Hadda Ouakki: The enchanting Amazigh voice that moved the Atlas Mountains and soothed the Atlantic Ocean

Hadda Ouakki and Bennacer Oukhouya, screen shot from a video by ZAYMOUZEN TV. Fair use.

This piece by Osama Baji was first published by Raseef22, an Arabic media platform, on March 21, 2023.  An edited version is republished here, under a content-sharing agreement.

In the Middle Atlas region of Morocco, enchanting Amazigh songs continue to captivate audiences with their diverse genres. Among the timeless songs frequently broadcasted on the Amazigh radio, Hadda Ouakki's voice stands out, renowned from the Atlas Mountains and Oum Er-Rbia valley to Moroccan cities and villages. Her songs have become an integral part of the collective memory of multiple Amazigh generations, and were broadcasted on the national radio.

The star of artist Hadda Ouakki illuminated Ait Ishaq, a Moroccan Amazigh village in the province of Khenifra nestled within the Middle Atlas. From there, she emerged as a shining presence in the Moroccan music scene, ultimately becoming an iconic figure of Amazigh music. Her songs had the power to bring tears to the eyes of those in the Atlas Mountains and entertained audiences hundreds of kilometers away on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean.

Hadda was born in 1953 into a conservative Amazigh family, which included five sisters and two brothers. Growing up in the ragged mountains, she could never have imagined her fame would extend beyond Ait Ishak and the city of Khenifra, reaching distant places. Ouakki sang in every imaginable setting — at home, while tending sheep in the Atlas Mountains, and among her friends. Remarkably, she discovered her own talent at the tender age of ten and eventually shared her art with all Moroccans.

She divorced life and married art at a young age

Ouakki’s father had arranged an early marriage for her at the age of 14. Nevertheless, she managed to break free of this marriage shortly afterward and obtained a divorce. She then embarked on a journey to Zaouiat Cheikh town, located around 60 kilometers away from Khenifra. 

Her career took off in Zaouiat Cheikh alongside Bennacer Oukhouya, one of the Amazigh music icons who left a rich legacy of Amazigh and Arabic folk songs with Hadda Ouakki. These songs are still cherished and played on Amazigh radio to this day. 

Eventually, they both decided to venture toward Casablanca. According to various narratives, it was Bennacer who discovered Hadda’s remarkable voice that propelled her to stardom in Casablanca. There, she performed alongside members of his band, captivating audiences with songs in the Amazigh language, Moroccan colloquial, as well as the challenging and soul-stirring melodies of the Atlas songs.

Hadda's popularity was not limited to the general public; her fame soon reached elite circles. She met the late Moroccan king Hassan ll in Skhirat palace, where she mesmerized ministers, politicians, and other prominent figures with her enchanting voice. Nicknamed the “Umm Kulthum of the Atlas,” her fame resonated far and wide. She was celebrated by the media, and her songs brought joy to Amazigh weddings throughout the Atlas region. Even to this day, her repertoire of songs continues to delight fans of Amazigh art.

Defying stereotypes and a symbol of struggle

According to Professor Mostafa Allwizi, an expert in Amazigh heritage from Fez University, in a statement to Raseef22: 

Every time, I listen to Hadda’s songs, particularly ‘Imtawne‘ (Tears), I am convinced that this Amazigh star deserves all the love, appreciation, and even more recognition.

He also highlighted that Hadda Ouakki serves as a reminder of a generation of artists who faced arduous struggles in pursuing their passion. For them, art seemed unattainable as they battled against numerous obstacles rooted in preconceived stereotypes. Ouakki’s songs possessed a unique poetic quality, seamlessly blending eloquent yet simple words with the melodic charm of Amazigh music. Her rare and captivating natural voice required no instrumental accompaniment, or digital modifications, resonating with pure authenticity.

A voice resonating through the mountains

Alhussein Mubarak, a researcher in Amazigh culture, stated in a statement to Raseef22 that Hadda served as the initial catalyst for women’s leadership, leading to the musical band being named in her honor.

The researcher further mentioned that Hadda Ouakki was renowned for her rebellion against patriarchal societies and doctrinal puritanism. This was particularly significant considering her origins in a region that was predominantly characterized by its religious affiliation to the Zawiya Dila’iya.  The Zawiya Dila'iya is a Moroccan religious institution, and its followers are known as Ait Idilla, which translates to “the people of the buckets.” Originating in the 16th century as a scholarly religious movement, it later evolved into a political movement.

Mubaraki clarified that Hadda’s uniqueness became evident through her unwavering commitment to art, even at the expense of her personal life. She never regretted her passion for the artistic craft, nor did she waver in her tireless dedication. This left an incredible mark on her vocal talent, as she possessed a remarkable ability to harness and modulate her voice during a time when sound effects were still unfamiliar.

Mubaraki noted that Hada Ouakki never neglected to appreciate the beauty of her own body, which was adorned with tattoos that transformed into a work of art. During that era, tattooing was popular among women of her generation in Morocco, serving as a tribal identification and personal expression.

From the perspective of anthropologists and artists, tattooing is considered a form of body art and self-expression.  However, she faced criticism, particularly from those who waged war against women’s freedom, including their right to have tattoos on their bodies.

Preserving the essence of identity

Alhssan Haggig, Professor at Fez University in Morocco and an Amazigh activist, told Raseef22 that Hadda Ouakki consciously chose “to live her last days in inner harmony after captivating countless hearts with her voice. Moroccans continue to remember and listen to her songs, both in Moroccan slang and in Amazigh.”

Haggig emphasized that singing became her sole means to escape from the bitter reality of having been forced into an early marriage to an old man. Oppressed by the cruelty of fate and her husband, she faced an existential crisis that prompted her to seek solace on wider horizons, enabling her to secure a livelihood and move forward. 

He affirmed that Hadda and Bennacer shared not only an artistic connection but also a profound human bond, creating a truly exceptional duo. Hadda's sweet and powerful voice combined with Bennacer's melodious violin tunes to create a perfect harmony that garnered fame across all regions of Morocco.

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