Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Recording the Master Musicians of Jajouka part I

I first heard about Jajouka at the age of 12 from my friend and initiator into many of music's mysteries, Steve Spalding. These musicians from Jajouka, Morocco couldn't be recorded, so the story went. Their music was so powerfully magical that it defied accurate documentation. Brion Gysin often spoke of the legend that said if the Master Musicians of Jajouka ever stopped playing, the world would end. They were the Royal Musicians at the court of the Sultan apparently from the 14th Century until 1912 when the Europeans moved into Morocco.

Bachir Attar who inherited the leadership of the group from his father, El Hadj Abdesalam el Attar, may have been descended from the Sufi saint Farid ad-Din Attar who penned the classic, Conference of the Birds. Little evidence supports this except that the poet Attar likely traveled in the region and they have the same name. I found enough similarities between this Sufi poetry and Jajouka's music that I brought a copy for Bachir to sign which he was glad to do.  Also had an interesting coincidence with birds which I'll relate in due course.

From a translation by Afham Darbandi and Dick Davis

The Conference of the Birds, as in a great deal of sufi poetry, the
true idol to be destroyed is the Self. Of especial significance is Attar’s use of the imagery
of fire to indicate religious exaltation; pre-Islamic Iran had been Zoroastrian, and the
Zoroastrians worshipped fire; the “fire-worshippers” of Persian mystical poetry are yet
another symbol for an antinomian religious fervour scandalous to the orthodox. In the
same way Persian poets, including Attar, use the intoxication induced by wine -- forbidden
to Moslems -- as a metaphor for the “forbidden” intoxications of mysticism.

The Master Musicians used intoxication brought upon by their music to temporarily bypass the normal everyday self.  It can induce a trance though I find this a poor choice of words because the word trance implies loss of volition and conscious awareness.  That kind of trance can and does occur with their music sometimes but you also can have a trance state with awareness still fully operational yet far removed from the regular ego and personality.  This kind of trance I would call an induction.   The Conference of the Birds starts out:

 Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide;
It was on you King Solomon relied
To carry secret messages between
His court and distant Sheba’s lovely queen.
He knew your language and you knew his heart --
As his close confidant you learnt the art
Of holding demons captive underground,
And for these valiant exploits you were crowned.
And you are welcome, finch! Rise up and play
Those liquid notes that steal men’s hearts away;

Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones went to Jajouka in 1969 with Brion Gysin and made a recording credited in some circles as being the first instance of what now is known as World Music. When Jones mixed the tracks back in London he attempted to recreate the sound he heard in his head, however chemically altered that may have been, and thus processed it heavily with phasing effects which produced a further swirling psychedelic effect on what already sounds like psychedelic music.   It ended up as a product of the recording studio not an accurate, transparent document of their music. Ornette Coleman brought a crew there in 1973 and made some recordings releasing one cut that year on his album Dancing In Your Head. The recording sounded ok but also included Ornette playing sax and music writer Robert Palmer playing clarinet over it. It also only featured one style of their sound which has at least 4 distinct variations with completely different instrumentation.

Coleman fueled the legend of their magic with a story about a large sum of cash he brought to Jajouka for their payment.  Concerned about it getting stolen, he placed the satchel with the cash underneath his pillow when he went to sleep.  He awoke the next morning to find it gone with no idea of how it had been taken.  As soon as he stepped out into the common area courtyard he saw the satchel on the ground in the middle of it with all the money intact.  A few of the elders sat around the square chuckling at him as he went to pick it up.

Sometime in the late 80's, based on the Brian Jones connection, the musicians leader, Bachir Attar approached the Rolling Stones camp basically looking for work.  Jagger and Richards were receptive and went to Morocco in 1989 recording the Master Musicians for 3 days in Tangier for the track Continental Drift which opens their Steel Wheels album.  They also used a recording of the Jajoukan music to introduce their set on the subsequent Steel Wheels tour.

Still, the Master Musicians of Jajouka were in search of someone to help make a full-fledged accurate documentation of their music.  Enter Bill Laswell.  Not sure how they first made contact, it may have been through Jagger whom Bill knew from having produced half of his solo album a few years prior.  At that time Bill had a record label called Axiom which existed as an imprint at the Island Records under the auspices of Chris Blackwell.  He quickly agreed to assign a budget for recording the Master Musicians and started organizing the project sometime in 1990 I believe.  Usually each record on Axiom had a modest (in those days) budget of $50k.  Bill realized that the Moroccans needed help, so along with his partner in crime, Nicky Skopelitis, devised a plan to make the recording as inexpensively as possible so that the balance of the budget could go to Jajouka as their fee.  It seems they pulled off the album for the miraculously low cost of $15k allowing Jajouka to receive the $35k balance which was a huge sum for them, enough to sustain the entire village for a year.  That meant that Bill and possibly Nicky as well would have waived any fee for themselves taking on the project solely for the sake of the music and to help out the village.

The initial plan involved hiring veteran engineer Billy Youdelman to assemble a portable recording set-up and go to Jajouka to record the Master Musicians in their home environment.  He got his start recording World Music accompanying Mick Fleetwood to Africa sometime in the '70's.  Laswell and Youdelman had already worked together on a couple of field recordings for Axiom - an album of Moroccan gnawa music and one of griot music from West Africa.  To my great delight I was asked to join the project and travel to Jajouka to assist Youdelman.

To be continued ...


  1. Incredible story. I've played the CD Jajouka Black Eyes, recorded in Nov, 1994, "recorded and produced by Frank Rynne" many times over the years. It's guaranteed trance-inducing for me. What recording by them is essential, in your eyes?

    "I see ice between two mountains,
    It makes the men and women crazy"

    Was it WSB who called them a "stone age rock band"?

    I look fwd to Part 2.

  2. Thanks. I'm partial to the recording we made called "Apocalypse Across the Sky."

    Burroughs called them a 4,000 Year Old Rock n Roll band based on the history of their Boujeloud ritual

  3. Paul Bowles and Bill's music collided to allow me to 'discover' their music. Not just because I'm a fan, or work for Bill, but of the 6 or 7 recordings of the MM of J that I have (whichever combinations/groups they may be notwithstanding), I don't see how anyone could argue that the Axiom release isn't the purest and best recording out there.

  4. i agree Apocalypse is my favourite too. It was powerful enough to make me want to go to Morocco and visit.