When you think of traditional Moroccan music, you probably don’t think of 12 men in women’s clothing. Yet, that is exactly what you get if you go see Kabareh Cheikhats. Since forming in 2016, they have taken Morocco by storm, travelling all over the country in an old, beaten up Honda, playing over 50 shows per year.
Since forming in 2016, Kabareh Cheikhats has taken Morocco by storm, travelling all over the country playing over 50 shows per year.
They started in Casablanca, playing twice a month at Vertigo – a legendary bar buried deep in the city, haunt of many Moroccan artists and musicians. Today, they spend much of their time touring in Europe. They have played in Paris on several occasions, as well as London, Hamburg, and a number of locations in Belgium. Next week, they will play their first show in Amsterdam.
Cheikhat is sometimes regarded as a pejorative term, as it was associated with debauchery and prostitution during the time of the French protectorate. Yet Cheikhats were traditionally women of power and influence in the tribes of North Africa. They were poets and singers, revered for their wisdom. Kabareh Cheikhats founder and lead singer, Ghassan El Hakim, explained to Inside Arabia that part of the purpose of his work is to rehabilitate this noble place for Cheikhats in Moroccan culture, restoring them to a glory they held before their reputation was defiled by the imperial French regime.
Traditionally, Cheikhats would sing long poems, composed as chants called Aitas. Kabareh Cheikhats perform these Aitas in traditional styles, using traditional instruments, such as taârijas – small terracotta drums, and bendirs – large tambourines. They cover the songs of legendary Cheikhats such as Fatna Bent Lhoussine, Hajja Hamdaouiya, and Cheikha Coupasse. Their performances are homages that acknowledge their debt to these artists, emulating their work in almost every detail.
The only difference is that these Cheikhats are men.
“All men have their share of woman in them,” said El Hakim. “It’s important to let it out, magnify it.”
And the band members commit to their roles fully, spending hours in makeup and sporting a variety of wigs and jewelry. During their shows, it is not uncommon to see audience members dancing in a trance-like state that the music of traditional Cheikhats is intended to invoke.
Kabareh Cheikhats’ work asks the audience to question traditional conceptions of gender but does not celebrate any particular gender identity.
Kabareh Cheikhats’ work asks the audience to question traditional conceptions of gender but does not celebrate any particular gender identity. The Cheikhats identify as heterosexual and Fanny Dalmau (wife of Ghassan El Hakim) is the band’s manager, a job that is most commonly held by men.
“Sexuality is not political in itself,” El Hakim told Inside Arabia. “It’s okay if sexuality motivates people to engage in politics, but sexuality itself comes directly out of nature; it cannot be pushed in one direction or another.”
The band seeks to identify the ways in which rigid conceptions of gender are harmful to individuals and society. Kabareh Cheikhats believe that in Morocco, but also in every culture around the world, people are pressured into accepting unnaturally narrow concepts of how we should act, what we should wear, and how we should express ourselves.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, El Hakim said, “Men’s bodies are in a prison of tradition. We can’t dress in any way we want; we must always be strong, we can’t cry. . .this is not real. It’s damaging and unnatural.”
“Societies tend to believe in weak and strong genders, which harms everyone,” El Hakim continued. “Society has to change the way we view both men and women. We are all imprisoned by the way gender is viewed today. . . . Men dancing like Cheikhats is a powerful image. . . it points to a society without judgement.”
By expanding the space within which people can express themselves, a healthier, more natural society can be created, both collectively and at the level of individual mental health.
El Hakim believes that, by expanding the space within which people can express themselves, a healthier, more natural society can be created, both collectively and at the level of individual mental health.
El Hakim was raised around Cheikhats from an early age and was even bottle-fed by a group of them as a child. He fell in love with their songs and way of being. He held onto this feeling throughout his time at the Institute of Dramatic Art and Cultural Animation (ISADAC) in Rabat, where he studied theater. He later went on to study in France, both at the Paris Conservatory of Dramatic Art and L’Université Paris 8. Upon returning to Morocco, El Hakim worked with friends to found an art school in Casablanca – Parallèle, as well as a theater group.
Kabareh Cheikhats was born as a play called Masmaa (Manufactured) about men who wanted to become popular singers, ultimately resorting to performing as female singers. They saw the project as being right in the mainstream of classical theater, inspired largely by the way in which men would play women (and vice versa) in Shakespeare. The play was never finished yet the project evolved into the musical performance we see today.
The band has attracted their fair share of controversy, but they are keen to downplay the role this plays in their lives. Ghassan El Hakim told Inside Arabia that they have been met with frosty receptions from audiences on a number of occasions. He spoke of the shock of certain audiences at the band’s appearance, meaning that they have sometimes walked on stage to eerie silences or even verbal abuse.
One day, while on a recent trip to Tunisia, I was wearing a Kabareh Cheikhats tee-shirt, that I had picked up from one of the band’s shows in Rabat, Morocco. Four or five different people approached me to make unthreatening, yet unmistakably homophobic, comments about the band. “Don’t wear that around here,” one waiter told me, adding, “Our country is gone. They just let anything happen in Tunisia these days.”
Despite such attitudes, El Hakim emphasizes that, the vast majority of the time, when the music starts, all is forgotten and everyone starts to have fun. “For me our show is like a laboratory, an experiment to see how it works with the audience,” he told Inside Arabia.
Music can be a vehicle for cultural change, challenging entrenched stereotypes and prejudices. When Kabareh Cheikhats play, their music is shared by the whole audience, regardless of their beliefs.
Music can be a vehicle for cultural change, challenging entrenched stereotypes and prejudices. When Kabareh Cheikhats play, their music is shared by the whole audience, regardless of their beliefs. In such a communal space, music can act as a social lubricant, making it much more likely that attitudes will evolve.
“We like to challenge people in Morocco, getting them to accept us, to cross a line they might not be comfortable with,” El Hakim explained. “Then, when they have accepted us, we use the music to take them deeper, further away from their comfort zone.”
For El Hakim, the focus of their European shows is somewhat different. “When we play in Europe, we also aim to challenge gender stereotypes, but also to combat European stereotypes of countries like ours. We want to present another face of people from Muslim countries,” he said.
The band has certainly helped start an important debate. Speaking to Inside Arabia, Moroccan activist Selma El Houary said, “I respect this group because they had the courage to question the notion of gender in Morocco through art.”
This interrogation of social norms is central to what Kabareh Cheikhats do, and yet inherent in their work is a deep respect for their North African cultural heritage. “They are challenging things, yes,” continued El Houary, “yet the message that runs through their music and their lyrics is about teaching a new generation about the importance of the culture and music of their ancestors. These are men who sing history.”
What is most interesting about Kabareh Cheikhats is the way in which they play with contradictions. The most obvious contradiction is the superficial fact that they are men wearing women’s traditional attire. Yet there is a deeper paradox in what they are doing – using traditional forms to challenge traditional norms.
While their work asks people to imagine something new, to tolerate new forms of expression, it is also deeply rooted in Moroccan cultural history. Morocco has a long tradition of men dancing and performing as women, which can still be seen today, both in the cities and in the remote countryside. At Moroccan wedding ceremonies, it is still common to see a man dressed in a caftan, a scarf tied around the pelvis, dancing on the cart that bears the groom as an offering to his bride.
There is also a strong tradition of the subversion of gender norms to be found in the history of Moroccan pop-culture.
There is also a strong tradition of the subversion of gender norms to be found in the history of Moroccan pop-culture. In the 1970s, Bouchaib El Bidaoui, an icon of popular Moroccan theater, would often dress as a woman and perform as a Cheikhat.
When talking about their work, the members of Kabareh Cheikhats are keen to point out that their work is largely about recovering and rehabilitating traditions that are quintessentially Moroccan. They see themselves as part of a wider movement in North Africa, which seeks to reconcile itself with history and revive lost or maligned traditions, all while having fun.
That movement is gathering speed as Kabareh Cheikhats shows become more and more popular.
“I will never forget our first show, in 2016,” confided Ghassan. “It was in the garden of a cinema and we were terrified. I felt like a bull, backed into a corner by a matador and the only way out was to just plough straight through it and not look back. After that, I thought to myself, ‘we can play anywhere.’”
They’ve been doing just that ever since.