STORKS settle into their nests on the four corners of a majestic, centuries-worn palace here. Bullfrogs croak across the starry night. A serene reflecting pool mirrors the stars over Marrakech, and the distant flutes of snake charmers seem to conjure the moon out of a ruddy haze. And now, the drums.
From the shadowy reaches of this 16th-century Al-Bedii Palace courtyard begins the largest event in all of Morocco. It's the Annual Folklore Festival, replete with 30-plus Berber tribes dressed in full regalia of tribal celebration: jewelry, sequins, feathers, ornately embroidered foukias, djellabas, turbans, sashes. Camels, horses, jugglers, and acrobats come later. An ear-splitting ululation that would rival the Sioux at Little Bighorn signals the beginning of this North African-style hullabaloo, a cross-tribal shindig without peer in the Western world, a combination performance, rite, paean, and celebration.
From the beginning of recorded history, North Africa was inhabited by these white agricultural peoples known as Berbers. Some Berbers have features like American Indians. Others are fair-skinned, with Mediterranean characteristics. Their nomadic and intensely ethnocentric tribal life has continued even more untouched than still-developing Morocco, whose main cities contain medinas (old native quarters), built as far back as the 9th century, that are still in use.
Not until 25 years ago did the government decide to preserve and promote this rich national heritage by sponsoring this all-encompassing yearly gathering in Marrakech. Besides the late-evening performances, the festival includes a full week of activities ranging from theater and music to crafts and painting.
As the drums grow louder, a silent procession of women with hand-held lanterns splits into two strands and moves around the reflecting pool. Turbaned, musket-wielding horsemen fire in the air, and the women break into their shrill chant, produced by moving the tongue rapidly against the back of the mouth.
The sound continues unabated through the evening, verbal punctuation to what unfolds on the temporary stage erected over part of the pool. Both primal and elegant, the chants, stomping, and clapping shift into imaginative and prosodic symmetries.
``The government wanted to communicate to Europeans and Americans the whole cultural patrimony [of Morocco] in one moment,'' explains local tourism director Abderrahmane Ouakim, who is sitting with the mayor and other functionaries of Marrakech on makeshift bleachers. ``Tribes migrate here -- from the north, the south, the Sahara, everywhere -- and show they are all different, one from the other.''
The golden age of Moroccan architecture came under the Berbers (1100-1548), who adopted Muslim styles and methods from Andalusian Spain and eventually built the country's finest mosques, minarets, and gateways, from Rabat to the Atlas Mountains. The Berbers were supplanted by the Arab Saadins in the 1500s, then by the Alawites in 1649, who remain in power to this day.
Every year the festival honoring the Berbers has a theme. This year it is ``The Sources of Life,'' and the celebrations include rites of passage, birth, marriage, and harvest. Our guide, Muhammed Mahmoum, explains the first procession of turbaned men, carrying a brightly decorated chair on their shoulders. ``The thing they are holding is called an amaria,'' he says. ``Soon they will carry in the bride.''
A large gray horse carrying a man and boy leads a second celebration. It is the kind of procession given when a boy graduates from primary school and learns parts of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
Brilliantly clad women appear in white brocaded dfinas -- some with muslin or lace cinched with belts of silver. They carry traditional cooking pots (tajine) on their heads and circle the wooden stage, while the Haha tribe takes the spotlight. It is the one tribe easily identified by the uninitiated: Its members constantly rotate one shoulder.
What follows is an intensely rhythmic concatenation of foot stomping and hand clapping in perfect unison, often in rotating, parallel rows. Some men beat three-foot-wide tambourines; others strike hand drums or larger, skin-covered terra-cotta drums with ornate, curved drumsticks.
Mr. Abderrahmane explains that the celebrations are similar to those the tribes have in their own villages and makeshift camps in the country's Atlas and Rif mountain chains. ``Instead of being individual creations, ceremonies reflect the soul of the community,'' he says. ``They are more like rites or human ways of helping the species to take part in cosmic sources.'' Even more cryptically, the program book explains: ``Man . . . tries to break out of earthly shackles, to escape from gravity which holds him back and imprisons his real being.''
These are not professional entertainers, nor do they appear to be. The evening has a natural rather than theatrical ebb and flow, no artificially dramatic high points designed with tourists in mind. Abderrahmane says there has been pressure from modern Moroccans to professionalize the performers and performance. But so far, organizers have resisted the pressure, feeling it is essential to present celebrations, dances, and customs as they are still carried out today.
Because the festival takes place during the holy month of Ramadan, the festivities don't begin until after 10 p.m. Muslims need a chance to eat after fasting from 4:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. The month of fasting unites city and country in a common ritual. Just before this inaugural performance, loudspeakers all over town called the faithful to prayer, then food. At nearby Djemaa el Fna Square, public tables were set for the feast following the fast. This night, as throughout Ramadan, the city will be completely alive through 4 a.m.
The Moroccans treat this yearly festival -- to be held in 1986 from June 14-29 -- with the same reverence as Ramadan. Though the outsider might consider the choreography here just so much social entertainment, the visitor is constantly admonished that the events have their origin in sacred folklore -- and beyond that, they have universal significance.
``Everyone is glad of the happiness of the others,'' says a breathy voice over the loudspeaker to the 2,000 or so gathered on opening night. The narrator speaks first in Arabic, then French, and finally English. ``Grave voices suitable for liturgies are mixed with the bright accents of the young generation, which sings the happiness of being together.''
And so the seriousness as well as the joy comes through to visitors. If there is any doubt as to which of the brilliant corteges and colorful processions are organized in testimony of joy or sadness, a group of young acrobats leaves no doubt. Smiling ear to ear, these sensational athletes perform tumbling acts to cheers -- each performer topping the one before.
After more tumbling, more dancing, more chanting, the evening finishes with a cast of hundreds. Muskets are fired, and bonfires send sparks high over the ocher-colored ramparts. The crowd disperses through parallel rows of veiled horsemen. It's 1 a.m., but the evening's celebrations have just begun. Practical information
For additional information contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office, 521 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2800, New York, N.Y. 10175; (212) 557-2520.