On a makeshift stage in Casablanca eight men perform wearing women's outfits, a band resurrecting the nearly forgotten historical Moroccan genre of Aita music.
The recently formed band -- called Cabaret Al-Shaikhat, or the Folk Divas' Cabaret -- has stirred controversy among Moroccan society's conservative segments. The backlash was similar to the fuss Mashrou Leila created when it performed in Morocco last year because the Lebanese band adopts contentious social and political views, not to mention that its lead singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay.
However, Cabaret Al-Shaikhat has appealed to some extent to the more progressive younger generations in Morocco.
The "visual shock" of transvestism is the most controversial aspect of the band's performances, according to Cabaret Al-Shaikhat's leading member Ghassan Al-Hakim.
The bearded band members appear on stage putting on women's caftans and wearing makeup, using eyeliners and dark lipsticks.
It was rather expected that Cabaret Al-Shaikhat would come under fire, with 55 percent of Moroccan youth belonging to the conservative camp according to global public relations firm ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller. But unlike critics who would not accept cross dressers, many fans admire the band for bringing back to life an ancient form of Moroccan art.
The band was inspired by a play telling the story of young men who adore Aita music, and thus would hide every night inside a bathhouse dressing like female folk singers to imitate their performances, Cabaret Al-Shaikhat member Hamid Al-Khaiat said.
The launch of the band was modest: Cabaret Al-Shaikhat made its debut at a Casablanca restaurant in May 2016. The audience lauded their performance, which encouraged the band members to carry on.
The band rose to prominence last summer when it performed at the Boulevard Festival in Casablanca. At the time, Al-Hakim recalls, the band members were not bearded and did not have their current more masculine appearance.
Al-Hakim thinks it is fascinating how passion for Aita music has brought young men from all across Casablanca in one band. Together they visited impoverished districts where the typical image of a virile masculine man is dominant, yet they were warmly received. The audience in these areas was willing to protect the band if needed, he said.
An Act of Feminism by Men?
Some observers interpret the band's performances as an act of feminism, including Zainab Fasiki, a comic artist and a women's rights advocate.
She told Raseef22 that she is proud of Cabaret Al-Shaikhat "because it does something brave and unique in our society. To be a man and wear women's garment is not ordinary or acceptable here". "They also boost the status of the female folk singers and show their significance as an integral part of our culture… We are in dire need of artists who are that brave because we're facing many taboos that we have to break," she added.
Al-Hakim has said to Al-Yaoum24 newspaper that the band "supports the woman and defends her causes and rights based on the principle of coexistence with the man".
The band, however, does not include female members. Al-Hakim explains that women are not even allowed to attend rehearsals because "the presence of a woman means we will imitate her femininity, and we don't want to play the role of a typical woman. We rely on our imagination".
"By dressing like female folk singers, we've realized how hard it is to be a woman," he said. "We became prone to annoying stares, which girls are subject to around 80 times a day. Thus we've sympathized with girls even more."
The bearded band members appear on stage putting on women's caftans and wearing makeup, using eyeliners and dark lipsticks
"By dressing like female folk singers, we've realized how hard it is to be a woman. We became prone to annoying stares, which girls are subject to around 80 times a day"
The band members on more than one occasion said they defended female folk singers -- who have been "defamed" by the French occupation -- by casting light on their real history. Before performing, Cabaret Al-Shaikhat would tell stories about them and highlight their role as political activists and spiritual leaders who stood firmly against the occupation. They promoted noble principles such as honesty and love, the band would tell the audience.
Researcher Mohamed Ramses in an article of his in Moroccan newspaper Al-Maghress said the female folk singers "played a patriotic role resisting power abuse… They also called for the expulsion of the occupiers".
On top of that, he went on, they were an "emblem of nobility; the dignitaries would bring them in to perform during their private parties… However, the market logic and occupation authorities transformed them from a symbol of resistance to a cheap commodity. Even tourism has turned Al-Shaikhat from [a form of] local creativity expressing the Moroccan identity and the depth of the authentic heritage, to eye candy that served other purposes such as attracting tourists".
Ramses explained that many of the folk divas were given insulting names; the name-calling device indeed created hatred towards women's dancing and singing, and wiped out what female folk singers stood for.
Aita Between Past and Present
According to researcher and historian Yones Masoudi, Aita originated among Moroccan Bedouins in the 19th century as a result of famous stories about Al-Shaikhat and authoritative leaders, which reflected two social and political realities during that period.
As a matter of fact, Aita is much older than this era. It was the art that documented the arrival of Arab tribes during the Islamic "invasion" of Morocco and beyond. Moreover, it denoted the cultural mixture between the new Arab Bedouins and native Berbers.
The well-known Sheikha Mubarka Al-Bahishiah from the city of Beni Mellal represented her tribe through her poems. Her songs about marriage granted her fame until the early 20th century. However, the French occupation cost her dearly; her revolutionary poems incited fighters to kill the French and inflamed their feelings to attain freedom. This put a target on her back and she was eventually forced to move to the mountains to avoid being assassinated.
Also, the music of the east cast a shadow over Aita in Morocco, according to Abdel-Salam Al-Khalofy, a researcher who focuses on Moroccan music genres.
He said the difficult Moroccan colloquial language had kept Aita from spreading regionally. However, the leader of Cabaret Al-Shaikhat says he is determined to resurrect the heritage music that has long been overshadowed by titans like Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Fayrouz.