Friday, April 27, 2012

Recording the Master Musicians of Jajouka part 2

Welcome, dear partridge -- how you strut with pride
Along the slopes of wisdom’s mountain-side;
Let laughter ring out where your feet have trod,
Then strike with all your strength the door of God;
Destroy the mountain of the Self, and here,
From ruined rocks a camel will appear;
Beside its new-born noble hooves, a stream
Of honey mingled with white milk will gleam --
Drive on this beast and at your journey’s end
Saleh will greet you as a long-lost friend.
Rare falcon, welcome! How long will you be
So fiercely jealous of your liberty?
Your lure is love, and when the jess is tied,
Submit, and be for ever satisfied.
Give up the intellect for love and see
In one brief moment all eternity;
Break nature’s frame, be resolute and brave,
Then rest at peace in Unity’s black cave.

 - The Conference of the Birds

Riding with Bill Laswell in a black limousine to Narita airport outside Tokyo after my first visit to Japan, I thought things can't get any better than this.  It had been an eventful trip from the very start.  After the 14 hour flight from New York we got a car that took us on a 2 hour drive to a suburb on the far side of Tokyo which deposited us at a hotel that hosted a recording studio in the basement and went immediately into a session with a Jamaican dancehall rapper named Cutty Ranks.  Bill arranged to record him for Material's The Third Power cd because he happened to be there for a nearby reggae festival scheduled to begin the next day.  The session turned out short and sweet, Cutty was on point and on fire, recording his rap and some ad libs 3 or 4 times on different tracks for it to be edited and compiled back in New York.  He was a real pro with no attitude.  I could even understand his thick patois most of the time.  We had some time the next day before embarking to Bill's Tokyo headquarters, The Tokyu Prince Hotel in the Roppongi district, so we decided to see if we could get in the festival.  We hoped to not have to purchase a pass because we could only stay for a couple of hours so Bill told the attendant at the front gate that he was a music producer and a friend of Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records - the one person most responsible for introducing reggae music, Bob Marley in particular, to the world.  To my astonishment, the wise young gatekeeper accepted Bill's (true) story at face value and let us in without paying.  The sound system there had some of the loudest, cleanest, and tightest bass response that I've heard in a concert setting to this day.

That was just the first day.  The whole 3 weeks or so touring and recording with the two bands Bill had assembled, The Ginger Baker Band, and Bill Laswell's Drop Zone turned out equally exciting, enrichening and musically enlightening.  It was on that trip that I met Toshinori Kondo who remains an inspiring friend to this day.  Also met Akira Sakata, one of Japan's premeire free jazz alto sax players who would later hire me for The Flying Mijinko tour of Central Asia and Mongolia.  So how could things get any better, I thought?  At that point Bill turned to me and said, "Billy is not going to make the Jajouka trip, how would you like to engineer it?"  Of course, I immediately said yes without showing any of the fear that I might be getting myself into something over my head.

The job of recording the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Jajouka meant assembling an entire field recording complement including a generator to provide electricity.  The village itself had no electricity, running water or any kind of modern convenience.  It didn't even have a proper road going to it.  I had never been involved in a such an undertaking.  Fortunately for me, Billy Yodelman had already drawn up a detailed list of requirements.  He was an old hand at this.  He was also very friendly and helpful with any questions I had.  We spoke at length on the phone.  I felt lucky to be mentored into this by a real pro.  

The tape recorder we brought was an Akai digital 12 track device that recorded onto Hi 8 video cassettes.  At the time, it was the world's only reasonably portable digital multitrack recorder.  The Alesis ADAT was still a few years away.  I'm known as an old school analog recording engineer, and I still find analog recordings to have a superior audio quality when properly set up in a controlled studio environment, but if we hadn't gone digital in Jajouka it never would have turned out as good.  Good analog recordings need to utilize the maximum headroom available to sound their best which means having a clear grasp of the instrument's dynamic range in order to record at the highest level without overloading.  Recording musicians, many of whom being introduced to a microphone for the first time, doesn't lend itself to this very well.  Recording digitally means it's not as crucial to push the level.  You can record at a lower level to allow for a greater dynamic range and any unexpected signal peaks without distortion, and without incurring excessive analog tape hiss.  In other words, the extended signal to noise ratio of a digital recording allows for a greater and cleaner dynamic range.  Of course, you audio professionals know that already.

Apart from getting all the technical details together, I did my best to research the history of the Master Musicians and the scene around them.  I found out that writer Paul Bowles was the one most responsible for bringing  wider attention to them.  He brought Brion Gysin to a festival in 1951 where they both heard them for the first time.  Gysin became so taken with the music that he opened a restaurant in Tangier called A Thousand and One Nights for the express purpose of providing a venue for them to play every night.

A surprise awaited us at JFK airport on our way to Morocco in the presence of Brian Cullman, a freelance journalist/musician on assignment for Details magazine.  It surprised us because he hadn't been invited.  It turns out Nicky may have said something that could have been construed as an invitation though he denied actually telling Cullman that he was welcome to join us.  But that's how Brian found out what flight we were on. Bill magnanimously welcomed him to join our group.  I knew Cullman from having worked with his group O.K. Savant.  He told us that he had tried to go to Jajouka years ago on his own and traveled to the region but couldn't find his way to the village.  The only way to get there is to have someone who lives there or has lived there show you the way.

We flew overnight into Casablanca arriving early in the morning then caught a connecting flight to Tangier.  Bachir Attar and his wife at the time, Cherie Nutting, met us at the airport.  They expedited our passage through Customs by speaking to one of the Officials.  Otherwise, it seemed like it might take us hours to get through.  For some reason, one of the Customs Agents already had copied an old Japanese entry stamp of Bill's, and he must have had 70 - 80 of them in his passport at that point.  We got in ok but they refused to release our equipment which had been previously shipped over.  Tracy McNight, who helmed the Material office in New York, and Nicky had made countless visits to the Moroccan Embassy spending hours making sure all the visas and paperwork was right but that made absolutely no difference to the Customs Officials.  The Moroccan Embassy in New York might have been on a different planet for all they cared.  I don't remember what reason they gave but they did give us the address to a local office to go to that turned out to be the first a bureaucratic labyrinth.  Elated to have made it to Morocco, we didn't care, it seemed like just a few more hoops to have to jump through and we had a few days in Tangier before trekking to Jajouka.

Caught a couple of cabs, went to the El Minzah hotel and checked in.  Met up with Bernard Zakri, a daredevil freelance journalist and old friend of Bill's along with Jack Massadian publisher of the French magazine Le Actuel. They had organized a film crew to document the recording under the direction of Francois Bergeron.  Bernard also intended to research and write a piece on the hashish industry in Morocco, a rather dangerous undertaking so they said, not so much from the people in the industry but from the government who allegedly covertly allowed it but certainly discouraged any publicity.  This was also the first time I met with Jean Touitou, (pronounced "twee-too") owner of the French APC designer label, enthusiastic amateur music producer, and another old friend of Bill's.  He had a video camera with him and soon took on the role as "the maker of the making of the film," meaning that he filmed the documentary crew filming us.  Touitou himself was later immortalized in film when Sofia Coppola made a picture about their friendship in Japan called Lost In Translation.  Actor Bill Murray played Touitou's part in the film.

After checking in, we went for a walk down the steep stairways and streets through the Tangier open air market to the beach where I had a small meal of couscous, and heavily sugared mint tea, a Moroccan specialty.  As we sat at the restaurant, a seemingly endless procession of children approached our table trying to sell us cigarettes or handcrafted clothing.  They cajoled and pleaded with us to make a purchase greatly reducing their initial asking price in the course of making the pitch.  They left without too much fuss after it became clear we had no interest.  I was told that in other parts of North Africa the peddlers sell much more aggressively. 

After eating, we walked up the hill toward the area they call the Kasbah built on the highest part of Tangier and the location of what once served as the Sultan's Palace in the 17th Century but has since been turned into a museum.  We stopped and browsed at various shops.  I picked up a pair of ceramic bongos and a white djellaba, a long traditional hooded robe that serves as the threads of choice for the locals.  After returning to the hotel, I cleaned up then went out alone with my video camera for a second excursion.  Immediately after stepping outside I discovered myself tailed by an older Moroccan boy who hailed me in about five different languages, French, Spanish, Dutch, Arabic until he realized I understood English.  He clearly wished to be my guide.  I initially said no, but he made some useful navigating suggestions so I hired him on.  He introduced himself as Abdul, took me around the open market, then up into the Medina eventually making our way to the Kasbah.  I soon became quite glad for Abdul's guidance as the streets in the older section appeared incredibly maze-like and would be easy to get thoroughly lost in for anyone unfamiliar with the turf.  The view just outside the Kasbah courtyard is magnificent and stunning.  High on the hill, it looks out over the Strait of Gilbraltar where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea.  I breathed deeply and drank in the watery expanse.  You could see Spain across the way.

The streets of the Medina were copiously lined with vendors selling beautiful handmade items of all kinds.  Haggling and bartering were the accepted means for transacting a purchase.  One man was selling pieces of baked sesame seed pie for a dirham each, roughly equivalent to 15 cents.  The water sellers in the Medina looked like Tibetan natives in their colorful costumes selling drinks of water out of animal pouches.  Abdul insisted that I go with him to what he called the Berber Art School, a four story store specializing in beautifully hand-woven Moroccan rugs.  This vendor had probably the best sales rap I've yet encountered which included taking me up to the roof that showed a bird's eye view of the Kasbah area, sharpening my senses with some exquisitely fine hash, and serving mint tea before showing me about a dozen of the psychedically stimulating rugs.  By the time he was through I felt obligated to buy something, but had no intention of spending a couple of hundred dollars on a rug even though they now looked like flying carpets. So I picked up a black djellaba. At night a couple of times in Tangier, I would don the black djellba thus disguising my foreigner presence and head out, making my way to the twisting, winding streets and alleyways around the Kasbah, learning how to negotiate that maze without a guide.  I got lost a couple of times, but only temporarily.

Another day, on my way out the door to explore the city some more I noticed Brian Cullman in the lobby reading a book about North Africa.  I asked him if he was going out?  He replied that he preferred to stay in and read.  Since we were in North Africa, I wondered why he opted to read about it when he could just step outside and experience it firsthand?

Getting the equipment through Customs proved quite a challenge.  Some days were spent going from one government agency to another to no avail. Waiting outside one of these offices, I chanced to look up and noticed a flock of birds, I don't know what kind, moving about here and there in no pattern I could discern as if dancing across the sky.  What grabbed my attention was that they always moved together as a group no matter how apparently erratic they shifted direction, they always stayed together.  It reminded me of an esoteric mystery School staying together through various convoluted maneuvers to penetrate the Unknown.  The first time I visited E.J. Gold's school in California for a workshop, following up on a suggestion from Robert Anton Wilson, he repeatedly emphasized the usefulness of forming small autonomous groups as a life strategy for working and helping each other out in our spiritual aims and encouraged us to stay in touch and form such groups when we returned home.  Not long after I got back to New York I attended a lecture by Dr. Timothy Leary who emphasized the exact same points about group work providing confirmation to me.  I found that groups formed through online courses that I took from the Maybe Logic Academy equally effective.  In bardo training circles these groups are known as "the pack of green"  because in some of the computer video games where groups have shared online adventures known as bardo safaris, when you click on a map, all the participating individuals show up as green blobs of pixels.  Back in Tangier, I stared entranced at these birds seemingly telepathically connected in their navigation.  The coincidence I had regarding this came a couple of months later when I went to Paris to mix the Jajouka documentary soundtrack.  Upon first entering the studio, someone brought me to a film editing suite, I had yet to see any of the footage.  The first thing I saw on the screen was a flock of birds doing the exact same kind of dance, always staying together.  The filmmaker had chosen this to accompany the flute piece from the record, which is my favorite.

One evening in Tangier was arranged to have dinner with Paul Bowles probably most well-known for his book, The Sheltering Sky.  I wrote about that night here.

After awhile it seemed our equipment would stay dry-docked in the Customs bay, and the Master Musicians of Jajouka would once again fail to get an accurate, high-quality document of their music.  Time to call in a heavy hitter.  Princess Lalla Fatima Zohra was the sister of the King of Morocco and sympathetic to their cause.  She was contacted and told of the situation.  Within a day our equipment cleared customs and we were ready to go.  Bachir told us that this happened to everyone who had brought equipment in to record them - getting blocked by Customs until the Princess stepped in.  I wondered why, if it happened every time, they didn't go to her in the first place?  Maybe this was the protocol and had to get done this way?

Stay tuned for more...

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