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, and 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, many travel pieces, and two autobiographical works.
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 inciental 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 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.
A problem in identifying and recording
Moroccan café music is the placing of each section in its proper category. One
knows of any given material as one records it that it is café music, but what
was it before being adapted to Café purposes? Often it is impossible to get
adequate information. Bachir bel Hadj Hassan Bacali,
the proprietor of the Qahoua d’l Nadjah,
was originally a garage mechanic who loved music. One day, some two years ago,
he decided to devote himself wholly to music. His two-story café in the Medina
is rather like a museum of usable instruments; they hang all over the walls,
and he himself has attained a remarkable proficiency playing most of them.
Like most musicians in Morocco who are untrained but who have an urban background, he favors innovation; this generally implies of forsaking of the melodic and rhythmic materials of Morocco for those of Egypt, and in certain instances, (Bacali’s own composition Ya en Nass Khaïf, 18A, no. 3, and Rax el Atlas, his arrangement of a popular song by Abdelqader Arrochedi,* 17B no. 2,)* the material is hybrid. But the fact that it was possible to get such selections from him and his group as the Djavaliya on this real, for example, is testimony to his basic sympathy with traditional Moroccan music.
Djavalia (banjo, kamenja, oud, darbouka and tar.)
(The banjo is Moroccan-made)
Note: It should be added that the folk material from which the music of 17A, 17B, and 18A springs is that of the Djebal whose musical capital is neither Tetuan nor Arcila, but a fairly inaccessible place about halfway between them called Beni Aroz.
* Which in turn is a modern version of an old, well-known folksong.
Bowles, Paul F. "Tetouan." in Folk, Popular, and Art Music of Morocco. The Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection. Washington, DC: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1959-1962.
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