How Western artists (re)discovered the world’s oldest rock’n’roll band
Issandr El Amrani - 27/02/2007
Bachir Attar and Mike Jagger
The part of Morocco just beyond its Mediterranean shoreline -- an area framed by the dusty market town of Qsar Kbir and polyglot Tangiers in the West; medieval Fes and the Beni Snassen Mountains in the East - is a vast expanse of lush plains and hard-to-reach mountain villages collectively known as the Rif. It has long been a province of rebels, with its sons taking on Spanish and Portuguese kings in the 18th centuries, Franco's fascist army and the French colonial government in the 1930s, and even a newly independent Moroccan monarchy in the late 1950s. It has produced some of Morocco's toughest historical personalities, from legendary bandit warlords to Morocco's greatest anti-colonial resistance figure, Adbel Karim Khattabi. Even ordinary farmers routinely continue defy the authorities: tucked away in the region’s hard-to-reach mountain slopes are vast fields of kif, the Moroccan name for marijuana. The Rif is estimated to provide some 80% of Europe’s consumption of the green stuff, which is smoked locally in long, thin wooden pipes. So incensed was the late King Hassan II with the rebellious Rif that he refused to set foot in it throughout his 38-year long reign, although his son King Muhammad VI has now repaired that oversight by calling on his government to pay more attention to the poor and undeveloped region and visited it soon after his enthronement in 1999.
At the south-western foothills of the Rif mountain chain is the small Berber village of Jajouka, home of rebels of another kind. Until 1999, there was no usable road to walk up to the village and the ascension to its center had to be done by foot or the back of a mule. Even now, a carved-out dirt path only allows motorized access to vehicles with solid tires and powerful engines. The difficulty with which Jajouka is accessed is, or perhaps now was, a double-edged sword: for the farmers that live there, it made it more difficult to have interaction with the outside world and trade; for the artists who headed there, it was part of the magic of entering another world, one far removed from civilization.
What differentiates Jajouka from the dozens of other villages in the region is that it once was entirely populated by musicians. In medieval times, these musicians did not have to farm the land, engage in trade or fight in wars. They formed a special caste whose entire lives were dedicated to learning and playing music. They would earn a living by playing for dignitaries and special occasions such as festivals and weddings; in exchange farmers would allocate them a certain portion of their annual crop yield. They aimed to become master musicians, superlative practitioners of one or several instruments that in turn could lead musical groups and pass on their knowledge to new generations. This was not only about passing on the technical knowledge of how to become a virtuoso in a specific instrument, but also learning about the spirituality behind the music, for the music of Jajouka is in essence trance music that celebrates local animist beliefs that predate Islam.
The Master Musicians of Jajouka play a variety of instruments, from double-headed Moroccan drums made of taut sheepskin and other percussion instruments to the guimbri, a three-stringued lute. But the instrument that characterizes its sound is the ghaita, a Moroccan version of the oboe. The ghaita makes a shrill, piercing sound and the master musicians weave the sound of several of them playing at the same time, creating a mesmerizing, trance-inducing crescendo
The key musical ritual of Jajouka is generally played during the Eid Al Kbir, the Muslim feast of sacrifice. But they incorporate beliefs that date back to ancient Greece, and perhaps beyond. Variants of this ritual exist throughout Morocco, but in Jajouka it is associate with a giant hollowed-out piece of rock perched near the top of the hill. The legend says that a shepherd playing his flute near the cave attracted the attention of a local deity, a goat-headed man, who was entranced by the tune. The creature, called Bou Jeloud (Father of Skins), is conjured in an annual ritual to bless the women of the village and make them fertile. In the ritual, after the trance-like music reaches its crescendo, a dancer appears wearing a mask of goat skin and bearing two palm fronds. His dance -- a wild, highly individualistic series of hops, pirouettes, twirls and gyrations -- involves beating the feet of women with the palm fronds, an act which gives them baraka and assures their fertility. The story of Bou Jeloud is, of course, analogous to the pan-Mediterranean myth of playful goat gods associated with music, most notably the Greek god Pan.
All of the musicians in Jajouka come from the Attar family, which founded the village and has passed on its knowledge from generation to generation of master musicians. It’s not clear when the Attars first established themselves as musicians -- the beat generation writer William Burroughs famously described them as “a 4000 year-old rock’n’roll band” but they claim to have documents showing that they played for at least six Moroccan sultans, from the 16th century onwards. As the royal house band, they were charged with playing music to lead armies and entertain the sultan. The great Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldoun mentions them in his Muqadimma, considered by many to be the founding text of sociology. The master musicians continued to play for the royal household until the 1930s, when the French colonial administration moved Morocco’s capital from Fez to Rabat. They moved back to Jajouka, largely forgotten by the world until they were rediscovered by the American writer Paul Bowles and the eclectic group of artists and writers he dubbed The Tangerinos.
Even more than Bowles, the experimental painter Brion Gysin, a key influence on the beat generation of writers such as Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, was key in promoting the Master Musicians of Jajouka. In the late 1950s, he made them the house band of the café he opened in the Kasbah of Tangiers, The 1001 Nights. Yet Jajouka would only become known worldwide a decade later, when Gysin introduced the master musicians to Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones. Jones was the key member of the Stones in their early years, coming up with the band's name, acting as its first manager and bringing his skill with a diverse range of instruments (piano, clarinet, harmonica and others) to what was essentially a rhythm and blues band. By 1968, though, he was unhappy with the musical direction the Stones were taking, with the composing duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards eclipsing his early formative role for the band (which he would leave a year later.) Leading a dissolute, drug-fueled life, he visited Gysin in Tangiers, who suggested that he go to Jajouka.
Bachir Attar, the current leader of the Master Musicians, was four years old when Jones first walked up, by foot, the trail of his village. He remembers his brother telling him, "somebody come with big hair." Indeed, a strange looking, pale-skinned, long-haired, blond man wearing a hippie sheepskin jacket arrived in the village, to the bemusement of all who had never seen a hippie before. Attar and the other village kids made fun of him saying he looked like the pale, long-haired goats they herded -- a quip Jones acquiesced,. Jones immediately connected with the musicians, who recreated their Eid Al Kbir ritual for him. Jones recorded seven hours of music and mixed it when he returned to London, excitedly telling the Stones, "I have found what I wanted." It was a moment that later musicians have come to see as the birth of world music, and Jones' trip inspired other pop musicians, like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, to look for inspiration in Africa, Asia and South America. For Attar too, it was an inspirational moment. "The first music I heard outside of my family's is the Rolling Stones. I loved them," he says.
Jones died a year after visiting Jajouka, drowning in the swimming pool of his Sussex home in mysterious circumstances (some fans believe he was murdered), and it was not until 1971 that his recording of the Jajouka music was released. Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka, a psychedelic mixing of the master musicians' music, is the landmark album of world music. It launched a new musical trend that brought non-Western music to Western ears, much as Picasso and other artists earlier in the century were inspired by the "primitive arts" of African tribes. It also gave the Master Musicians of Jajouka legendary status, sending more musicians keen on experimentation to the small Rif village.
In 1973, the beat writer William Burroughs, who had been introduced to Jajouka years earlier by his friend and collaborator Brion Gyson, made another trip to the village. He arrived on the same day as Ornette Coleman, the legendary American saxophonist, had come to record his own track with the master musicians, Midnight Sunrise, which appears on the album Dancing In Your Head. He immortalized the few days he spent there in a magazine article, in which he describes the electric atmosphere in his stream-of-consciousness prose:
Musicians are magicians in Morocco and they all bear the mark of the conjurer the magic man. They are evokers of djenoun forces, spirits of the hills and the flocks and above all the spirits of music. They share the family name Attar which means “the perfume maker.” I quote from Brion Gysin: “At certain moments of mystical experience induced by music, instead of hearing you smell this divine perfume.” I was to smell this perfume twice during my stay in Jajouka.
Ornette Coleman began slowly at first feeling his way. He is clearly an expert in this musical splicing -- ”musical surgery” he calls it -- and the music that emerged as the session developed was a palpable force felt by everyone present. Magnetic spirals spun through the room like clusters of electronic bees that meet and explode in air releasing the divine perfume, a musty purple smell of ozone and spice and raw goatskins, a perfume you can hear and smell and see. The session went on for three hours of rapt attention and short intermissions punctuated by the litany of the drummer.
Burroughs was fascinated with the myth behind the Bou Jeloud ritual -- as he called it, “Bou Jeloud Pan the Goat God Master of Skins Master of Fear ageless enigmatic impersonal.” He urged others to go to Jajouka and "listen to the music, the primordial sounds. Listen with your whole body, let the music penetrate you and move you, and you will connect with the oldest music on earth." Other counter-cultural icons and beatniks followed, among them Timothy Leary, the notorious advocate of LSD use and free love, who tripped out to the music in the madrasa, the village's music school that still hosts the group today -- and allegedly distributed LSD tablets to the villages' children.
The Master Musicians of Jajouka
Bachir Attar is now nearly 40, and although he is one of the youngest master musicians in Jajouka, he is the group's leader. I first met him in Rabat after the Master Musicians of Jajouka had played in the city's Mawazine festival of world music. Ironically, it is the first Moroccan concert that the group has played, as while they are well-known internationally most Moroccans know nothing about their music. Attar says the band only played because it was invited at the king's special request, as was the Senegalese singer Youssou n'Dour. He invited me to come and spend a few days in Jajouka to learn more about the music. I arrived on a hot, sunny day in the middle of June and spent the afternoon talking to him in the madrasa before the night's concert, held in the honor of a few guests.
In some respects, Attar is typically Berber -- he is short and wiry, has bronze skin and consumes astronomic amounts of sugar (eight heaped teaspoons in his morning cup of coffee.) In most ways, though, he would not look out of place with Keith Richards, Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop. He has the demeanor of a rock'n'roll star; wild, wiry black hair and a leathery lined face that seems ravaged by years of hard partying. He speaks in a strangely accented English peppered with Americanisms and British slang, and his sentences are sometimes merely phrases, onomatopeic clippings of a thought or idea he wants to express. It's not articulate, but he gets his points across, often arbitrarily interjecting the adjectives "stupid" or "shitty" for emphasis.
He is also a treasure trove of rock'n'roll anecdotes. His reminiscences of time spent with the Tangerinos and other celebrities who visited him in Jajouka or during his long exile in Paris and New York during the 1980s. He goes from talking about Mick Jagger's 1989 visit -- "he was sitting right there where you are," he told me, pointing his finger in my direction -- to drug and booze binges with Donovan and Marianne Faithfull in London to parties Timothy Leary hosted for him in New York to his encounter with Catherine Deneuve at a photographer friend's studio in Paris in the late 1970s. (He still has, in a frame in his bedroom, the picture fo Deneuve taken that day. When she visited him years later, not remembering that they had met, she was stunned to see a picture she believed she had the only copy of.)
The most incredible story he tells is about he renewed the link between Jajouka and the Rolling Stones 20 years after Brian Jone visited his father. One morning in 1988, he woke up in his Manhattan apartment and told his now ex-wife Cherie (who is still his manager) that he had dreamt that Mick Jagger "was calling him through the trees." He told her that he must find a way to contact them. Cherie tracked down the Stones' manager and helped Attar write them a letter explaining his dream. At the time, Mick Jagger was vacationing at Keith Richards' home in Barbados and working on the lyrics for their next album. Years of drug-fuelled lifestyle had taken their toll on the aging rockers and their career was dwindling down after the glory of the 1960s and 1970s. The new album needed to be a hit. One song troubled Jagger in particular -- he felt it was missing something that the Stones could not provide. In published interviews about the period, Jagger says he told Richards that they needed "something like that Moroccan band Brian [Jones] had discovered." A few days later, Attar's letter arrived. Astounded at the coincidence, they sent him a demo tape, which was sent on by Cherie to Jajouka where Attar had gone. "I didn't have a cassette player at the time," he remembers. "We all got inside a car to listen to it."
Eventually, it was arranged for Jagger to come to Jajouka and record segments of the master musicians' music. When the Stones released their new album, Steel Wheels, in 1989, it was a hit. Along with more traditional rock songs like Rock And A Hard Place, it has a more unusual track that begins with Jajouka's trademark crescendo of ghaita. The song, Continental Drift, holds a strange appeal not only because of the unusual sound of the ghaita but also because Jagger's voice itself seems to take an Oriental, otherwordly tone.
Having pursued a solo career for a time, Attar periodically returned to Jajouka to attempt to reform the group, which had fallen apart because of a lack of interest in the music inside of Morocco. Their only performances were abroad, during world music festivals, every few years -- and even then they face competition from another Moroccan band that has usurped their name and its long pedigree. After the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, he decided to leave New York after he became fed up with harassment by "the shitty F.B.I." because his last name ressembles that the hijackers' ringleader, Muhammad Atta. He is now devoted to keeping Jajouka's music alive -- quite a difficult endeavor considering that many of the artists that the Master Musicians of Jajouka has recorded with did not give them any royalties. For now, the group lives on through occasional collaborations with Western artists -- the latest of which is an excellent drum-and-bass remix by the British-Indian musician Talvin Singh -- and performances at world music festivals. While some of the master musicians continue to live in the village, others have moved out to join other bands and only come back on special occasions. Attar is especially disappointed that "no one gives a shit about this music in Morocco" and worried about whether there will be anyone to carry on Jajouka's millenary tradition after him.
When we finished the interview, Attar asked me not to record anything that would happen afterwards, during the party, but just to enjoy it and "join in the spirit of Bou Jeloud." The party ended up lasting until eight in the morning, with musicians relentlessly puffing away on their kif pipes and Attar getting through, in my hazy count, about two bottles of Absolut Vodka. As the evening progressed he became more and more excited, jumping about and dancing wildly (as did many of the musicians), screaming into the night. Although later on Bou Jeloud would make his appearance, complete with goatskin mask and palm fronds, at times it seemed as if Attar himself was channeling the Master of Skins.
Issandr El Amrani