Thursday, October 16, 2014

Through the Atlas Mountains

12/21/13
Volubilis, Morocco

As mentioned at the conclusion of the last installment, we began the day in Volubilis reshooting a scene with Bachir Attar and his brother Mustapha that had been rained out in Jajouka.  To while away the time while they set up, Bachir played a pastoral melody on the bamboo flute that his father had taught him.  This melody was said to sooth and calm the goat-god Boujeloud, a folk incarnation of the ancient Greek God Pan.  Pan personifies male energy in its most chaotic form, hence the term panic when unmitigated.  When we participated in the ritual for Boujeloud the first time to Jajouka in 1991, Boujeloud ran about with a grass stalk trying to whip  women with it.  If he succeeded, legend had it that she would get pregnant.  If Pan represents the fullest expression of material creativity.  Pan also means "all."  In his role of Pan Pangenitor he is the "All-Begetter."

Playing this melody on this morning was auspiciously timed.  The day before had been wild and chaotic.  It had almost been a disaster after I stopped a hurried and frantic electrician from plugging in audio equipment running on 110v into a 220v outlet.  Blindly rushing ahead in a panic without consideration for potential damage.  Today marked the beginning of a new phase in the production.

This day would be the closest approximation to a day off on the whole trip.  It was a  travel day, no filming was scheduled, a short 93 km drive south to the town of Azrou located at the crossroads of the Middle Atlas and High Atlas mountain ranges.  Bill headed off in a different direction, due west to Casablanca on the coast where he would catch a flight back home to spend Christmas with his family.  I was pretty sure he'd been up late the night before trying to manage or maybe just observe the chaos behind the scenes which, according to one of the Producers, happens in one form or another on all film productions.  I would certainly miss his running interference for the audio department ( ie myself and now, since the night before, my assistant Mustapha).  However, he was still very much present in spirit for the remainder of the trip periodically sending emails of advice, aphorisms and graphic illustrations relevant to the work.  Jay called Bill his spiritual mentor.

Not long after we hit the road Jay played a recording over the mini bus sound system they had both collaborated on featuring drummer Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the pianist Jon Batiste and Bill Laswell on bass.  Other musicians included Toshinori Kondo, Killah Priest, Garrison Hawk, Dominic James, Peter Apfelbaum and Tunde Adibimpe.  I think it's safe to say that Jay was the catalyst for this project, which they are calling The Process, with Bill doing the bulk of the production.  It was the perfect soundscape against the landscape of the Atlas mountains.  Smith surprised me with the depth, versatility and musicality of his playing, something I wasn't expecting from a Chili Pepper.  He really got to show his chops at times.  Batiste's otherworldly piano stylings fit right in the with the naturally psychedelic Moroccan ambience.  I'm not going to attempt to describe the music, but will include an excerpt from some notes Bill wrote that conveys the atmosphere of The Process which is scheduled for release very soon:

NEW TERRITORY: The dark secrets of production, sound enhancement and psychomagic…
recombinant energy, sound collage, fusion, hybrid sound clash, simulacra and simulation. With the juxtaposition of recorded music / sound…the results are infinity…there is no exact or perfect statement…no absolute, no finished product, no flawless design nor finite creation…It's all version, timeless, endless…experience, evolution, illumination… Nothing is true, everything is permitted.


We stopped at a small roadside hamlet called Boufekrane on the way to Azrou.  The bustle of hawkers milling about selling all kinds of small cheap products and snacks as Adam, Austin and I sat at an outside table right by the road sipping mint tea.  The smell of meat being cooked on open grills, also outside beside the road, permeates the air.  Austin mentioned that his Grandfather had just passed.  I let him know that I could be of assistance if necessary.  He seemed to be making an effort to be stoic about it.

We arrived at the hotel in Azrou in the early afternoon and enjoyed a delicious lunch.  The mountain air was significantly colder here.  The lobby was nice and toasty with a fire blazing as laptops and smart phones came out, people connecting to the World catching up with their communications. The hotel room, however, was ice cold.   When I complained, a janitor came up, determined that the radiator wasn't working then set me up with a space heater.  I set up the Pro Tools rig in the room and did some file management before taking a late afternoon stroll down the hill into town noting landmarks so as to not get lost.  Most of the other Americans went out shopping, picking up beautiful Morrocan rugs, handcrafts and clothes.

Two journalists on assignment from the Smithsonian magazine joined us in Azrou to begin research for a feature article on the documentary.  Sam Jones is a young, freelance photographer, American born, but currently living in East Africa.  He was very interested in the musical aspects of the film as well as music in general.  He was a fan of Bill's music and asked me a lot of questions in the evening as we walked back into town looking for somewhere to eat.  Nothing in the way of food looked good, so we retreated back to the hotel and joined some of the crew for a meal in the dining room - the two Asmas, Yakout, Thomas, Austin, and a new assistant camera man flown in from Germany to help with some technical issues they were having with one of the very expensive cameras.  A little later we were joined by the print journalist from the Smithsonian, an older, respected fellow whose name currently escapes me.

I stayed up until 3:30 am working.  Tried to do some writing. but only managed one line:
"The dogs are howling at midnight in Azrou, Morocco."  And they did howl for several hours.  The whole atmosphere, with the decrepit, freezing, hotel room ( I wrapped myself in blankets from both beds staying close to the space heater), the moonless, pitch black night and the incessantly crying dogs, felt like some umentionable horror out of a H.P. Lovecraft story.

12/22/13
Azrou, Morocco

Got up at 6:30 am and felt great despite only a few hours rest.  Had a very short, very cold shower.  Instantly wide awake.  After breakfast we drove for about 45 minutes out of town stopping at the base of a small mountain where two tents were set up for an afternoon wedding. Started setting up Pro Tools and placing mics while Mustapha took the 2 track recorder and boom mic up near the top of the mountain where a few primitive stone huts established human domain on the mountainside.  They were completely bare inside; I had no idea what they were used for when not celebrating a wedding.  The first day's shooting would be in this area.

This small mountain was more of a large hill, certainly much bigger than a molehill.  It was virtually treeless, carpeted with brownish-green grass amongst bare patches of dirt and stone.  A few goats grazed nearby unfazed by all the human activity.  The temperature was on the cool side made cooler by the wind, but it was a sunny day and felt warm when the wind temporarily died down.  A small stream trickled languidly down near where I was setting up the recording area in the open corridor made by the two large tents facing each other.  I was told the musicians would play in this area, but this turned out to be someone's guess rather than accurate information.  I guess there were about 40 - 50 people in attendance by the end not including the film crew which added another 20 or so. 

I was about one third set up with the multi-track when I heard my name summoned by Adam from the top of the hill.  I misheard urgency in the tone and dashed up the hill as fast as possible feeling winded when I got there.  He asked what the rush was?  I laughed to myself.  I guess it was deemed that I should record the first interview with the father and the groom.  It was another hurry up and wait situation, but I didn't mind.  It was a beautiful day here in the mid Atlas range.  I spied Jay seated in a classic meditation pose looking like Buddha director.  He was in a much mellower frame of mind than on previous days, still intense and focused, but a few degrees more relaxed.  The first thing he said to me was, "I guess I'm stuck with you now, Oz," friendly, half-joking.  I replied, "We're stuck with each other," and laughed.

The only thing I remember about the first interview which was in Arabic, was the father passing a bendir drum to his son.  It was explained that by doing so, he was passing on his musical legacy.  Also a nearby goat started to get in on the action "Maaa -ing" loudly once or twice a minute.  After the interview I left them with Mustapha in audio control and went down the hill to continue setting up.  When that was done, I went back up and recorded about 20 woman packed into one of the stone huts chanting loudly and energetically.

The primary music was a troupe of about 14 bendir drummers who also chanted.   The rhythm and singing cycles were repetitive with little variation.  It wasn't what you normally think of as music, no melody to speak of, more like using the repetition of visceral sound - the loud booming drums to carry the baraka of whatever blessings or invocations were being given by the chants.  Unfortunately, they played about 20 feet away from where I had the mics set-up, but it still got picked up.  Fortunately, the wind co-operated.  After 40 minutes or so, they stopped, moved through the corridor by the tents and played even further out in the field on the far side.  The sound was even more distant on the recording so we set Adam up with the 2 track and he recorded inside the circle they now made as they drummed, chanted, and danced around.  I don't have any background on the music, but guess it was from one or another Sufi tradition.

12/23/13
Azrou, Morocco

Today is a travel day, we have a seven hour drive ahead of us south through the High Atlas mountains to the city of M'gouna.  We are promised that it will be warmer down south.

We ate lunch in what looked like a small castle turned into a hotel and restaurant on the edge of a city called Errachidia famous for its wedding festival in September, a nonstop 30 days of wedding celebrations.  Across the road from the castle were two good sized stores selling precious stones.  I picked up a chondrite meteorite and had the proprietor show me on a map where they collected it from. It was near the town, Missour.  Later, as we're about to get back on the road, a boy comes around hawking stones from the rival store.  I get another, larger chondrite for about half the price.  Meteorites have a stronger effect on me than any other stone.

Errachidia seems like the last outpost before going deep into the High Atlas.  Before too long the scenery became very strange giving a surreal feeling like being on another planet.  It seemed there was a purplish tinge now to the surrounding hills and mountains.  It's nothing like any landscape I've seen before and difficult to describe from memory.  It felt like what I imagined Venus would look like if Venus had mountains.  I suspect the light and the air contributed to the surrealness of it all.  At one point Jay exclaimed into the silent bus, " I am the most powerful man in the world!" which on the surface sounds egotistical, but as he said that  I was having an expansive moment and knew exactly where he was coming from.  That's the feeling the High Atlas gave you, of being on top of the world.  His comment also reminded me of Leonardo Dicaprio shouting, "I'm the king of the world" from the stern of the Titanic which Director Jim Cameron got in trouble for when he quoted it at the Academy awards.  Of course, if you continue the metaphor, the Titanic ran into a massive iceberg because it was too huge and going too fast to turn in time.  Water usually represents emotions in Hermetic symbolism so an icerberg would be frozen emotions, a cold heart.  The iceberg in the film world would be those who control the purse-strings like the whole Hollywood film  establishment who halted Jodorowsky's Dune in it's tracks by not funding it.  Not to be too cynical, but the rare times I feel this way I always expect an iceberg in my future, but knowing that helps you not hit it and sink.  You just turn and go a different direction before getting too close.

Before too long we started descending into a huge canyon, very dramatic dark reddish rock formations stretched out in the distance.  By coincidence, a friend sent me a photo card with a very similar look that I saw when I got back home.  We stopped and did some filming before going down into it.  A vendor was set up on the roadside selling cheap metal trinkets and jewelry.  Seloua picked up what looked like a small Alladin's lamp and said, "This is magic.  You rub it 3 times on your wrist then make a wish and it will come true."  So I picked it up, a small souvenir of Morocco's magic.  I haven't tried it yet.  We also stopped and filmed as the sun was sinking low over a broad flat plain with mountain peaks in the distance.  The temptation was to stop and do a lot more filming on the way.  As it was, Austin captured lots of footage on the C300 as we rolled down the road.

Seloua gives us some brief history of the area when we're pretty far south close to the destination:
The towns of Ouarzazate (pronounced "war za za tay") and Goulmime are the two Moroccan doors to the great Sahara desert, called the gates of the Sahara.  Ouarzazate is a popular film location - Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Mummy, Game of Thrones season 3, were some of the projects shot there.  We pass through the town of Goulmima - the female version of Goulmime.  On the outskirts of Goulmime, at dusk four Berber woman sit in a semicircle cross-legged Indian style looking like they are meditating or as if they are Guardians of the World, what Gurdjieff call the  "All-Quarter-Maintainers."

12/24/13
M'gouna, Morocco

The hotel is terrible, no heat, no hot water and the toilet doesn't work.  We were going to stay two nights, but fortunately decide to go back to Ourzazate after today's shoot and stay in a good hotel. Today's location is adjacent to an ancient area of M'gouna called Itrane.  The production trucks park beside Kasbah Itrane.  The old area is down a hill which is where the initial filming takes place.  It's largely abandoned brown clay buildings are replete with strange corridors and passageways. and a sense of timelessness.  A bardo space, for sure.


It was far more dramatic than this photo shows, it's not from our trip, but gives some idea.

Today's music was to celebrate a naming ceremony for an eight day old baby.  Started recording some morning birds when we first arrived then gathered ambience when we descended into the ancient ruins to scout and block the first scenes.  Then left Mustapha with the two track while I set up the multitrack and microphones outdoors right beside the Kasbah.  The performers would be drumming, chanting and dancing on two large carpets.  It would turn out to be eight woman and eight men garbed in traditional costume.  The drums were large resonant tambourines with only a few cymbals.  The chanting was call and response.

At lunch Mustapha told me of his life growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp on the West Bank. He found his creativity in a theater group started by a famous Israeli actor who was half Palestinian and who gave up his lucrative career to start this group for the Palestinians which generated much productive goodwill until it got wiped out when the military undertook a police action, or whatever you want to call it.  He said in Palestine you get three kinds of justice, Israeli, Palestinian,  and street.  He told some other stories and talked about his family, a very poignant eye-witness account of political oppression that you never hear about in the media.  Despite growing up under such harsh circumstances he didn't seem at all bitter or hateful.  His way of protest is creatively through his art ie his film making.  I suspect that actor saved his life by getting him into theater.  Though Mustapha is an up and coming Director with at least one film under his belt, his attitude was that he was here to learn and help out, always professional.

The recording went smoothly.  We captured some extra drum samples after the main performance which had some very vigorous dancing, each member taking a solo in the center of the circle.  While I packed up, Mustapha took the two track to record the last music scene of the day.  It was in one of the rooms in the Kasbah.  After the gear was packed I went to find them.  It was about 8pm and dark now.  A group of 8 women were seated in a semicircle on rugs and embroidered pillows singing a hushed lullabye to the baby being held by the mother in the center.  The baby's name is Asma.  Mustapha was stretched out on the rug holding the recorder as close as possible without getting in the frame.  It was the evening of December 24th, Christmas Eve to many in the West, but just another day to the Muslim world.  Yet, this was the most natural, most real nativity scene I had ever experienced, completely free of religious pretense, just the reality of a new life being welcomed into the world - a very touching moment.






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