Crate Digging: Morocco

From Marrakech to Fes to Casablanca in search of rare records and an intense cultural experience.


While riding shotgun through the scenic Atlas Mountains to the soundtrack of Tracy Chapman and modern country music, I began to fear that my hopes of finding Moroccan vinyl were doomed. However—I was forewarned, as early research indicated that vinyl was uncommon in the country.

Morocco has long intrigued me as one of the great old world meets new world cultural intersections. In the winter of 2013 my girlfriend and I planned a trip that would bring us from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the Atlas Mountains to the edge of the Sahara, to Fes and then back to Casablanca. Along with an intense cultural experience, I looked forward to expanding my knowledge (and collection) of Moroccan music.

On our arrival in Casablanca we caught a train to Marrakech as we were most interested in exploring the ancient winding cityscapes. The old fortified section of North African countries is known as the medina. Marrakech’s medina was incredibly intense; we had to constantly look over our shoulders for motorbikes speeding down the narrow, crowded alleys while shopkeepers aggressively solicited us to enter their shops. The streets overwhelm the senses with beautifully decayed textures, hand-painted signs and smells of street food. However, I found it strange to hear so little music while we walked the bustling streets. It became clear that old music would not be found outside of a few CD and cassette vendors.

Ait Benhaddou Morocco

The next leg of our journey took us through the Atlas Mountains via car, where the scenery quickly shifts from beautiful deep river valleys to desert and to otherworldly rock formations. Reddish-ochre adobe villages were built into bases of mountain walls and appeared eternally frozen in time.

After a night in Merzouga, a small village located along the border of the Sahara, our driver brought us to the city of Fes. Founded in the 8th century, Fes is a medieval Arabic city, home to Fes el Bali, a particularly exciting and overwhelming medina that is one of the world’s largest car-free urban areas. It is a massive labyrinth of vendors that sell leather goods, metal work, rugs, spices, western knock-off products and much more. When you visit Fes, it is expected that you will get lost, hustled, and have an amazing experience. The markets are more expansive than those of Marrakech, which gave me confidence that I would eventually stumble upon vinyl.

Our riad was owned and run by two Frenchman who fell in love with the city and relocated there. Over breakfast we asked them where we could find true antiques, since most vendors on the surface of the medina sold new handcrafted goods. He informed us of an area located off the beaten path, within the northernmost part of the medina, and insisted upon accompanying us there as it was in an area not typically visited by tourists.


The route took us through several turns of the maze and eventually out of the market and up a grassy hill to a small shanty town that overlooked the twisting medina. The dirt road was lined with vendors of architectural salvage, statues, and antiques. This was exactly what we were looking for. Our guide greeted his contact, wandered away with him and moments later returned with a large stack of 45s. I was relieved to have finally encountered vinyl. I had to make my selections on instinct since I had not brought my portable turntable. I flipped through the stack, setting aside those that appeared to be promising and not completely hammered. I selected a stack of ten records which I bargained down to 200 dirhams (about $20). There were other well priced items that interested us, including a beautiful ornamental ceiling tile that was salvaged from an old Moroccan home and a Coca-Cola store front sign in Arabic, but unfortunately they were too large for us to bring back on the plane.

Elated from the success of our digging, we were in the mood for a drink. Alcohol is perhaps even more elusive than records in Morocco. It is highly regulated and bars can mostly be found within large hotels or very expensive clubs. From the shanty town, we trekked further up the steep hill towards Les Merinides, a grand hotel that towered over the medina, where we had heard the views were breathtaking and the drinks cold. At the bar I ordered a Johnny Walker and a beer, which received a strange look from my server—the beer and shot combo has yet to reach Morocco. From the vantage point of the terrace bar we enjoyed our well-earned drinks while watching the sun fall behind the backdrop of the tombs at the base of the hotel and the old city.

Vinyl records shop: Fes, Morocco

One night, late while exploring the medina we had heard the unexpected sound of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” blasting from a stall in the distance and tracked down the source. Inside a formidable junk shop, I scanned the goods and spotted large stacks of 45s and LPs that were buried underneath a pile of junk. I pointed, asked to look at them, and he unearthed the stacks for me. He appeared to be very pleased with my interest in old music. He spoke very little English but enthusiastically exclaimed names of his favorite American artists— “Janis Joplin!”, “Buddy Miles!” He began DJing American classics on his CD player.

I quickly flipped through his 45s but once again I had not brought my player. There were many Arabic and Berber picture sleeve singles from Morocco’s own Casaphone and Boussiphone labels, as well as several more obscure labels. I set aside several titles of interest and wanted to gauge his prices before continuing. His initial price was 40 dirham (about $4) apiece, which was more than I was comfortable paying without being able to listen first. It was quite late and I communicated that I would return the following day with my turntable. I sensed by some disappointment on his face that he worried I might not come back.

Crate digging in Fes, Morocco

The next afternoon I returned with my portable and discovered he had set up his turntable in hope of my return. I sampled records from my stack while he played me his recommendations. When I heard something I liked I would exclaim “j’aime”,my best use of cavemen French to express “I like.” After a bit he became more familiar with the sound I was looking for. I was most drawn to raw hypnotic percussions accompanied by tortured wailing vocals. I luckily found several nice examples of this. In the end I purchased a stack of about fifteen 45s, as well as one LP, “Rhythms From the Orient” by Egyptian guitarist Omar Khourshid. The album is a killer collection of exotic Middle Eastern instrumentals with pounding percussions and Western style moog.

Turntable in shop: Fes, Morocco

A little further on, I spotted a stall with several crates of French pop records sitting by the entrance. I quickly flipped through, saw nothing of interest, but on closer inspection, discovered several stacks of unsleeved 45s lining his shelves. My portable’s batteries were dying so I sampled several on the house turntable. The music stirred up a sense of nostalgia in the shopkeeper as he sang along several of the songs in Arabic. I picked up several Casaphone records as well as my highlight, “Ma Tfarknich”, an unusual mid-tempo Flamenco-infused tune by the popular Algerian singer Rabah Driassa.

We returned to Casablanca that eveningto catch a flight home next afternoon. We woke up early and took a walk to Disques Gam and Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques, Casablanca’s oldest and most notable record stores. It was 9am and I figured I could at least catch a glimpse through their windows.

Disques Gam record store: Casablanca

Disques Gam, owned by Gam Boujemaa and located along Boulevard de Paris, has been in operation since the mid ’60s. For a period of time in the ’70s, Boujemaa expanded his business to a record label of the same name. As I passed the darkened storefront I noticed the door was open. I peeked through the doorway and spotted a man in the shadows. I asked if he was open and he motioned for me to enter the store. I had very little time so I had to look quickly. Interestingly he had many stock copies of Bollywood 45s, including one of my psych-funk favorites, the Haré Raama Haré Krishna EP by R. D. Burman. With more time I might have made some decent finds, but chose to move on, hoping that Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques would be be open early as well.

Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques

Le Comptoir, supposedly 26 avenue Yalla Lacout, was not very easy to find, as we got turned around a few times, but eventually stumbled upon its classic storefront. Upon entering we were coldly greeted by a man with a stern disposition. The beauty of the meticulously arranged bins and the vibrant colors of the record jackets took me aback. Comprised of all stock copies from the ’60s and ’70s, it was a shop that appeared frozen in time. It had a museum-like feel to it, which was intensified by the shopkeeper standing with folded arms, keeping a watchful eye on us. While he wasn’t looking I snapped a few covert photos. The selection was quite overwhelming and I was pretty sure that they did not allow customers to listen to records, so I grabbed a couple 45s that I remember another blogger recommending. The selections were Jil Jilala’s “Rifia”, which has a nice hip-hop beat perfect for sampling, and a fun upbeat jerk tune by Abdelwahad Doukkali, “Twist Iway T’Koussi Chaarek Twist”. On my way to check out I boldly snapped a couple more photos, which drew the attention of the shopkeeper. He appeared quite agitated and raised his voice as he reprimanded me in Arabic. I lowered my head, apologized, finished the transaction and we got on our way.

I left Morocco feeling quite good about my finds. I initially figured that I would not uncover much vinyl during my travels, but my expectations were exceeded. Props to Chris Silver’s Jewish Morocco blog for his informative articles on digging in Morocco. Enjoy my mix, Lost in the Medina, which compiles several of my finds from the trip.

Share your thoughts

One comment

  1. Jules s

    Thanks for sharing this moment with us! I’m French and i go to Fes this summer
    Do you have the name or the adress from the record shop in the Medina?