No one in Morocco seems to know Joujouka. When we mention the name we’re greeted with blank stares and confusion. At the train station in Fez when we tell the ticket lady we want to go to Ksar el Kebir, she looks at us like we’re crazy and then makes us repeat it. Still not satisfied, when she prints the tickets she makes us look at them to confirm. Her look says what we’ve been hearing all throughout Morocco. Tourists don’t go there.
The reason we’re headed to this part of the world stretches back to the Beats, to Burroughs and Brion Gysin, to Paul Bowles and in particular Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. It was Jones’ recordings of the Sufi trance music in 1968, the rhaita pipe and percussion of this small village in the foothills of the Riff Mountains that he released under the name “Brian Jones Presents The Pipes Of Pan At Joujouka‘ that first garnered attention in the west. Brion Gysin liked them so much he set up a nightclub, 1001 nights’ in Tangiers and installed them as the house band. Burroughs famously dubbed them a “4000 year old rock band,” and for a while the pilgrimage to Joujouka became de rigueur for the hippie set, with the likes of Timothy Leary and the Stones dropping by and collaborations with the likes of Ornette Coleman (Dancing in my head), Marianne Faithfull and more recently bizarrely enough Janes Addiction. But to be honest we’ve come not to embrace the mythology, but rather dispel it, to try and hear the music on its own terms, in its own context – free from the folklore, free from someone else’s conceptions, someone else’s ears.
We’re met at Ksar El Kebir to be taken to Joujouka for a yearly festival that’s been running for seven years now, expanding every year from humble beginnings. The deal is very simple. 3 nights in Joujouka staying with the musicians and their families, where you’re welcomed into the village, eat collectively, and experience some of the most remarkable and ancient music on the planet.
Back at Ksar el Kebir we’re crammed four into the backseat of a taxi and driven out of town into the mountains. We get to know each other really quickly. The taxi driver sees gaps that don’t exist, takes blind corners around trucks, at one point going totally off road to avoid a head on collision. He turns into what seems like a driveway, but as he climbs up a long hill and rustic houses start appearing, it quickly becomes clear we’re entering the village. He drops us off at the musicians’ clubhouse, where there are already a bunch of people milling around waiting. We drink a mint tea and meet people from Japan, the US, the UK and Italy.
We’re seated on rugs under a large tent and some of the musicians take a seat and fiddle absently with their instruments as they chat. A violinist tunes up, playing it like a cello, producing this beautiful elongated Arabic riff that weaves in and out of itself endlessly and immediately we’re entranced. When eventually the hand percussion kicks in it’s almost a surprise. Suddenly it’s not absent anymore, we’re live in the moment and it hits. We’re in Joujouka, somewhere in Northern Morocco listening to this beautiful ancient music. A village boy begins to dance and he’ possibly the most confident and talented 5 year old on the planet. Throughout the next few days he would continue to make his presence felt, whether it was by jumping in front of your camera every time you want to take a photo, holding his hand out and demanding ‘argent’ or by whacking the band with tree branches and directing traffic on the dance floor whilst moving with an incredible feel for the music.
When the music finishes we’re told to get settled in and come back when we want to. That’s the way it works here, we’re not just on Moroccan time, not just Joujoukan time, but on the musicians’ time. And we need to slow down.
Each day we follow a similar pattern. Wake up late, be lavished by our hosts with the most incredible of breakfasts, lazily wander up to the clubhouse and catch a few impromptu jams, eat together, wander around the village, play with some of the kids and wait for the spectacular night session. The jams happen everywhere, evolving naturally – these guys just love to play, whether it’s in the clubhouse room, on the porch or within the tent. Everyone is relaxed, the musicians play away endlessly, drawing in the other musicians who initially are content to watch from the periphery, but soon can’t resist coming closer, beginning with handclaps, then getting passed an instrument and diving headlong in.
The afternoon flute jams are a real highlight, something very special, where the rhaita players switch to a basic wooden flute and conjur up these haunting melodies that resonate off the concrete walls of the clubhouse. Here there are vocals coming from multiple parties often singing in unison with handclaps and even a tambourine. This is the master musicians letting their hair down, relaxing and jamming things out lazily against the afternoon heat, though very little feels improvised, and even though at first you think you will never quite get a handle on the music, over the three days you start to hear the same tunes again and begin to recognise them, “hey isn’t that the one that sounds like Staying Alive?” What’s fascinating though is that the tunes don’t really end, the percussion will peter out and the flutes will continue softly unabated, before vocals begin again accompanying the melody and before long the percussion resumes and we’re back in. This is the way music should be, a beautiful joyous life affirming experience for both audience and player alike.
After a while the music stops and you lose yourself in discussions or wander around the village, led from place to place by a legion of children. “I now have a new dream,” offered one of the few English speakers in the village as we were walking away from the music late one evening, “I will open a small hotel with a cafe on the roof.” In a place where the attraction is its lack of development, with only a couple of small shops, it was hard to know how to respond, though my companion answered best “that is a beautiful dream to have, you should get your friends and do it together.” It highlighted some of the fundamental issues inherent in the festival. Though pilgrims have been coming for decades, things move slowly in Joujouka. Electricity only arrived in the last few years and only one house has a western style toilet. This is a poor rural town and there are few modern conveniences, and few opportunities beyond farming. Whilst the festival breathes life and much needed dollars into the community, it also has the potential to change the village.
Change, whether wanted, may be necessary or inevitable for the village’s continued survival with the larger cities of Morocco continuing to develop and modernise, beckoning the village’ youth. Which may be why the Moroccan painter Mohammed Hamri is so revered in the village. It’s his painting that adorns the original pressing of the Brian Jones album, and it was he who was responsible for introducing Brion Gysin to William Burroughs and bringing both of them to Joujouka, and of course Brian Jones a little later. Whilst this version of events is of course controversial, there’s no denying the respect that the musicians hold for him. During the festival a portrait of Hamri was presented to the musicians and it was hung proudly in their clubhouse. Leader of the musicians Ahmed El Attar said it was Hamri who kept the village going over the years by continuing to advocate for the music and bring in curious westerners, keeping the music alive – for which they will forever be grateful.
However amongst the idyllic, there is a division in the legacy of The Master Musicians, with two Joujoukan bands. One led by Ahmed El Attar who organise this festival, and the other led by his cousin Bachir Attar under the Jajouka moniker. Bachir, who has spent a considerable amount of time in New York, is responsible for some of the higher profile collaborations with the likes of Bill Laswell, and Talvin Singh, touring regularly often internationally. With both sides quoting authenticity, without an understanding of the history and traditions of the music as an outsider it’s very difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. The division has been laid out quite well in a recent Quietus article by Richie Troughton, which is well worth a read. Bachir and his Jajouka band were not present during the festival and are not associated in any way, though his locked walled compound complete with broken wine bottle glass on top to dissuade intruders is a constant reminder of the division within.
The legacy of the music’ infamous admirers is never far away in Joujouka, whether its being told Brian Jones once stood here or having the house where Brion Gysin stayed when he visited pointed out. This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the birth of William S Burroughs, and celebrations were weaved in with co organiser of the festival/ producer and manager of the the musicians Frank Rynne and Harumi Yamazaki, writer and singer with the Japanese 70s punk band Gaseneta, each reading sections from The Ticket That Exploded, and Majorca resident David Holzer reading a piece he wrote about Burroughs visiting Majorca in the late 1920′. Later we visit the sanctuary of Sidi Ahmed Schiech, where people who were mentally ill were symbolically chained to a tree for the healing to occur. This is where the Baraka or blessing of Sidi Ahmed Scheich is located and the musicians believe that the whole village is governed by the spirit of the great Sufi mystic, their patron saint.
Another legend tells of Bou Jeloud, a half man half goat creature who visited an ancestor of the musicians in a nearby cave and gave the village the secret of their incredible flute music. According to the legend, the ancestor was told that he couldn’t share this music. When Bou Jeloud returned he heard the villagers playing the music and became enraged and demanded a bride. So the villages tricked him by offering up a mad woman and he left empty handed. He returned year after year and the same trick worked. Eventually he stopped returning. The ritual kept going as a harvest ritual, with a specific designated dancer in the village dressing up in the goatskins as Bou Jeloud and three village boys dressing up and dancing as the mad woman during the remarkable highly charged night-time rhaita led sets.
Contrasting to our languorous days, the nights begin with the musicians in formal attire, dressed in robes, seated alongside each other on chairs. The rhaita is shrill and piercing, an incredible ancient instrument that requires circular breathing. The leader of the master musicians, percussionist Ahmed El Attar after the first piece tends to get on his feet and invite some of the ladies present to dance. Whilst there’s initially some embarrassment, by the third evening there’s some remarkable cross-cultural exchanges happening on the dancefloor. Dancing to the music apparently brings good health. The villagers in particular are at one with the music, flicking their fingers and whirling, just watching them move, the ecstatic joy on their faces, it’s a beautiful life affirming experience. The music pulses though every muscle of their body as they arch their hips and glide with beatific grins. We’re a little rougher, falling in and out with the music, yet feeling it just as much, the difference being its pulsing through the villagers blood, yet only through our ears. You discover that the mood of the musicians is paramount. This isn’t about passive watching and chin stroking. Three days of being literally fed by the musicians, hanging out with them, laughing with them removes the audience performer divide. They want you up on the dancefloor and feeling the music, grabbing you time and time again if necessary. In this sense everyone participates. The more you give the more you get, as this is a band that feeds off the energy in the room more so than I’ve ever encountered.
The percussion in particular is remarkable, multiple complex rhythms that constantly shift. You find yourself bobbing your head along to a particular rhythm in your own little world only to look up and find the percussionist laying it down looking you smiling. When you meet his gaze he gestures with a flick of his head to get up and dance. There’s something elusive and mysterious happening with the percussion, just as you feel like you’re about get a handle on it, on how all the components are put together the rhythm will subtly change and you loose yourself in a maze of strange time signatures and multiple rhythms. The rhaita however, is predominantly call and response, with a leader playing out a singular melody line whilst the others repeat, playing in unison. It’s highly repetitive with subtle variations; hypnotic with a rough-hewn melodic coherence that has a unique effect on the listener. There’s something beautifully out of control about the rhaita. It plays at a high volume and often if feels like the musicians are doing their upmost to try to contain the power of the instrument. When three (or more) are playing the same melody line its shrill squeal cuts right through you. It’s exhilarating. There is nothing else like it.
When Bou Jeloud appears again, the atmosphere is electric, this slightly mischievous pan like figure with his strange quivering dancing and desire to attack people – particularly the band with tree branches (and really hit them hard) keeps you on your toes. Dancing in front of a huge bonfire with the lights off in the tent and the band jamming away endlessly on a never ending meditative riff there was a feeling that anything could happen. When the lights came back on it revealed most of us on our feet hypnotically moving. This is what this music does to you, the density of the sound, the repetition, the longevity, the tradition, and the sheer exuberance. You’re powerless, all you can do is open your arms, welcome it in and be healed.
Photos by Bob Baker Fish and Carla Martins. Audio Recordings by Bob Baker Fish.
More details on the festival can be found here.