Though Brian Jones brought world-wide notice to these Moroccan master musicians in the early 1970s, their tradition goes back a millennium. Beyond Jones and the Stones, they’ve influenced Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Bill Laswell, Steve Lacy, Peter Gabriel and Sonic Youth, among many others. Musician John Kruth contacted Bachir Attar, their current leader, to find out how they were riding out the worldwide pandemic and about the future of their world-healing music.
“There is no music in Jajouka now. Everything is closed. Everyone is sequestered,” said Bachir Attar, the leader of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who, along with his brother Mustapha, is currently holed up in [author/composer] Paul Bowles’ old apartment, in Tangier. “There is a curfew. The Moroccan army patrols the roads. There is no travel permitted between cities. Morocco is completely shut down and seems it will be for a long time. We cannot tour and things are difficult.”
I am on the phone with Bachir, to see how he and his crew of Master Musicians are surviving since the pandemic struck Morocco. Curious if they have any unique ways of combating Covid-19 and the stupid/ugly politics that have fueled it, with their soul-cleansing music, I say, half-joking, “Maybe you can play for Bou Jeloud [the elusive cave-dwelling djinn, or spirit] and he will dance away all of this tragedy.”
“No. I don’t believe it,” Attar answered sternly. “That is just a story that came from [Beat-era writer/painter] Brion Gysin. That is not in our history. We don’t believe that he is Pan or that he heals people when he hits them with tree branches. But Bou Jeloud did teach us his music. He was half man/half goat and heard a man named Attar [which means “perfume maker”] playing flute music and said to him, ‘Oh play for me, I can dance for you!’ So, Attar played. That is why the music is called Bou Jeloudia. And it was not just one song. It is many styles of music that he showed us, which we learned by ear. There are many styles, like classical and rock and roll, and only Jajouka has this! It is secret medicine music to heal human beings. It opens something up for people and this earth. What is more important? The music speaks for itself.”
Over the years, many Western musicians, painters and writers have fallen under the spell of the lusty, trance-inducing music of Jajouka. The unpaved road leading up the Rif Mountains to the secluded village first opened to outsiders back in 1950. When Paul Bowles brought Brion Gysin to hear the Masters play for Bou Jeloud – a young boy who madly danced, clad in freshly slaughtered goat skins – Gysin, through his knowledge of mythology, recognized Bou Jeloud as the living embodiment of Pan. Upon hearing this mesmerizing music, Brion proclaimed, “You know your own music when you hear it one day. You fall in line and dance until you pay the piper.” So intense and profound was their music that Gysin predicted that the world would surely end if the Masters ever laid down their drums and ghaitas (a piercing folk oboe carved from apricot trees).
“Their music is a beautiful visceral experience,” Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano once told me. “You can feel the reeds vibrating in your body. It’s an exciting human communication unlike most of today’s music.”
On July 29, 1968, Brion Gysin spirited Brian Jones, the charismatic, flaxen-haired guitarist of the Rolling Stones, up the Rif Mountains on a life-changing adventure. A brilliant multi-instrumentalist who co-founded “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band,” Jones was already living a debauched lifestyle while Mick Jagger was still enrolled at the London School of Economics and Keith Richards was just learning his first Chuck Berry riff. Bored with playing guitar, Jones began experimenting with various other instruments, including the dulcimer, sitar, recorder and cello, adding them to the Stones’ mix, broadening both their and our musical horizons. Shortly before his tragic death on July 3, 1969, Brian began looking toward other cultures to create a new fusion of sound that took the world another 25 years to catch up with. Finally released on October 8, 1971, Brian’s recording, The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka (originally misspelled JouJouka) sounded otherworldly, unlike anything my 15-year-old ears had ever heard.
“It was not a festival when Brian Jones comes,” Bachir clarified. “The musicians played for him and the engineer of the Stones (George Chkiantz). I was five years old. I remember they had this big reel-to-reel tape recorder and Brian was dancing with the headphones on. It was incredible.”
In celebration of the man with the wild clothes and big blonde hair, a goat was slaughtered, and a feast was prepared. Bachir repeats the story that has become a famous chapter in modern mythology: “The goat had white hair over its eyes, like Brian,” Attar recalled. “When he saw it, he told Brion Gysin, ‘This goat looks like me!’ Then they ate a shish kabob with its liver. And he said to Brion Gysin, ‘This is my liver.’ Not one year later he passed away,” Bachir whispered.
It is secret medicine music to heal human beings. It opens something up for people and this earth. What is more important?
Attar’s father Hadj Djinnuin Abdesalam Attar, became the leader of the band when he was just 20 years old. Throughout his 80 years, he lived to see many changes in his village.
“Jajouka was once aligned with the royal family,” Bachir explained. “Our music was regularly performed in the palace during the reign of seven kings. Each king gave ancient papers to the musicians of Jajouka until the French came in the 1930s and took them away.”
The ancient papers to which Attar refers acted as a royal stamp of approval in recognition of the Masters’ divine power and gave them privileges that included a tithe which freed them from the drudgery of farm work.
By the time he died in 1981, Hadj Abdesalam could rest easy knowing Jajouka’s music had mesmerized thousands around the globe. But how did Hadj Abdesalam Attar and the rest of his band feel about ThePipes of Pan album when it was finally released in 1971?
“Oh, it was only a little echo,” Bachir protested. “We loved the sound because it became very psychedelic. And because it was Brian’s idea.
Until Brian Jones came along, field recordings had an academic air about them. The idea of manipulating Mississippi field hollers or Javanese gamelan orchestra recordings was not only unheard of but would have been deemed sacrilegious by the few purveyors of world music recordings, such as Nonesuch and Smithsonian.
Heretic or not, Jones added his special sauce of phase and reverb to the wailing raitas and rhythmic drums so the rest of the world might experience the wild sound as he heard it dancing in his head during his brief visit to the Rif Mountains. But was Jones tampering with tradition when he messed with the mix?
“Oh, it was only a little echo,” Bachir protested. “We loved the sound because it became very psychedelic. And because it was Brian’s idea. He was the first of the rock and roll people to make ‘world’ music.”
The music of Jajouka is not for everyone. Like the free jazz of Ornette Coleman (who, on the advice of journalist/musician Robert Palmer, traveled to the village to record with the enigmatic musicians in 1973), the Masters’ driving drums and wailing reeds can drive the faint-hearted to the point of distraction. The album that Jones recorded was the worst-selling disc in the Rolling Stones’ catalog.
Following Brian Jones’ visit, the Master Musicians have collaborated with Coleman, the Jones-less Stones (they are featured on “Continental Drift” on the 1989 album Steel Wheels), saxophonist Steve Lacy, Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge, Sonic Youth, Peter Gabriel, and visionary producer Bill Laswell.
“The musicians love the music,” Bachir said. “But I would like more people to understand Jajouka. I think some people, it makes them scared. They don’t know what’s happening and they start to shake… What’s this?” Bachir laughed. “People need to hear this music and open their hearts.”
“I call it universal soul music,” Genesis P-Orridge told me a few years ago.
While rock & roll elders like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones are lauded for lasting more than fifty years, the existence of Masters has been documented for well-over a thousand. So maybe it hasn’t been such a bad run after all.
The life of Jajouka cannot die. It is immortal.- Ornette Coleman
When asked about the future of his village’s unique culture, Bachir wearily answers: “Many people ask this question. They care about the music, which is very good. The music must be passed from father to son. But now the children grow up and go off to school. They find other interests than playing ghaita and carrying on tradition. So, after many thousands of years, maybe there is an end! From the time Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles visited the village until the early Sixties there were fifty [musicians]. Now we are only seven. That is life,” Attar lamented. “Many of the musicians have died…But we continue! Jajouka Between the Mountains [a live album first released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label in 1995] is coming out on vinyl in November 2020. It is now ours [the rights to the album] but we give it to them again to release.”
Bachir Attar has one of the best gigs on earth – playing the sexy, rhythmic, trance-inducing, soul-freeing music of Bou Jeloud. Yet Bachir is an intense guy with an air of gravity about him like a lone sheriff of the Wild West or a U-boat captain. Not that he’s currently dodging bullets or torpedoes, but even when partying, Attar carries the responsibility of keeping the legacy of Jajouka.
“I was born to do this, to give my life to the music of Jajouka, to keep it going,” Bachir exclaimed. “A friend of my father’s, a holy man, gave me the name Bachir. My father he respects him. The holy man told my father that I ‘would be the one to one day be in your place.’ He said that I ‘would go everywhere in the world, playing the music of Jajouka.’ I am one of six brothers. I had four older brothers. When the holy man heard me play, he told my father, that I ‘have the sweet finger and make the note correctly.’ My father did not leave [the legacy of Jajouka’s music] to my older brothers. He said to them, ‘Listen to Bachir!’ But my father… he was the Super Jajouka! Like Ornette, he had the music! The others had to follow and learn from him. To keep Jajouka alive, you must play this music! It was for me to keep alive! I gave my brain, my heart and blood for this! … You have to understand. My father, he did not speak English or French. Brian Jones – he means well, but he misspelled Jajouka! Not Joujouka, like it says on the record!”
“As a child when I saw Ornette in the village, it was the first time I ever heard jazz music,” Bachir explained. “He played with my father and all the musicians …… The music was magic, from another dimension that people, I think, will understand in the future.”
The Master Musicians have had many allies over the years, particularly New York Times critic/musician Robert Palmer who understood Jajouka on a profound level. Palmer had his finger on the pulse of all the best music – no matter what the style, from blues to free jazz, world beat and punk. He so dearly loved the music of Jajouka that after his untimely death in November 1997, he was cremated while wearing Bachir’s father’s djellaba, firmly clutching a ghaita in his hands. As Ornette said after Palmer died: “He was guided by the light. I really don’t know how he lived so long. He had so much love for what he believed.”
Ornette Coleman first heard the Brian Jones album courtesy of Palmer. “Ornette loved the music and put Jajouka on his record,” Bachir said proudly.
In January 1973, Coleman and Palmer trekked up the Rif Mountains to collaborate with the Master Musicians. Coleman’s Harmolodic approach to music fit hand in glove with their thundering drums, ethereal flutes and swirling ghaitas. [After confusion over calling his music free jazz, Ornette concocted the title Harmolodic – one part harmony, one part motion, one part melodic to describe his music].
It was a collaboration that clicked from the beginning: “My experience with Jajouka was in the Seventies,” Ornette Coleman told me. “Robert Palmer, a dear friend, sent me a tape of the music and asked me if I’d like to go and participate. We were there for three weeks to a month. At the time Bachir was very young. I knew his father.”
Ornette Coleman first heard the Brian Jones album courtesy of Palmer. “Ornette loved the music and put Jajouka on his record,” Bachir said proudly.
“As a child when I saw Ornette in the village, it was the first time I ever heard jazz music,” Bachir explained. “He played with my father and all the musicians that have [since] passed away. The music was magic, from another dimension that people, I think, will understand in the future. Somewhere there are hours and hours of tapes. We do not want to lose them. So, I will ask Denardo [Ornette’s son]. They recorded every night for weeks. People need to listen to this music. There is enough for ten or fifteen albums. But there is only one song [“Midnight Sunrise” released on Ornette’s 1976 album] Dancing in Your Head. That name was something my father said about Jajouka music. ‘You know it is good when it is dancing in your head.’ Ornette was the best jazz person. He didn’t put his nose up, like ‘I am more important.’ He always treated everyone as equal. Ornette and ‘The Bridge Man’ – Sonny Rollins. He is a good musician, and a good man. They don’t act like stars. A star is far away from the earth. As we say in Jajouka, ‘If the moon loves you – don’t worry when the stars move away.’”
Following the Master Musicians’ performance at New York’s downtown music club the Knitting Factory on February 28, 2009, Bachir asked me if I could help him get back in touch with Ornette. The musicians, even then, were facing tough times. They were growing older and needed health and dental care. On top of that, most of the young people had grown up and headed for the cities, having no interest in staying in the village or playing the music. Bachir was hoping Ornette might help arrange and play at a benefit for the musicians. The next day we all convened at Coleman’s midtown loft. Their meeting led to Attar and company performing each night at the Meltdown Festival (which Ornette curated and performed at, along with Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Robert Wyatt, Carla Bley and Charlie Haden) in London in June 2009.
Having them both together, in the same room, I seized the moment for a quick interview:
JK: What was it about the music of Jajouka that spoke to you, Ornette?
Ornette Coleman: There are many forms of non-tempered music like Jajouka, whether Chinese or Spanish music, but what makes Jajouka stand out it is the ancient story behind its creation. Their music is similar to Harmolodics, where every person plays and all the tones are equal in relationship, free of grammar, so you don’t have to worry about the tones getting in the way of ideas. The tempered structure, which was created in Europe has served music for hundreds of years and in itself has not been free of grammar as non-tempered music. I’ve always thought it was a shame that human expression has to be blocked by so many different laws and racial issues. For me, Jajouka was a very religious, spiritual experience because y’know the word “God” is not so admired in the process of human expression. It was a very beautiful experience. I had it in the South when I grew up [in Fort Worth, Texas] and had it since I became an adult. One can have a spiritual experience anywhere and can experience it equal in relationship to their concept of what God is. It mostly comes to any person that is not trying to stylize a feeling.
BA: Ornette, he understood it completely and put it on his album [Dancing In Your Head].
JK: Jajouka is ultimately spirit music, born in nature and always seems a bit out of place when performed indoors or in a concert hall. How is it different when it’s played at home in the village?
BA: To hear the music of Jajouka played live in caves and mountains is the best! But there is music we play that you’ve never heard in America, called ‘55’ because there are fifty-five scales inside the music. It is classical music especially for the Kings of Morocco. It puts people in a deep trance and we cannot be responsible what happens to them when we play it. It is old music, from over one hundred years ago. It was learned and kept by my father. It is the real thing.
Ornette Coleman: I don’t think the music will ever disappear. The quality of it may be hampered because of people not understanding how to express it. The life of Jajouka cannot die. It is immortal.
BA: Ornette was inspired to write a lot of music after he played with my father in Jajouka. He learned very much when he was there in ’73 and now I think he will come back. We feel him very much!
Ornette Coleman: Music is a dimension of life, the art of life and human beings are the creators of this life. It is one life and we are all sharing it. All we have to do is make it better, which we can do, as long as we are standing on our feet and not our knees.
The innovative guitarist Bill Frisell, who performed with Ornette and the Master Musicians at the 2009 Meltdown Festival, recalls the immense impact the free-thinking free jazz musician had on his life: “When I was in high school I heard Ornette Coleman’s music for the first time. It would be impossible to overstate the impact he has had on me. The highest level of inspiration. Back then if you had told me that someday I’d actually meet him I never would have believed you. But sometimes dreams do come true. I visited him a number of times at his home and we played music together. Incredible. Eventually, he invited me to play with him at the Meltdown Festival in London. This was the only time I performed in public with him. Getting to be up there on stage with Ornette and his band and the Master Musicians and Flea and Patti Smith… Maybe I was dreaming! It is astonishing how Ornette can become one with whatever circumstance he finds himself in. No judgement. Whatever sound is going on around him, he will embrace and enter into it and get to the center of it and lift the whole thing up. Harmolodics. Yes. Something to strive for. I treasure every single moment spent with him.”
In November of 1991 bassist/producer Bill Laswell traveled to Jajouka and set up a digital 12 track in the foothills of the Rif to record Apocalypse Across the Sky. The album stands in stark contrast to Brian Jones’ recording. Instead of a mad rushing whirlpool of pure sound that envelopes your soul, Laswell presented short polished pop versions of Jajouka’s transcendental jams. The sound has a pristine, almost bell jar-like quality.
“The Middle of the Night”-from Apocalypse Across the Sky, produced by Bill Laswell:
Journalist/musician Brian Cullman, who was on assignment from Details magazine, recalled the experience of sitting by the fire and listening to the Masters play after the tape stopped rolling: “The music from Jajouka is… about transcendence, but with a dark and terrifying undertow, an impulse toward destruction almost nuclear in its intensity…. [able to] resolve all the polarities between men and women, stop and go, darkness and light, being and not being, good and evil… Make no mistake, this music isn’t interior decoration, but a call for utter demolition, an embrace of absolute chaos, the world turned on its head, spun backwards. Lost in the mountains of the Rif, deep in the dark, at the edge of the flames, a tribe of musicians continues, blind raging insane, clattering and honking, till the night tastes of fire and blood, and the stars grow as loud as the drums and the horns.”
In 2000, Bachir and the musical brotherhood collaborated with Indian tabla player/DJ Talvin Singh who gave the Masters a decidedly slick studio sound. “To the pure, all things are pure,” says an Arabic proverb on the back of the disc. No matter how it is mixed, or adorned Jajouka remains spirit music, born in nature.
Attar would also collaborate with composer Howard Shore on the YEAR soundtrack to The Cell. Shore’s earlier score to David Cronenberg’s hallucinatory film of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch featured Ornette’s aching alto throughout its dark and surreal soundtrack.
It’s not just free jazzers and avant-garde composers who are captivated by the exotic wail of the ghaitas. The music of Jajouka has also profoundly resonated with Donovan and Eric Andersen, who along with his wife, Inge, made the quest up the Rif Mountains in 2014. “It was raining like hell, there and in Tangier,” Eric recalled. “My one pair of shoes were ruined, so I walked around Tangier barefoot for a day. Bachir found me some shoes and managed to get a few musicians to his house and play for us while his young wife cooked the most amazing delicious chicken tagine. It was like a Moroccan seder feast. It must have taken her all day to do! It was a perfect cozy evening, under a canopy of rain, pelting the roof.”
“The music touches people,” Bachir said, explaining Jajouka’s world-wide appeal. “Like a djinn trying to wake you from this dream. There is a strong connection that goes straight to the mind. It is a human music. If there is a question, people just need to listen more deeply. Some just don’t know. But Paul Bowles did! He knew it was important. Paul loved our music. We were in his [Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990] movie The Sheltering Sky.
[Photo above: John Kruth/Signs For Covid Times]
So, what is on the horizon for Bachir and the remaining Masters, after this nightmare blazes out?
Recorded in March 2019, the first track–“Open Your Mind and Make Your Brain Big,” presents multi-reed player Arrington de Dionyso on a feral bass clarinet, growling along with the Jajouka musicians. “Many Years with the Secrets” features more of the Masters’ trademark swirling gjaitas and driving drums, that create a lovely delirium, while “The Pure Dance in the Dark” plunges you headfirst into the deep end of the Masters’ cleansing fire.
“Don’t worry!” Attar said in parting. “We will do ceremonies against the virus of Corona, to kill it! Hadra* music can heal! The music is a secret medicine for mind and heart. So, you can know yourself. It makes your head clear and gives you focus, so you know why you are here… to relax and enjoy the music!”
[*Derived from the Arabic word “hodor,” “Hadra” means “presence,” and refers to a circle of Sufis chanting the Quran, praising Allah and the Prophet Mohamed.]