Feeling a little antsy? Not doing much international traveling recently? A visit to Morocco is at your fingertips at Silver Sahara’s website, silversahara.com, or at a visit to Island Music in Vineyard Haven. These two Martha’s Vineyard businesses have teamed up to bring an assortment of alluring and intriguing instruments, all handmade in Morocco, to the Island.
The instruments were fashioned in Essaouira, Morocco, a coastal town known for the Gnawa music genre, which mixes classical Islamic Sufism with pre-Islamic African traditions, and whose origins are attributed to formerly enslaved Black Africans who integrated into Moroccan culture.
This whole endeavor had its origins in a yoga retreat Carolina Cooney, longtime resident and Oak Bluffs librarian, took on a 2016 trip to Morocco. “When I was there, I completely fell in love with the whole country, and the art and the crafts,” Cooney says. “It’s just a beautiful, vibrant place, and the people are very warm and friendly; I just adore it.
“I’m interested in instruments in general, and especially world music instruments. My dad ran a mail order auction for 78 rpm records from all over the world called Green River Records. So my house was always filled with world music! When I went to Morocco, I went into music shops to explore some of the instruments.”
In Essaouira, Cooney became particularly close to a Moroccan merchant, Mohamed El Fassi. They partnered up and began their endeavor by starting the Silver Sahara website, and sold the handmade items by artisans from his shop and hometown. Unfortunately, they had to close down the shop because of COVID-19.
At the same time, Cooney explains, “I thought it would be really cool for Island Music to carry some of these things, and to support the Moroccan artisans who make all the instruments. And I have the connections there. I don’t typically sell the instruments on my website, but it’s something I can special-order.”
This year, with the pandemic, Cooney pivoted to working virtually with El Fassi, who acted as the conduit with the music store in Morocco, from which he and Cooney are now buying.
At Island Music, you will see a wide variety of drums, including some ceramic ones with eelskin drumheads, as well as some that are hand-painted; large, cast-iron castanets called qarkabeb; Moroccan horns like those used by Moroccan snake charmers; and the exquisite Moroccan outar, a type of guitar.
“Working with Silver Sahara has enabled us at Island Music to acquire handmade Moroccan instruments,” says Island Music’s Rich Giaimo. “We are very excited to be able to offer these regional instruments that are uniquely decorated, and are not commonly found in most music stores in the U.S.”
Cooney says, “It’s really exciting to share Morocco’s amazing artistry with the island of Martha’s Vineyard by sourcing instruments for Island Music. The Moroccan tourism industry has been devastated by COVID-19, and opportunities like this are imperative for the cultural survival of Morocco’s indigenous artisans.”
At the Silver Sahara website, you will find a wide variety of handmade, one-of-a-kind items sourced directly from indigenous Tuareg and Berber Amazigh artisans of Morocco and North Africa. As a minority-owned social-impact brand, Silver Sahara supports Moroccan indigenous artisans by reinvesting up to 70 percent of profits back into Moroccan artisan cooperatives.
Silver Sahara’s products have also been created by the friends and family of the El Fassi silversmiths of Zagora, Morocco, or have been passed down through generations of their Berber Amazigh tribesmen lineage. These offerings are supplemented by Cooney’s regular trips to Morocco to source leather poufs, metal lanterns, antique Judaica, argan oil, Berber carpets and rugs, and much more. And Cooney emphasizes, “Special requests are always welcome!”
“Silver Sahara was created to show deep gratitude to the beautiful country of Morocco and its high-spirited and talented people,” Cooney says. “We strive to abide by a sustainable fair-trade model: all sales on Silver Sahara help provide artisans with living wages, better working conditions, and basic technological training. It is our mission to ensure the continuation and worldwide appreciation of indigenous traditional craft techniques.”
Island Music is located at 58 Main St. in Vineyard Haven. On-Island, you can visit the Silver Sahara showroom at 10 Old Courthouse Road in West Tisbury, and online at silversahara.com. For more information, call 530-228-7059.