History of Malhun Music
The exact origins of Malhun music are unknown. Dialectical Arab poetry first appeared in Spain in the 12th century, and in Morocco in the 15th century. The word malhun was first used in a poem about one hundred years later. The earliest Moroccan Malhun poets lived in Tafilalt, a region south of Fez, bordering the Sahara. The geographic separation between Tafilalt and Andalusia suggests that Malhun first developed separately from Andalusian music, although Andalusian music influenced the genre at a later date.
The region of Tafilalt in the 15th century was populated by indigenous Berbers and Arab immigrants from the eastern Arab world. Due to the demographics of the Tafilalt region, links can be drawn between Malhun music and other Arab and Amazight musical traditions . The region was also the home of the Alawite family, who became the ruling dynasty in Morocco in the early 17th century. As the Alawites gained power and moved north, they brought the genre of Malhun with them.
"The first known authors of Malhun are from the sixteenth century. The period when the genre flourished the most was during the reign of Sultan Sidi Mohammed (1859-1873), a poet himself and Mecne. Many continue the tradition right to our day. Unquestionably, and not less inspired, are the simple artisans. All have an elevated notion of poetry, which they call al-ilm al-mawhub, the science or law of love." -Earle H. Waugh, Memory, Music, and Religion: Morocco's Mystical Chanters
Despite Malhun's connections to royalty, it primarily developed in the working class. Tradition holds that Malhun developed among artisanal guilds. The golden age of Malhun poetry in the 18th and 19th centuries was dominated by poets such as Jilali Mtired, a shopkeeper, and al-Hajj Ahmad al-Gharabli, a weaver.
During the reign of King Hassan II (1961-1999), Malhun experienced a revival. It was seen as part of the traditional counterbalance to the French influence during the years of Morocco's colonization. Malhun was also viewed as an antithesis to musical influences from the eastern Arab world.
New scholarship on Malhun was produced during this period, and festivals and conferences were organized to protect and preserve the genre. Performances, however, continued to originate from the traditional artisanal groups. New Malhun poetry is still being written, but numerous anthologies have also been published, documenting the older Malhun poems.
"Melhoun should be treated as a classical corpus. The ancient repertoire must first be promoted, and then renewed by new, quality instrumental and vocal interpretations." - Et-Tayeb Houdaifa, Retour de Flamme Pour le Melhoun. Translated from French.