian diaspora. But the success of “Kwit Galbi Wahd” doesn’t explain why Auto-Tune became the popular sound of Moroccan Berber music.
Moroccan Berber instrumentation can be most easily identified by the Ginbri’s fretless stringed plunking and the rapid fire pulse of sheet metal Garaqib castanets. Vocalists initiate call and response singing while warbling between notes and making large, sudden jumps between pitches. After years of hunting down French-Moroccan bootleg CD’s and multi-lingual YouTube searching, I still didn’t know who the first Moroccan was to use Auto-Tune, or why it had become so widely adopted. Hitting the limits of Internet research, my friend DJ/Rupture and I produced a month-long artist residency in Casablanca to find and document the roots of Auto-Tune.
Having spent so many years obsessing over Moroccan music, we wanted to make the most of our time through solid documentation. We created an organization called Beyond Digital with Brazilian producer Maga Bo. We spent months applying for grants and putting together a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for our initial research. When we all finally arrived, our now eight person team holed up in a budget downtown Casablanca hotel with rates that changed nightly, along with the water pressure. A few days later, we finally haggled our way into a cluttered three-bedroom apartment filled with Moroccan silk and leather kitsch and a 6′x6′ air-brushed painting of Meg Ryan.
The first week was maddening. We heard the music we were looking for everywhere: on the thumb-drive mp3s of taxi drivers, at 10-cent snail soup street joints, and between buildings from the homemade carts of young ambulatory vendors. We soon realized that our interest in Berber and Chabi music was an entrance into a much larger set of questions about class and taste in Morocco. The relatively wealthy, young Moroccans — most of whom spoke English and had attended school in Europe — seemed disdainful towards Berber. For them, traditional Moroccan music represented everything lower class, backwards, and rural, preferring David Guetta and Rai hits. One woman who was supposed to be helping us translate an interview wondered out loud, “How could you possibly care about such boring and stupid music?”
The music industry in Morocco is relatively small. To research, we started working from the CDs and DVDs we had access to. If we could track down the distributors, hopefully they could link us to artists and producers. But because so much of the media in Morocco is pirated, the information we found on disc packaging was often out of date. A legitimate CD may have been made four years ago and gone through generations of pirate scanning and reprinting, leaving us a with blurry, incomplete street address and mounting exhaustion. We spent entire days sitting in Casablanca’s endless diesel traffic, only to find that a distributor or studio address had long since changed.
Once we finally found the offices of some of the larger distributors like Fes Maatic, Fassiphone, and Sawt Nassim, we were met with varying degrees of compliance. Moroccans generally ease slowly into social relationships, and traditions — like sharing sugary peppermint tea or a steaming lamb couscous or fig pigeon tagine — can turn a quick visit into an entire afternoon. While we readjusted our expectations about speed and efficiency, we also continued to hit brick walls. A distributor might have done one deal with an artist, through their manager, but no longer had up to date contact info for us. In a city where new cell phone SIM cards cost less then a meal, no one seems to keep the same number for very long. Every cyber cafe was packed with teens on Facebook, but internet penetration hasn’t hit the traditional music industry. For every 10 phone numbers or addresses we gathered, maybe two led us to someone useful.
Adil el Miloudi is one of the biggest Auto-Tune loving Berber musicians in Morocco. He is in demand across Europe, where he performs primarily for the Moroccan diaspora. We were lucky enough to have a correct number for his manager before arriving, but even then we were challenged to actually get the face time we wanted to record an interview. We quickly found out that Adil likes to sleep late into the afternoon. Plans to meet with him in his home outside of Casablanca were canceled without warning, leaving parts of our team stranded at suburban train stations for hours in sweltering heat with nothing to do but watch sheep graze. We were half way through our residency when we finally made it out, with our full camera and sound crew to his house in Kenitra. When we finally settled in his living room to chat over mint tea he told us, “Everybody uses autotune, me myself…Shakira uses autotune.” For him, “Autotune strengthens the voice. It raises the voice. The voice be comes cleaner and we can hear it very well. It is very important for all artists and all artists use it…. The artist who doesn’t use it will never work, especially in this era of electronic music.”
Other artists, like Hafida, we never reached at all. Hafida is a powerful vocalist who sings traditional Moroccan music drenched in Auto-Tune. Her all-female band includes a guitarist who plays it cool as ice in wraparound biker sunglasses. Her DVDs, pirated and legit, can be found at every vendor in the country and often include elaborate staged weddings where she is the wedding band. Both an advertisement for her band to play actual weddings, and a bizarre insight into the excess of Moroccan wedding décor and dress, these “concert” DVDs are my most cherished artifact from our time in Morocco. Hopefully when we return to Morocco to continue our research next year, we will find her.
Like most every other country — except maybe Japan — Morocco has been hit hard by CD piracy, and many of the formerly bustling studios in Casa are now dusty and quiet. With access to cheap computers and free software, it’s hard for musicians anywhere to justify expensive hourly studio rates. Engineers in the basement of Le Comptoir, possibly the world’s most beautiful record shop and recording studio, told the story of Auto-Tune in terms of the the zeitgeist of market demand. Once people started hearing it, they wanted it, so they kept doing it. We asked why exactly people wanted it, and the response was simply: “Because people just liked the way Auto-Tune sounds.” But even Le Comptoir’s owner, who had been the manager and distributor for pan-Arab pop queen Umm Kalthoum, couldn’t pinpoint where or exactly how Auto-Tune had become the de facto vocal treatment for Berber singers.
Not everyone in Morocco loved the liquid sheet metal sheen of Auto-Tuned vocals. Hassan Wargui- a Berber singer from the Anti-Atlas echoed music critics and fans the world over. He argued that Auto-Tune erased the soul of the singer, instead replacing it with a mechanical regularity too distant from the beauty of the human voice. His debut album with his group Imanaren doesn’t include a trace of pitch correction. Although, Hassan has readily adopted some options within digital recording, like looping, while denying Auto-Tune. For him it is an aesthetic and technical choice. Looping allows him greater freedom after his band leaves the studio, saving money and time. Auto-Tune doesn’t convey the feeling he wants his music to have, so he doesn’t use it. We had seen Auto-Tune as a way to understand a larger story about technology and tradition in Morocco, but the answer to our questions of where it came from, and why people adopted it, may be much simpler then we expected.
Auto-Tune is most unnerving when applied to live performance. Since Les Paul pioneered multi-track recording in the 1950s, listeners have become accustomed to studio magic and trickery that can bring distant musicians into the same room and create choirs from single voices. Auto-Tune, like other types of distortion, can still be identified as the human voice, drawing attention to, and amplifying singers’ movements between pitches. In a live context however, it is truly bizarre. You can see a human being on stage, mouth agape in front of a microphone, but what you hear is obviously the sound of a man-machine hybrid. The software processes in real-time, so there is no audible delay. You are watching something incredible and sublime, a human being overcoming the limits of their body. Isn’t that why you always go to a show?
Maybe this transformation is exactly why Moroccans love Auto-Tune so much. It doesn’t matter where it began; once people heard it, they loved it and wanted more.