“Legend has it if they ever stop playing the world will come to an end…”
These words appear on a flyer for the upcoming Master Musicians of Jajouka concert in Toronto (July 15 at the Phoenix); the flyer shows the Master Musicians in white robes, with their leader, Bachir Attar, front and center. Is he smirking? Pouting? Keeping a mysterious secret?
Legend certainly surrounds this group of Moroccan musicians, layers upon layers of it. To fully understand the legends, one would have to excavate beneath the recent bohemian myths surrounding them—beneath the mystique of the Interzone-Tangier scene in the 1950s, and the iconic writers and musicians like Brion Gysin, Paul Bowles, Brian Jones, and William S. Burroughs, who brought the power of Jajouka music to Western ears. The deeper mystique is that of the music itself: it has been taught in early childhood and passed down from father to son, through the Attar family, for centuries. Master Musicians would travel with the sultans of Morocco as official royal musicians; in more recent times, the clan performed as royal musicians for the Moroccan king. Trance-like, hypnotic, this Sufi music is reputed to possess power. [Listen to the track "Memories Of My Father", written by Bachir.]
Listening to this music, I wonder: what is “powerful” music, really? Or: what can music do? Most of us would agree that it can lift the spirit. Some would say that music has the power to transport a person; others credit music with giving strength, or even with healing.
Through a stroke of luck, and the wonders of globalized communication, I was able to interview Bachir Attar via a shaky Skype-to-cell connection two nights ago. It was 1:30 a.m. in the village of Jajouka, Morocco, but he was awake and passionate, ready to discuss the power of his music, his musical heritage, and its possible disappearance.
A VERY OLD SCENE
“‘Jajouka’, Gysin would say with a gleam in his eye, ‘that’s a very old scene.’”
— Robert Palmer, in the foreword to Canadian painter/writer Brion Gysin’s The Process
Holly Jean: Bachir, you’re in Jajouka tonight?
Bachir Attar: Yes.
HJ: How does it feel to return to your village?
BA: Well this is nice; it’s a nice home. It’s the world you know. No place like home. [laughs] I’m always happy to be back in my home, where I grow up, where I got this beautiful music of my father.
HJ: How is it different; has it changed much?
BA: For me?
BA: You know, I like to travel, but I’m traveling a lot—when I was a kid—in Europe, in America, I lived for a long time in the States, in New York … but what I love in my life, it’s in my home, in my village. Where I’m born, where I grew up. And of course I’ve been everywhere in the world—not everywhere, but almost … I’ve been traveling, playing music, but I have to come back in my village. And nothing can change me, I can never change from who I am, or where I come from, you know? It’s always me.
HJ: I hope I can go someday to Jajouka.
BA: Well, you’re welcome! Anytime.
HJ: I would love to… Because in Morocco, I always have the feeling that more things are possible, in a way.
HJ: When I traveled in Morocco before, I had a feeling that there, the world just seems more open to magic, or to possibility.
BA: Well in Morocco I think there is, how I can say… When you come to Morocco you feel like you are at your home, in different way. Morocco is a beautiful country. It’s safe, people respect other people from outside, you know, because this is how Morocco is… always respectful for good people, [when] they come with open hearts. They will get what they want, you know?
“OUR MUSIC IS LARGE”
Jajouka is, by many accounts, much how it was when the Attar family began to play music there. Though today it does have electricity and cell phone reception, the foothills beneath the Rif mountains are the same blue hills that have stood sentinel for centuries; the olive trees still bear fruit. Music critic Robert Palmer traveled there in 1971, writing a piece for Rolling Stone, and later declared, “Jajouka, which has no electricity or running water, is on no map and a the end of no road, exists somehow in its own time, not in our media-saturated century. It constitutes living proof that what we call reality is a perceptual and, socially speaking, a consensual phenomenon … Whether the visitor ‘believes in’ magic or not, in Jajouka he sees magic as method, magic that works.”
Magic as method. The ecstatic dancing of the Sufi brotherhood; the evocation of Bou Jeloud, the animated goat-figure who the Beats associated with Pan… (“Bou Jeloud… you can say he’s the devil—not Satan, Satan is bad luck—[Bou Jeloud exists] in a good way,” Bachir says.) In this music, there are traces of what I’ll call the “lost land ago”, some pre-history kairos which we all may be searching for. The Eternal Moment. Present Time. Perhaps, music can serve as a vehicle to this Eternal Moment. And dancing: Jajouka music is famous for its transcendental dancing.
“We have a lot of music for dance, for freedom of dancing,” Bachir told me. “Beautiful. We are universe of dance and music and everything. That’s why I say to you, our music is large. Large.”
The all-encompassing music of Jajouka was more than enough to intrigue the Interzone expats, with their interest in magic and the reality that lies beyond-the-obvious. “I knew I wanted to hear the music every day for the rest of my life,” Palmer quotes Gysin as saying; indeed, Gysin set up a restaurant in Tangier called 1001 Nights, along with the painter Mohammed Hamri, where the Jajouka musicians would come to perform. Later, Gysin brought Brian Jones to the village; Jones recorded an album there, Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka (1971) and brought Mick Jagger to Jajouka (see archival photos on the Paul Bowles site). The West had discovered Jajouka music. (See YouTube clip of a modern performance.)
“THERE IS COMMUNICATION HERE IN THIS EARTH”
It’s a bit blithe, ignorant even, to describe these historical events as a “discovery”—a colonial-holdout term if there ever was one— but to the Western musicians of that time, it probably did feel like a discovery. The Westerner appears as a child, stumbling upon a truth the adults have known for years. And one could ask if this “discovery” by the modern rock scene was a good thing for Jajouka; if being “on the map” didn’t have its downside, too. But rather than criticize this discovery (and this esteem in which the Beats held Jajouka music), I’d rather see the “discovery” as enriching the tradition and mystique that surrounds Jajouka music. Bachir and the other Jajouka musicians are living a double-tradition: that of the “4,000-year-old rock band” and that of the subcultural legends. It’s a link to a tradition that Bachir seems to welcome.
HJ: You know, I read the book from Brion Gysin, which is when I first heard of Jajouka music, and in the preface, Robert Palmer, he says, “Jajouka’s reality is the magical reality of antiquity,” and that exists somehow in its own time.
BA: Brion Gysin, he was with my father before I was born, this is in the fifties—and Paul Bowles … they write what they see, because they spent time with the musicians. … If they feel it, if they understand it [then they] understand it … Brion Gysin, he understands, it, and William Burroughs, and Paul Bowles, and the last one, Ornette Coleman, and Bob Palmer … He understands it deeply; he’s a spiritual man and a journalist … I think it’s difficult to find somebody like Bob Palmer, you know?
HJ: You know, people say your music is very powerful, and I’m curious if it’s difficult to transmit that power to people in the West—or if people in Toronto, people everywhere, can connect to it.
BA: Our music, it’s powerful for peace. Power full of peace, you know? [laughs] And the peace is difficult to get into the people, you know what I mean? But yes, there are many people who understand our music. But I think for people there [in the West], they have to be very smart, with an open mind. It’s open dream, open heart.
Young people, they understand, I think, our music, deeply. Because we are a lot of people, they love our music, our true music. And they can say, “Yes”. Now, [today], we have to understand each other for everything. Because we are one human … The world becomes small now, you know what I mean? Now I think the bridge is connected. There is communication here in this earth, you know what I mean?
I think in the next 50 years, I think we will be with Africa, with all the world. We going to know each other like easy, like [people who] see each other every day, and know each other.
But I want to say to you about Jajouka music—the music, it’s for everybody … It’s one music in the earth, it’s saved, survived, like thousands of years … Because this music, I think it’s for everybody. People should buy the album of Jajouka. And we put our new album now, it’s out, [tracks that] we have never recorded before.
HJ: I’m wondering, if the music is powerful, where does the power come from? From Allah, from tradition, from the music itself?
BA: It comes both. It comes from a gift, like a gift from God, from Allah, for the Attar family … It is very difficult for me to explain to you, in English. Our music is to heal people, that’s true, for many years … People they come sick, out of their mind, crazy, [and then upon hearing the music] they become normal. But it’s difficult to say to the people, they can’t believe it, you know, Western people.
And there is music for BLESSING. Because the music, our music… people hear it from the heart, they open their heart. People, they can build the mercy in the heart. This music can build, for the human being, mercy in the heart. To love other people, care about other people. Our music is for this.
Like everywhere, Morocco is changing. If you go to Tangier, you can see the gleaming new train station with its marble floor, beside the Golden Arches, though mangy cats and and touts selling heroin can still be found in the old medina… In Marrakesh, you can root through the old teeth on table in Djemma el Fna, or watch the dancing monkeys, all part of a distant legacy—yet in the Ville Nouvelle, you can shop at Zara or your other favourite Euro clothing-chain; you can buy whatever you need at the gleaming hypermarket. The old quarter and the new city exist side-by-side, and not without some tension—not without the latent wonder about what is being lost. The underlying question, when it comes anything ancient faced by this century: Can it endure?
Bachir Attar emphasizes that he carries the true Master Musician lineage: it was his father, Hadj Abdessan Attar, who held the title of Master Musician until his death in 1982. Another group also playing as authentic Master Musicians of Joujouka exists (there are various transliteration of the village’s name). One music critic calls the situation “a tragic development … an example of what can happen when music from a developing country gets pulled into a the influence of the music industry.” For the novice listener, the fact that there are two groups playing as the Master Musicians of Jajouka/Joujouka seems a bizarre distraction from the larger issue: that of preserving musical traditions from extinction.
BA: I’ve read before that you might be the last generation of Jajouka musicians, is this true? Or will it continue?
BA: Yes, I think you read that in our website or in other newspapers … Because you know my age, I grew up with the old musicians, and with my father. He was the one who kept this music from many years ago. And I know, it’s very difficult. And me, I’m not just saying that this is the last generation. I’m saying that this is the last generation of pure Jajouka music. The real. From these thousands of years.
Because me, I never been in a school … I learn from this music, I grew up with this music, from old, with my father and other old people. And that’s old people, all of them, that passed away … We are the chance—I can say, yes, we are the last generation, because you have to learn this music when you are a kid, like four years, five years, to get this feeling. Because it’s very difficult to get it. It’s kind of a spirit, a deep one.
I work really hard to make Jajouka known, in Europe, because I [lived] in Europe for like nine years, I lived in America from ’88, till like a few years ago. Four years ago, I left America … I need many good people to make Jajouka happen … We make that kind of music that nobody can do, for example, like Jimi Hendrix. Nobody can play like him.
…The kids now, they grow up, they go to school. Because we don’t make money with music of Jajouka. And the kids now, you know, everywhere [they are] the same, here or there. When they grow up, they want to go to school, they want to make money, they want to do this and this and this, you know what I mean? Because if you don’t have a grant… We don’t have a sponsor. This is why I say, we are the last generation. … I suffer with this a lot … We don’t have money behind us, you know what I mean? Or sponsors, you know? No.
HJ: Yes, I think it’s very sad, and I think it happens around the globe… in different traditions. You know, one time I was listening to Eugene Hutz [from the band Gogol Bordello]… he works with gypsy music, and he was playing this music from Georgia. He was saying that they were the last generation in this village in Georgia to play from this pure tradition. And I’m wondering what the musicians and the Western listeners can do to help save these musical traditions.
BA: Well … United Nations should be a help for this, and UNESCO, but maybe they didn’t care about us, you know what I mean? They help for other things. … They can say music for Jajouka is music for peace. It can put people at peace. They’ve got to study deeply to understand it. I don’t know how to say it in Western language, you know?
But this music is important for everybody, not only for us. If this music goes … I can say like United Nation and UNESCO, they should help for this. Or in Canada there is many communities, many things in Europe, but nobody comes to us and says “Hey, here we can help you”. I would love to do a school in the village for all of the world. I love to teach—not only Moroccans. I love to teach people from America, from Canada, from anywhere. We can survive, this music, we can save it. Like students from university, they love music, they can come to the village. But we need help for this, to build for them a place, to be comfortable, you know what I mean? I promise to the world I will do that.
…Now, yes, we have a label record of Jajouka … we just [began] it a month ago. In America. Yes, this is just like one month ago. But we are going to sell our record of Jajouka by Internet. [Listen to the track If the Moon loves You, available exclusively on tour, and soon available through the Jajouka website.] … We hope we can make something, we can move things, we can save this music. Yes. This is what I’m thinking about. Because, you know, it’s very difficult for somebody—I’m from the third world, I’m from Morocco, I never been in a school, I never… you know what I mean? It’s very difficult to keep these things going.
HJ: What do you see, for the future of your village—and for your country, for Morocco?
BA: Well, the future, I think, nobody knows about the future. Because I am Muslim, I can say the future is in the hands of Allah. In the hands of God. Nobody can know the future, what’s going to be happen, you know? … People who say they know the future or whatever, I think they are all lying. Yes. It is true. Who knows tomorrow? Nobody knows what’s coming tomorrow. You know yourself what’s going to be, tomorrow? Maybe the world will be changed, but nobody knows.
All is not without hope, however, at least in Jajouka. Frank Rynne, who is affiliated with The Master Musicians of Joujouka, is organizing a festival this month in Jajouka to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Brian Jones coming to the village and to promote peace, argues that Jajouka’s musical tradition does have a future. “The claim that there are no young musicians in the village is not accurate and does nothing to preserve the village or its legacy. There are plenty [of] young people in the village who actively participate in the culture, life, music and other activities in the village,” he writes. The future of the music might rest on the interest and abilities of young Jajouka musicians, but if Western listeners continue to be interested in and support the music, this will probably help them tremendously. Music and capitalism is a strange marriage: can it produce fruit for this Moroccan village? If the music is authentically beautiful and powerful, if it genuinely moves people, it probably can.
I don’t know about tomorrow, but I do know about next week: the Master Musicians of Jajouka will play at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, with DJ medicineman. Presented by Small World Music, Tuesday July 15—@ 9 p.m.—410 Sherbourne Street; tickets $30; your chance to evaluate & experience the music for yourself.
Other Canadian cities are not left out: July 11 in Québec, July 13 in Ottawa, July 19-20 in Vancouver, July 24-26 in Calgary; see Jajouka site for details.