Picasso’s Blue Period was a landmark period for his painting; Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue was a defining moment in jazz music; the Moroccon city of Chefchaouen, the Blue Pearl of Morocco, is one of the world’s most distinctive and memorable cities.
Image: Picasso's La Pepasseuse (Woman Ironing) 1911 from Picasso's Blue Period
People say they “painted the town red" when they've had a fantastic time. And, of course, the magnificent buildings at Pompeii are famous for walls coloured Pompeii Red. That colourful metaphor shifts to a different colour palate when you arrive in Chefchaouen (pronounced Shafshāwan) in Morocco. When in Chefchaouen, it’s a matter of painting the town blue. And you don’t even have to do that because the town has already been painted blue. Blue buildings, blue buildings and more blue buildings. That's right, they are all blue.
Strictly speaking, there are three colours associated with Chefchaouen: Mediterranean blue, terracotta earth and mountain green. If you want to get fussy, there are also touches of white on the buildings. But mostly blue.
Chefchaouen, also known as Little Granada (Spanish) & the sister of Fez, reveals itself cradled on three sides by towering mountains. Seeing Chefchaouen opened a huge smile on my face. It was stunning. And was it blue? Oh, yes! Was I blue? Not a chance! Magic is happening in Chefchaouen
The Spanish influence is evident in the distinctive traditional hats and dresses worn by women and for pigments in an Andalusian style reflected in the architecture and colours of the houses. Although blue is the dominant colour, Chefchaouen colours include earth colours that connect to the ground beneath the Chaouen people's feet and the blue is a direct link to the Mediterranean Sea.
The name "Chefchaouen" is derived from the word isakon or echaouen which means 'the horns', and the word chef, which means 'look at'. Chefchaouen means 'look at the horns', reflecting the two mountain peaks overlooking the area. Nowadays, Chefchaouen is known as "the Blue Pearl" of Morocco, known for its traditional houses painted in blue and white. One local said "chef" is house and Chaouen is the name of the people, so it translates as "house of the people". "Look at the horns" seems to be the prevailing meaning.
Your eyes do not deceive you. What you see is what you get and what you see is blue as far as the eye can see. Blue in all it hues and tints from cobalt to azure to vermillion. Chefchaouen is a city bathed in blue. It doesn’t require rose (or azure) tinted lenses or the blue-white light of the sky early in the morning to bathe this town in hues of blue. Chefchaouen is washed with blue. You dont’t see red, you see blue. Everywhere.
Daily life centres on the Medina. Once the shops open and commerce begins, the locals and the tourists make their way into the medina for daily supplies, clothing, food, fridge magnets, and all the essentials of life. The most essential necessity is water and Chefchaouen is the source of life for the town from the local spring that flows at one entrance to the medina. Where there is water, there is life. We have heard this saying before in the Sahara and in the villages. The need is universal.
"I got the blues and I love it!" Eclectic Stefan
The source of water is matched by the making of our daily bread. Bread, too, is a staple of life.
Rif Mountains women's traditional bread making process
Chefchaouen, the Blue Pearl of Morocco, at night
Kind of Blue is a stunningly beautiful jazz recording by Miles Davis.
“No other recording in jazz has come remotely near acquiring the kind of cachet Kind of Blue has accumulated over the decades. It’s an album that has probably been responsible for more Damascene conversions of non-believers into the jazz faith than any other.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Jazzwise.