Master Musicians of Jajouka

Vic, October 26

Music, like language, doesn’t always translate well. As both our thinking and reality become more global, the farthest reaches of our planet are no longer beyond our grasp. Americans, however, don’t like to go looking for something new and unusual; we’d rather have it brought to us. Yet the exotic, be it exhilaratingly primal or magnificent in its splendor, loses much significance when removed from its native context. So it is with the music of Master Musicians of Jajouka, whose members belong to the legendary Berber tribe that has lived virtually free of modern taint in the foothills of the Er Rif Mountains in the northern part of Morocco. The group stopped in Chicago last week on their first-ever tour of North America.

Although the tribe’s history stretches back 4,000 years, it wasn’t until the 1950s that prominent American expatriates like William Burroughs, artist Brion Gysin, and writer/composer Paul Bowles began spreading word of its existence west. Gysin hired the Master Musicians as the house band of his Tangier nightclub between 1954 and ’57. But it wasn’t until a decade later, when Gysin took Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to visit them, that their music was heard by a significant number of outsiders. A few years after Jones died the Stones released Brian Jones Presents: the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka (1971), a set of recordings he’d made of the tribe. It has recently been reissued on CD by Point Music. Although the music was treated with various electronic effects to heighten its psychedelic intensity, its basic, highly distinctive sound shone through. And in 1992 a digital recording made by Bill Laswell in the Er Rif Mountains, Apocalypse Across the Sky (Axiom), captured the group’s powerfully seductive music with stunning clarity, unimpeded by extraneous electronic noodling.

The hypnotic music is characterized by an array of mesmerizing rhythms played on hand drums while polyphonic unison lines ride over top–played on either the ghaita, which produces a piercing, pinched sound somewhere between that of an oboe and bagpipes, or the lira, a small bamboo flute. Also prevalent is the gimbri, a three-stringed lute that produces a dry but rubbery twang. Mostly instrumental, the music exploits a repetitive cacophony. A half dozen ghaita players incessantly blare the same simple melody line, often slightly out of sync. Driven on by an unyielding primitive percussive groove, the music slowly puts listeners in a trance.

In 1973 free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman visited the Master Musicians and recorded several albums worth of material with them, though only one brief selection has ever been released (on 1977’s Dancing in Your Head). For Coleman, who’s always favored discarding many of Western music’s formalist constructs to allow freer expression of emotion and pure melody, the experience was revelatory. The music’s energy was influential in the formation of his long-standing electric band Prime Time. Quoted in John Litweiler’s book The Freedom Principle, Coleman says, “It’s a human music. It’s about life conditions, not about losing your woman….It’s a much deeper music. The thing that was very beautiful about Jajouka and at the same time very sad was that all the musicians have to survive is their music.” In fact, the Master Musicians, who are currently led by Bachir Attar–a savvy Jajoukan modernist who spends part of each year in New York and has recorded with artists as diverse as funk saxophonist Maceo Parker and avant-garde guitarist Elliott Sharp–have been touring primarily to earn money. For centuries Berber musicians survived through royal patronage, but that ended more than a decade ago.

Vivid accounts written by Gysin, Burroughs, Bowles, and later by journalist Robert Palmer, who accompanied Coleman to Jajouka, describe the frenzy that accompanies the group’s ceremonial performances. During the end of Ramadan one particular festival lasts for eight days, and the villagers celebrate nonstop–their wild trance-induced machinations mirror the endurance of the musicians, who employ circular-breathing techniques to hold notes for long stretches. The music provides an ecstatic release for the villagers–eyes roll back in heads while bodies jump and pounce on the earth. The climax occurs when the mythical half-man, half-goat Bou Jeloud–portrayed by a villager festooned in freshly slaughtered goatskins–enters brandishing switches that according to legend can make women pregnant if struck with one.

The group’s performance at the Vic last week lacked this sort of dramatic recklessness and abandon. Removed from its traditional setting, the music took on the rarefied air of folkloric demonstration. The performance pulsed with the same vitality and excitement captured on recordings and the group members wore traditional garb, but watching them perform on a stark, wide-open stage–despite the presence of ornate Persian rugs–was a bit disconcerting. Even when an older member of the ensemble rose during the second half of the performance to break into dance, he seemed more interested in playing to the audience, which was clearly delighted by his abundant charm, than in losing himself in the music. When Bou Jeloud arrived for the final piece, one could glean a trace of the manic energy he must convey during a ceremony, but at the Vic his function as exhibit object was bracingly clear. In America music has become so inextricably linked with entertainment that its ritualistic, ceremonial purpose is all but forgotten. Not so in other countries, which is why on one level this performance failed. It wasn’t that the group played poorly; indeed, the music was exquisite and throbbed with energy, but severed from its traditional context it surrendered much of its meaning. However, short of making a trek to Morocco, which sounds like a good idea to me, there’s no other way to hear this music live. So even if much of its original significance is lost, it sure as hell beats not catching any of it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Silverman.