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Tony Langlois – Music, Place and Identity

Tony Langlois

DRAFT: not for publication or citation without explicit permission of the author

It is my intention in this paper to consider examples musical expression of cultural politics in three very different locations, in order to demonstrate the confluence of power, identity and musical practice at various levels, and show how these are mobilised by contextually specific influences. In the first example, from Northern Ireland, I will discuss a most literal form of geosonic assertion; the acoustic occupation of physical space which, in drowning out all other sounds, ritually manifests the dominance of one ethnic group over another. The second example will look at the Icelandic popular music industry, and the construction of a local style for export to international consumers. This stylistic cohesion could be seen as simply the work of market forces; a response in an overwhelmingly homogeneous field to a demand for ‘otherness.’  Yet the music itself aggregates, and thereby constructs, diverse symbolic references to place, ethnicity and history, that have acquired potency at home as well as abroad. My last example concerns a Moroccan popular music known as Reggada. This genre, which has emerged as a distinct form only in the recent decades, is closely connected to tribal origins in the hills around a single town in North-East Morocco. It draws upon traditional dance and celebratory musics but has a following stretching way beyond the region through diasporic connections. Yet this music is not easily found in the town in which it is produced. One of the reasons for this is the proximity of a powerful Sufi lodge close by.  In this example we will see that political cultures can stifle and constrain musical practices as well as promoting them.

1) Lambegs and landscape

The Lambeg[1] is a very large drum made of oak and goatskin which is played exclusively by the Protestant/Loyalist community of Northern Ireland.  Men play it over summer months in a series of competitions, held in rural villages where Protestants are in the majority, though many of these will include a minority Catholic population. The drum is extremely loud, (and historically has grown in size) so is always played outdoors, and only in good weather. This means that it can be heard at a very long distance. Although the lambeg is mostly used in competitions these days, the prizes for winning are minimal and interestingly it is not the player who is judged but the tuning of the drum itself. In fact a number of individuals may play the lavishly decorated drum in the competition, but they are often from the same village or are relatives; part of the family that has passed the drum down through many generations.[2] So the playing of the lambeg is effectively an act of maintaining a cultural tradition through the male line, reinforcing through the social gathering of the competition circuit, a network of Protestant families from different parts of Northern Ireland who participate in the cycle of events every year.

The cultural politics of such a context is obvious, indeed it is intended to be both obvious and audible. The congregation of up to twenty lambeg drums for a major competition event draws a community together in an act of mutual recognition as a coherent and persistent community, located both in space and across generations. Moreover, the volume and duration of the competition makes this presence and persistence highly audible to the greater community in the district, whether they are ‘ethnically’ Protestant or Catholic. Each side will experience and interpret this sonic footprint in their different ways. Even if they aren’t aficionados themselves Protestants might feel that this is a matter of cultural heritage and tradition, whereas it is common for Catholics to consider the lambeg an alienating means of intimidation. In addition, the fact that these competitions may be held legally, apparently without contravening laws relating to noise pollution or public nuisance, clearly implies that the political authorities and/or their agents, are sympathetic to the loyalists, or indeed, are part of that community themselves. This certainly was the prevailing Catholic view of the police until the Good Friday Agreement (1998), and to skeptical nationalists this remains the case.  There exist anecdotal reports relating to loyalist parades in which lambeg drums were a part pausing for long periods outside the houses of residents known to be Catholics, presumably to overwhelm the inhabitants with the full volume of the drumming. However in my own experience I never heard a single sectarian view expressed openly by a lambeg player. [3]

In practice, lambeg competitions are so loud that they effectively obliterate any chance of sonic resistance.  In response, Catholic communities often leave the district for the duration of a major competition event. Musical instruments that have come to be most associated with the nationalist tradition (for example the fiddle, bodhran frame drum or flute) are mostly played indoors, and so could not in any case compete in volume with the force of the lambeg, so in effect the Catholic presence is either driven out or driven indoors. Either way it is temporarily obliterated from the district through the creation of a highly politicised soundscape.

The main limitation of the lambeg’s symbolic power is that only exists in this ritualised context – that is, very few people listen to lambeg drumming on CD’s, it isn’t played on the radio, nor is it heard at other times of year. Although the drum can be accompanied by tunes played on a fife, it isn’t an instrument that one could sing to, so free of a textual layer or other references outside a competition context, it serves as a powerful yet rather blunt signifier. To an important degree the lambeg functions as a sonic manifestation of the wider political status quo, and a reiteration (for ALL in earshot) of one community’s inherited ethnic dominance in the immediate vicinity.

2) The krut factor

The proprietor of the most renowned record store in Reykjavik has told me that visiting foreigners have often asked him to prepare a mix CD for them that they can play as they drive around Iceland’s spectacular landscape. The music he includes is all Icelandic, both traditional and modern, and as a soundtrack to a journey it perfectly complements the experience of rolling smoothly forward as one dramatic vista slowly transforms into the next. The older material, drawn from the vocal Rimur tradition, is evocative of the rigors of rural life before the mid-twentieth century; its inscrutable language may remind the visitor of the country’s ancient origins as a Viking settlement and of the cultural continuities the persist into the present. Iceland’s popular music is typified by slow, spacious sonic drifts, tinkling electronic beats and breathy, almost child-like vocals. It sounds modern, yet, generally lacking the hard or aggressive aspects of hip-hop and rock, is markedly reflective in mood. This impression is re-stated visually in the style of promotional videos made for Icelandic pop.

Contemporary Icelandic pop may be moodily expansive (Sigur Ros), sensual and intimate (Mum), or delicately lo-fi (Amina), but it’s common geographical origins are plainly recognisable outside the country, and not because of language.[4] In this case, listeners might reasonably assume that this atmospheric ‘Icelandic Sound’ has also firm roots in the cultural distinctiveness of its place of origin. However this isn’t quite the case. Apart from unaccompanied rimur singing, which has undeniably survived for generations through oral transmission, most other ‘old’ musics have not existed in Iceland for more than a century, but were adopted from Danish, Norwegian and Germanic practices.

There remains a very strong tradition of singing at all kinds of social occasion and during collective work, [5] but the musical material itself is not necessarily ancient. In fact, for nearly two hundred years Danish was commonly spoken in Iceland, the native language was revived as part of a nationalist momentum that grew from the 19th century, and which was solidified after independence in 1944. In short, like most other countries, Iceland’s cultural traditions have developed through constantly fluctuating circumstances and have been motivated by political aspirations as much as pragmatism. Organologicaly, the two unquestionably native Icelandic instruments are box zithers, the Langspil and the Fiđla. Though the Langspil in particular has been the focus of several revivals, its traditional tuning system and playing style remain uncertain.  Of course none of the above observations imply deliberate cultural inauthenticity in Iceland, but rather, as Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983)[6] have made clear, ‘tradition’ is frequently a mix of history viewed with the benefit of hindsight and within the context of contemporary needs.

What might surprise visitors to Iceland is that the local musical scene is much more diverse than is represented by the several bands who have succeeded in making an impact in the international market. One can find reggae; EDM, thrash metal, and a lively experimental scene, amongst numerous styles.[7] And there is also a long-established circuit of older professional musicians who have been playing pop music to local audiences since the 1960’s.  Reykjavik’s radio stations do not play anything like the amount of music with the distinctive ‘Icelandic Sound’ that an outsider might expect. The strenuous efforts of Iceland Music Export – the agency established to promote Icelandic Pop internationally ( have drawn attention to a more varied selection of local talent in the global music market.[8] Nevertheless the groups who conform to the ‘Icelandic Sound’ have been overwhelmingly the most commercially successful to date. Consequently one must ask where this ‘sound’ originated, and what relationship it bears to an experienced ‘Icelandic-ness.’

A brief survey of popular music in Iceland over the last forty years shows that there were no obvious precursors to the currently successful paradigm. Groups played rock, disco, punk and blues, as they have all over Europe, and there was little overlap between popular styles and traditional genres. The economy was based upon fishing, not culture, and those with high artistic aspirations tended to migrate to mainland Europe. The breakthrough performer in the 1980’s was Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who’s singing style in particular remains highly distinctive compared to the popular mainstream. Bjork’s unprecedented international success did inspire a little copying, as more attention was paid to Iceland, but more importantly it proved that creative non-conformity could be rewarded.

A small number of high quality recording studios were established and the groups who used them came under the influence of producers more sympathetic to innovation rather than outright commercialism, but who nevertheless had their own approach to recording. Iceland has a small population and Reykjavik’s musicians, by necessity, regularly interchange between bands, genres and technologies, allowing more opportunities for experimentation and hybridisation than might be found in a larger, more competitive metropolis.  This eclectic environment embraced and rewarded innovation, allowing more groups to follow Björk’s route to international success. By the late 1990’s a style had emerged that was recognisably Icelandic, mixing the ethereal with the dramatic, originality with commercial appeal.  The marketing of this music overlapped with growing interest in Iceland as a tourist destination, and it was a simple cinematic step to blur the spacial expansiveness of the sound with images of dramatic empty landscapes, volcanoes and glaciers.  The Icelandic Soundscape was now, through branding, come to suggest something about its landscape, but was this ‘otherness’ largely constructed for external consumption?

In a musical community where most people know each other, even if the music they play is very different, its participants are naturally loath to criticise others, especially those who had succeeded in building a successful career for themselves. Nevertheless, when talking about some of the common factors in Icelandic pop the word ‘krut’ recurred which seemed to amalgamate both musical and non-musical characteristics of the most renowned Icelandic bands. The word itself approximates to ‘cute’ but is generally used negatively to suggest a somewhat contrived infantile persona and musical naivety.  Once this concept was unpacked in discussion it seemed that musicians felt that the krut factor was of considerable value in branding Icelandic popular music internationally.  Bands, producers and promoters cultivated both image and this sound, and whilst other musicians resented this pull they had to admit that it had been an effective strategy.  Implications that this recognisable sound drew upon a unique culture from an exotic landscape may have been fanciful to some extent, but then the global music industry has always latched on to distinctive signifiers with which to define and promote new products.

Recently, the international success of krut Icelandic music can be seen to have opened the door to a wider range of styles, and the creative industries have been greatly enhanced by growing festival tourism, recording infrastructure and internet distribution. Foreign groups now come to Iceland to be inspired by the environment and produced in local studios, further enhancing Iceland’s reputation for a certain kind of musical sensibility and encouraging local groups to follow this stylistic route. Like music scenes the world over, what may have resulted twenty years ago from a combination of chance collaborations and individual creative visions has effectively become an established and recognised tradition, complete with a backdated mythology and construction of national identity.

3) Reggada

The musical genre known as Reggada is named after the village of Aïn el Reggada,  a few kilometers from  the market town of Berkane in North Eastern Morocco. The music, and the traditional dance associated with it, is closely linked to the Beni-Snassen tribe – Arabic speaking Berbers who have politically dominated the plain up to the nearby border with Algeria and the small range of mountains that also bear their name. According to local informants the Beni Snassen tribal network has controlled trade and passage in the region for centuries, and even maintain that they, more or less single-handedly, halted the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 1500’s, thus preserving the national integrity of Morocco. Although this is in fact untrue on several counts,[9] the Beni Snassen pride themselves on their tradition of horsemanship, musketry and allegiance to the King of Morocco.

The music and dance most associated with the Beni Snassen incorporates references to both firearms and horses. Dance steps are said to mimic the footfalls of horses, and it is only comparatively recently that shotguns have been replaced with canes in the hands of performing troupes, known as a’arfa.  This is a men’s dance, which can be either performed acrobatically in pairs or in large groups, in which case rehearsed moves are called out by a leader.[10] I’ve been told that the movements of the dancers also reflect traditional cavalry manouveres, and though it may difficult to confirm that this, it is nevertheless says a great deal about the Beni Snassen’s sense of cultural heritage that the dance can be considered a masculine celebration of martial history which is directly connected to local tribal identity.

Today Reggada is much more than a folk dance. In the last decade the distinctive local rhythm has been incorporated into a fully-fledged popular music genre, with several artists achieving national and even international acclaim. Pop Reggada is produced in a number of small studios in the town of Berkane, where original recordings of drums, flutes, and even horses, are looped and mixed electronically alongside sequenced bass and drums. A number of local pop stars perform at festivals, weddings and nightclubs, frequently adopting the name of Berkane as an authenricating signifier of regional provenance, hence Mohamed El Berkani, Aziz El berkani, the great Mohktar el Berkani, and (Ms) Nadia el Berkania. Reggada is not the most popular music in Morocco, but is very important regionally, and musicians also enjoy a lucrative expatriate market in Europe, and particularly in the Netherlands.[11]

One would imagine, given the local cultural and economic importance of Reggada, that a visitor would find evidence of the music everywhere one looked in Berkane, but this is far from the case, even in the village of Aïn El Reggada itself. Whereas the nearest regional city of Oujda is a genuine hub of musical activity, in Berkane itself there are very few CD shops, and the few that can be found are mostly record company offices for distribution rather than retail.  I suggest that one of the main reasons for this notable absence is the nature of the religio-political environment in the region. Berkane lies only 11km away from the village of Madagh, which despite it’s tiny size is the centre of an influential sufi order, known as the Boutchichiya, with a great number of adherents in Morocco and around the world. The Boutchichiya are a regional branch of the Quadiriyya brotherhood that was established in Baghdad in the 11th century. The local zawia, founded in 1942 by Abu Maydan Al Budshish of the Beni-Snassen (Haenni & Voix 2007) has centered on the shrine of Sidi Mokhtar, who like most Moroccan ‘saints’ has been traditionally venerated through pilgrimage in return for supernatural blessing.

In the 1960’s the tariq changed its focus from a regional to a national, then international membership, which now numbers in hundreds of thousands. Its new market was the educated middle-class Moroccan, who was not attracted to ‘traditional’ religiosity and may even experimented with such new-age non-islamic practices as yoga and Tai chi. Importantly, the movement attracted membership from universities, local government and managerial classes – the largest politically powerful stratum of society.

With the support of well-connected intellectuals, including the directorship of the Fes Festival of Sacred Music, the Boutchichiya movement is undoubtedly close to centres of power in Morocco. It promotes a highly literate form of Islam, based upon charismatic leadership, sufi texts, and the practice of dhikhr. It also involves a formal training structure, rewarding established adherents with greater repsonibility for spreading the zawia message. The Butchichiyya effectively combine indigenous mysticism with a relatively tolerant (and clearly state –approved) interpretation of  Islam, which has proved to be popular with regional politicians and entrepreneurs. Congregations have been set up throughout the world, for muslims and (theoretically) non-muslims to practice dhickr and perhaps one day to visit the Madagh shrine in person. (Marta Domniguez Diaz 2010).  Locally, the zawia serves the very community who may  otherwise be drawn through disafection into Wahhabism or yet more politically destabilising  philosophies. It seems to me no coincidence that the symbolic centre for this movemnent is within sight of the officially closed, yet porous, Algerian border, which for decades was considered a source of politicised Islam.

In a broader sense, this kind of neo-sufism may be comsidered a a potential ‘third way’ for Moroccan religious culture, one that is acceptable both to its own nationals and the West.

What has the Butchichiyya to do with Regadda music – or with its apparent absence in Berkane?  Whilst adherents I have met are (almost) as wary of the subject as musicians, music remains a somewhat contraversial subject within Islam. Music per se is not considered haram, (or immoral) but popular music in particular is closely associated with nightclubs and bars, which certainly are.  The music used by Butchichis in their lodge is largely vocal and unaccompanied, and although other musical practices are not criticised outright, entertainment musics are invariably placed at the opposite end of  a moral continuum. Musicians for their part are careful to avoid censure. One of the bigger reggada stars from Berkane, known as Talbi One, feels free to comment in songs on social ills and problems, but his explanation of them is never less than politically pragmatic.[12] The Butchichiya movement has members in every walk of life, but particularly in the more powerful spheres, so its influence, though subtle, is pervasive in the region. Musicians are at liberty to ply their trade, but within limitations that do not need to be made explicit. In the prevailing culltural/political dynamic of the region, it is clear that there are places and times in which music is acceptable, and this is  not in Berkane town centre despite its renown as its source.  The Beni-Snassen succeed in balancing tremendous pride in their cultural heritage with propriety and a wise respect for both religion and politics.


The triangulation of these short vignettes is intended to shed light upon the ways in which power flows through musical practices by defining cultural boundaries.  In the imagination, music always refers to places and times, even though recorded and broadcast, these references are somewhat dislocated from the performance context in which their meaning is most defined. Such dislocation itself allows multiple readings of a musical object, from diverse subject positions, themselves, given shape by fluctuating networks of power, and from contexts and times which are largely beyond the musician’s influence.  Market forces, distributive technologies and prevailing ideoscapes create meaning around music, to the extent that it can become a weapon of intimidation, a moral threat or a desirable ‘other’. In each circumstance, the agency of the musician is both limited and pragmatic.

[1] Named after the village of Lambeg, Between Belfast and Lisburn, County Antrim.

[2] Hastings, Gary (2003) With Fife and Drum. Blackstaff Press, Belfast.
Schiller, Rina (2001) The lambeg and the bodhrán : Drums of Ireland. Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast.

[3] I have, nevertheless heard these sentiments expressed very clearly by a senior member of a local Orange Lodge when awarding prizes for drumming. The gist of the statement was that if ‘we couldn’t drive them out any other way, we’d drown them out’. Them, presumably referring to Catholic neighbours.

[4] Amina play mostly instrumental music, Mum sing in Icelandic and English, Sigur Ros often use an invented nonsense language they call Vonlenska,

[5] Faulkner, R. 2013, ‘Icelandic Men and Me’ Ashgate Press.

[6] ‘The Invention of Tradition’ (1983). Hobsbawm and Ranger. Cambridge University Press.

[7] A list of almost every active musical group in Iceland can be found at

[8] Of Monsters and Men, Mugison and more recently, Ásgeir, have achieved international popularity whilst deviating somewhat from the established Icelandic style.

[9] The Ottoman Empire invaded Morocco several times, reaching as far Fez in 1554, though it could never be held for long. At this time the country was politically divided between numerous regional tribal and religious factions, competing dynastic claims and the sultanate’s power base in the Makhzan, in central Morocco. However it is possible that the Beni-Snassen remained loyal to the Sultan and had some part to play in ongoing skirmishes with ‘the Turks’.

[10] The music itself is performed on bendir frame drums with a melodic ostinato played on a range of aerophones, but most commonly the ghraita (oboe) or gaspa (flute). The rhythmic pattern that distinguishes Reggada from similar regional forms is a 4/4 pattern containing a triplet on the last three beats of each bar.

[11] Dutch Reggada groups even come to play in Moroccan festivals each summer, during the summer return of diasporic families to home towns.

[12] Even in his music videos, dancing women are dressed in full burka’s, so removing the faintest hint of physical alure, even though such dress is very rarely seen in the region.

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