"When I was young, near where I lived there was a quarry where they extracted stone. I used to love going to sing there because it had a fantastic acoustic, with my voice bouncing off the walls. I love acoustics like that, with a strong echo. I'd like to sing in a church for that reason."
You could say Cherifa likes the sound of her own voice, and who can blame her because it's an incredible instrument, as strong as the darkest Moroccan coffee but with twice the hit. She would be more than capable of shaking stained glass were she ever to get her wish.
Cherifa's music is the stark, raw sheikhat music of the Berbers of the Middle Atlas region of Morocco - it’s more elemental than gnawa, and with less of the hip-shaking immediacy of the more popular chaabi music. She sings taqsims - improvised songs of poetry set against the plaintive sound of the lutar (Berber lute) and rhythmic chatter of the bendir frame drum. Songs, typically lasting ten to fifteen minutes, open with the deep resonant strains of the lutar, which picks out a basic theme for a minute or so, before Cherifa sings solo, a declamatory, powerful chant that seems to echo down the ages. Then the bendir-driven rhythm starts, with lines sung alternately by the two male instrumentalists and the singer herself, the gently shaking dance movement and hand gestures made by Cherifa redolent of the women of the region at their looms as they fashion their zayan carpets. This build-up in emotional intensity and call-and-response prompting is reminiscent of the devotional qawwali music of Pakistan, and is far from easy listening for some. But to be sucked into the intoxicating vortex of the sound is a hugely rewarding and cathartic experience, as many WOMEX showcase attendees in Gateshead last year, and at this year’s WOMAD festival in Reading, would no doubt agree.
The romantic tale that’s been told about Cherifa is that her incredible vocal talent was discovered as she sang in the mountains whilst tending her sheep, but the truth is a touch more prosaic than that, as she explains: "I was a shepherdess, but only because everybody in the village was one. It was obligatory, there were many more sheep than people! I started singing when I was fourteen. I was singing in the mountains around my village, just for my own pleasure."
By the time she was sixteen, Cherifa was performing at weddings and village fêtes, and with one noted local elder: "In my village, there was an imam, a religious leader who taught the villagers and who led the prayer every day. And every day, after every prayer he would say: 'Now, come outside with me, everybody, because I'm going to sing with Cherifa!’ Also, musicians would come by the village and they thought I was something special. So eventually they took me to the nearest local town, Khenifra, to sing in front of audiences."
In the early 80s, whilst still in her early twenties, Cherifa met the renowned performer Mohamed Rouicha, also from the Middle Atlas region. She seemed destined for a quick ascent in popularity, "but after I got married, I could no longer perform. After I got divorced, I began to sing again professionally, and this time started making cassettes. Jean-Hervé (Vidal of French label Zaman Productions) bought one of my cassettes and asked if I would like to record for him."
Vidal took Cherifa to France in 1996, and after a well-received performance at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris as part of the Honouring Morocco in France campaign, she released the CD Berber Blues in 2000. It contains six shots of pure, untainted paens to the recurrent theme of love gained and lost. "The songs are a mixture of very old standards, ones other people have written and ones we write ourselves, usually dealing in personal issues. But we are also bringing new themes into the repertoire now. Emigration in particular is currently a big topic in Morocco, and more and more of our songs try to fly the Berber flag. We are trying to put Berber culture at the centre of the modern Moroccan identity." The reason for this appears to have been the succession to the Moroccan throne of King Mohammed VI in 1999.
"We feel very appreciative towards the new king. He has brought in a lot of changes that give Berber culture and language a better chance to thrive. He has overseen some of the revitalisation of the Berber culture. We now even have TV channels in the Berber language that can be seen in Europe and even the USA."
Now, that's a form of globalisation of which I'm sure we all can approve.