The American Composer, writer, translator, and musicologist Paul Frederick Bowles may be best known for his connection to Morocco, a country he visited frequently beginning in the 1930s. By 1948 he had settled permanently in the port city of Tangier.
He was born on December 30, 1910, and raised in Jamaica, Queens in New York City to a highly demanding dentist father Claude Dietz Bowles, and mother Rena Winnewisser Bowles. He learned music and how to play piano at the Model School, a teacher training school, and attempted to compose his first opera when he was only nine-years-old. His interest in writing was nurtured by an aunt who lived in Greenwich Village and introduced him to the head children's librarian of the New York Public Library. At Jamaica High School in Queens, he joined the school’s monthly literary magazine. In 1928, at the age of 18, Bowles had his first poem published in Transition, a prestigious avant-garde literary publication.
Upon graduating he left to study at the University of Virginia, but he quickly left for Paris without even notifying his parents. His parents eventually persuaded him to return to the United States to finish out his first year of college, which he did in the spring of 1930. He soon returned to Paris, however. He also traveled to Germany, Spain, and Sri Lanka.
In the summer of 1931, he met Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson who became his mentors. He soon became a sought after composer, writing music for more than 30 films and theatrical productions throughout his career. He worked with Orson Welles, John Houseman, William Saroyan, and Tennessee Williams, among others.
On February 21, 1938, he married the novelist and playwright Jane Bowles. They remained together until her death at a hospital in Malaga, Spain. Paul Bowles first visited Tangier in the 1930s at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein. In 1948 he moved there permanently and lived there until his death in 1999.
He published his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, in 1949. Approximately 4 decades later it was made into a movie by Bernardo Bertolucci. By the time of his death, he published 4 novels, sixty short stories, four collections of poetry, many travel pieces, and two autobiographical works. Beyond The Sheltering Sky, he is probably best known for Let It Come Down (1952), set in Tangier when it was an international zone, The Spider's House (1954), set in Fés while the movement for Moroccan independence was in full ferment, his translation of For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri and his travel writings that include accounts of his travels in Morocco to collect a representative sampling of Moroccan music for the Library of Congress.
He also translated a number of Moroccan and Latin American writers, and
played a major role in establishing the reputations of Mohammed Mrabet,
Mohammed Choukri, among others. According to the obituary by Mel Gussow, in the New York Times, in the 1950s and 60s Bowles became a magnet for those envisioning the artist's life away from the mainstream. It is not surprising that he was idolized by writers of the Beat Generation, many of whom visited him in Tangier.
As a composer, Bowles composed incidental music for the Tennessee Williams plays The Glass Menagerie and Sweet Birth of Youth. He also composed the scores for many films, working with great directors such as Orsan Wells, Elia Kazan, and Salvador Dali. He also scored productions staged by the American School of Tangier. As an ethnomusicologist, Bowles received Guggenheim and Rockefeller grants to research music in Spain, North Africa, the Antilles, and South and Central America. In 1959, and between 1960-1962 Rockefeller Grants were used for a special project sponsored by the Library of Congress to capture the music and dance of Morocco.
“This is a group of singer-dancers directed by a woman known as Bechara. In number 1 the vocal solo is by 'Mahjouba'"
"To get to Goulimine it was
necessary a secure
military permit issued 'in Agadir; the town was bombed in 1958 by Spanish
It lies at the edge of the desert, south of
the Anti Atlas, near the southern tip of the enclave of
Ifni. In some respects
the Goulimine recording
session was a
apart from the others. It took
place in a
of one Bechara, who
acted both as hostess and as impresario. Certain of the
lived in the
others had to ' be sent for. Fortunately I had
record at night, as only then would the proper emotional state be
attained by performers.
The entire spectacle, both visual and auditory,
is something quite apart from all the rest of Moroccan folk manifestations. The
music and dance are those of Mauritania, and have been preserved more or less intact over an
indeterminate period of time. The music has no immediately discoverable relationship to the rest of Moroccan
music, either of Berber or Arabic origin; on the other hand, it can
readily be linked with the songs of both Ethiopia and the coastal regions of East Africa
where Swahili is the language. The dance, in contradistinction to the music,
and of great refinement, yet wholly without an element
of personal expression. My feeling is that it was originally of hieratic character;
it still gives the watcher the sensation that he is witnessing a fragment of an
extremely antique culture. The guedra is
danced on the knees; the dancer never rises. Variety is attained through a host
of expressive gestures made with the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders and torso.
Up to within the
past five years the dance was performed with uncovered breasts; now the
authorities prohibit this, although I was assured that in the
nearby desert it was still done in the traditional manner. The original texts of the songs, like most of the rest of the folk
texts in Morocco, have been discarded under official duress, and political
texts substituted for them. This procedure, while an excellent form of unpaid
political advertising, conceivably could interfere with the musical
performance, particularly through lack of interest in the new subject-matter.
To circumvent such a possibility it is sometimes wise to distribute kif to
the performers. When the drug has taken over, as it were, the music becomes of far greater
importance than the words to the singer, and a portion at least of the natural
enthusiasm can be recovered. This session is a case in point. (There was no
government official present, and in this respect too, the session was unusual.)"
The Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection (AFC 1960/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Courtesy of the Paul Bowles Estate and Irene Hermann / Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies