Tuesday, January 28, 2014


This continues the story of recording in Morroco. The first installment is HERE.

Gnawa music is a rich repertoire of ancient African Islamic spiritual religious songs and rhythms. Its well preserved heritage combines ritual poetry with traditional music and dancing. The music is performed at 'Lila's', entire communal nights of celebration, dedicated to prayer and healing, guided by the Gnawa M'aalem (master) and his group of musicians and dancers.

Here's a more inside and nuanced, less white-washed view, a quote I found in Traveling Spirit Masters by Deborah Kapchan:

The Gnawa call themselves people of the khla, the hidden part of creation where the genies reign.  They are in fact and in essence marginals playing the game of the strange stranger ( in the double sense that is contained in the Arabic term gharib).  Gatekeepers of a counter world, the Gnawa move in the night and on the limits of the licit.  Marked by a fundamental ambiguity, they are transgressors who can handle blood with impunity and can control the most dangerous of forces.  Embodying a "troubling strangeness," these descendants of black slaves see themselves as invested with the most powerful supernatural powers. (Hell 1999a: 160)

The first series of scenes we filmed in Essaouira concerned a Gnawa music ritual to heal a young girl of about 14.  It was never clear to me what she was being healed from, whether it was something physical, psychological, or something else.  In a way, it's beside the point because the ritual became a powerful healing force for a lot of things.  There were two days shooting Gnawa, much of it with M'allem Mahmoud Ghania and his wife Malika.  The first day saw a preparatory ritual involving the sacrifice of a goat.  The second day was the Lila (lee-la).

Before telling the full story I have to say that the night of the Lila was one of the strongest experiences of both music and magick I've ever had ... by far.  I was given a laptop computer that had an illegal, pirated copy of Pro Tools ( our music recording software) on it that wouldn't work with our hardware. Even after it was uninstalled, the computer wouldn't recognize legitimate Pro Tools software brought from New York.  Coincidentally, we got the program to work with a different PT version shortly after the Gnawa music started.  Immediately, like within 30 seconds after they stopped playing and I saved, the program crashed.  It had worked for exactly the five hours they played, and the hour they warmed up.  I was able to open, verify, and make sure the audio files were all there the next morning.  I thought the laptop would continue to work even though it acted quirky.  The following morning in  Marrakech, Pro Tools wouldn't open.  It never worked again on that computer.  It had functioned only one time, to record the Gnawa music.

My bias should get restated. One primary purpose of magick aims to alleviate and ameliorate death in all its forms.  The way to do that involves simulating death and experiencing it.  This has been illustrated here in past blogs.  This aspect of magick can be called bardo training.  Powerful magick = intense bardo training.  The word bardo comes via Tibetan Buddhism to designate the space personal consciousness enters after death and before rebirth.  The meta-programming level of multiple choice-points.  Powerful music or powerful magick, synonymous at times, can access this space.  Death doesn't have to mean physical death but the training will apply when the time comes.  Psychological death, ego death, personality death all kinds of metaphorical deaths can place awareness front and center in the bardo.  Bardo spaces can get recorded and electronically transmitted, but appreciation of such remains in the eye and ear of the beholder.

Kapchan's quote from the previous post about the value of musical trance:

Possession requires an alchemical reaction, a transmission of subtle and dense matter as two different substances encounter and change each other.

also directly relates to bardo training.

From one of our guiding spirits:

Just as the Old World mariners suddenly glimpsed a round Earth to be circumnavigated and mapped, so awakened pilgrims catch hungry flashes of vast areas beyond Death to be created and discovered and charted, open to anyone ready to take a step into the unknown, a step as drastic and irretrievable as the transition from water to land.  That step is from word into silence.  From Time into Space.

The Pilgrimage to the Western Lands has started, the voyage through the Land of the Dead. Waves of exhilaration sweep the planet, awash in seas of silence.  There is hope and purpose in these faces, and total alertness, for this is the most dangerous of all roads, for every pilgrim must meet and overcome their own death.

- The Western Lands, William S. Burroughs

Dec. 10  Essaouira,  Morocco

The call was early, 7am, a light breakfast was served, hot fried bread pockets similar to Indian chapatis, butter and jam or fresh olive oil. The coffee was strong similar to pugent Turkish or Lebanese coffee.  I had a cup, which I don't normally do and got into this very exhilarated mood as we walked down the narrow streets and corridors of the medina to the bus and the first location.  I looked up, the sky seemed open to anything, vast, clear and expansive like the sky over the desert.  Seagulls periodically crying echoed off the stone walls above the rhythmic murmur of the softly lapping ocean.  No sounds of traffic.  Fragments of conversation:  segments of Star Wars were filmed in Essaouira.  There was a Yoda sighting, someone with the right stature wearing a similar djellaba.  The Force was here.

We walked about 10 minutes to the first location.  More of the crew turns up.  Earlier I had met Adil Abdelwahad, the First Assistant Director who seemed the crew chief, the main organizer.  He had worked on many top productions, the one most known to me being The Last Temptation of Christ with Martin Scorcese.  Later Adil would switch roles and make his acting debut playing a contemporary Boujeloud, the Pan-like deity that that the Master Musicians of Jajouka manifest with their music.

Everything filmed in Essaouira dealt with the Gnawa healing ritual which would culminate with the Lila the next night.  The first scene was going to be Mahmoud and Malika getting driven in a cab to a market about 30 minutes out of town where they would buy a goat for the a prepatory ritual.  In the taxi they would talk about Gnawa music and the healing ceremony.

The shotgun seat of the cab had been removed and replaced with a camera brace holding a very expensive looking camera.  My first audio assignment was to record the couple talking in the back of the taxi while  driving to the market, and I wouldn't even ride in the car.  There was no room, the car could only hold the driver, the two in the back and Eric, the DP, who found a way to crouch behind the camera in the front seat.  I definitely wasn't prepared for this.  I placed the recorder with its built in condenser mics as close as possible without getting it into the frame of the shot, and gaff taped it securely down.  I knew the mics would pick up their voices but didn't know how the signal to noise ratio would turn out, ie how much their voices would be heard over the roar of traffic and the automobile.  Fortunately, the traffic doesn't roar in most of Morocco.  They've got lions for that.

We drove to the market having to stop every 15 minutes for something to do with the camera.  The caravan of cars was modest, only 3.  Besides Adil, the new crew members I noticed were additions to the camera department, two Moroccan women both named Asma.  At the market, they both worked in tandem like a technical Tweedledee and Tweedlebright scurrying about doing god knows what, but looking very professional and efficient.  Later, I found out they shared an apartment in Marrakech.

A memorably ironic moment came for me when we were about to shoot Mahmoud and Malika walking through the market.  Dark-haired Asma asked me with some concern, "How are we going to synch up the sound?"  I just thought, here I am in a field in Morocco doing something I've never done before or even prepared for - in charge of production sound for film - and she's asking me how we will synch sound to picture?  I had a little experience in Mali working on the KSK documentary: Music in Mali though the production there was on a much smaller scale.  They always used a slate even when time code was generating to synch up audio and visual.  With a slate and no time code it's easy to line up the audio snap of the slate with the image of it then maybe joggle it a few frames either way to get perfect synch.  So that's what I told Asma, make sure to slate every scene, old school style. I thought it was a given because they always did it in Mali.  It wasn't.  Part of my job turned into making sure there was a slate, and that it could be heard.

That the first scene filmed was a drive in a car has significant Bardo repercussions. It seems axiomatic, or at least experientially highly consistent, that whenever one is in transit some degree of the Bardo environment gets simulated.  To put it more plainly, whenever you travel, whenever in transit, you can recognize the Bardo more easily.  The Bardo space also goes by "the Transit space," or sometimes just "Transit."  You can get the strong flavor of the Bardo by riding a subway in New York going to the very front or back car and looking out over the tracks.  In the Bardo it often feels like you travel very, very, very fast though that slows down with repeated experience and stronger attention ... though sometimes it gets even faster.  In the Bardo you are here to go.

The first scene filmed occurred in transit.  Going to the market to purchase a goat for a sacrificial offering, the ultimate sacrifice of life, which  happened later in the afternoon.  Death seemed a strong background element this first day of live action.  Later, when listening to the car interview to determine if the voices could be heard over the noise, it definitely felt spooky and otherworldly, like a dream.  The constant deep white noise of the car engine, nearly as loud as the Arabic words, and long pauses of just noise and distant sounds, gave me an image of people speaking or trying to connect through a thick fog.  Listening to it strongly reminded me of doing a Bardo reading for someone difficult, but still possible to reach.  However, as far as I know, not many noise reduction plug-ins exist for the Bardo although I can recall one.

The market bustled with activity. A large farmer's market booming with business.  Livestock being carted around by donkeys -  chickens, sheep, and goats.  I made several passes recording the ambience of the market.  Jay said to make sure to get goat sounds then said he wanted to make a symphony of goat sounds in post-production.  Kind of an interesting idea when you consider that we are here to get a goat who will soon die.  Jay also said to make sure to communicate to Bill, this and other ideas he had.  When I told Bill about the goat symphony, he also thought it interesting.  This later evolved into a symphony of birds, giving a far broader musical scope.  I would get up just before dawn and record them at the break of light when their singing seemed at its peak.  A couple of times Bill gave me specific locations to go where he had already heard them.  The bird music was strongest in Essaouira and Marrakech.

A woman at the market who looked like she might be part of the production offered me some kind of pastry bread out of a plastic bag.  "Try it, it's good, Moroccan home baked."  This was Assistant Art Director Nazik Boukmakh.  The bread was dense and fortifying and had a "goodness" to it that reminded of lembas, the Elvish bread from The Lord of the Rings.  It was delicious too!

While setting up a shot at the market I heard Jay urgently call out to Adam for some hand sanitizer.  Concern for keeping his hands clean in the midst of an intense shoot greatly boosted my respect for our Fearless Director.  In Magick in Theory and Practice, Aleister Crowley starts out his chapter on Banishings and Purifications: "Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and had better come first."   Adam had some hand sanitizer in his pack and gave it to him.

We had lunch at a scenic lookout point on a ridge overlooking Essaouira and combined it with some filming.  I didn't realize it at the time, but the caterers who served us would travel everywhere we went even going by mule to Boujeloud's cave outside of Jajouka. They were part of the production, always dressed impeccably in elegant serving attire.  We became great friends. They made healthy food I could eat.

After lunch setting up began at the M'allem's house for a smaller ritual with the girl to be healed. A prelude to tomorrow's Lila.   As soon as we got there, Mahmoud asked about Bill and said he wanted to see him.  More of the crew joined us at this location to set up lights.  Two large equipment trucks were parked down the street.  A goat and a lamb were tethered outside, both of them about to get imminently slaughtered.  I looked into each of their eyes, one at a time, and had a little talk about the adventure they were about to go on.  A little later I noticed Jay crouched down making direct eye contact with the goat, what some Sufis call 'a confront,' and holding it for a bit of time.

I don't believe the animal slaughters got filmed.  Wiping fresh blood from the recently deceased goat on the girl in question did get recorded.  About 6-8 percussionists were there to accompany Mahmoud, everyone in traditional costume.  They prepared by lighting charcoal in large incense censors then using liberal amounts to cense around their instruments and the area they played in.  Thick plumes of incense smoke rose from the floor and crawled up the walls.  It smelled like frankincense to me, pungent with a crisp high tone.  It didn't fill the room just the area where the musicians sat.

The only people I noticed in the small house were film production people, the musicians, the girl, and Malika who seemed to play a hostess role.  The music started after the subject was anointed by the fresh goat's blood.  Mahmoud began a line on the gimbri, the Gnawa 3 string acoustic bass instrument played like a guitar.  The percussionists soon joined him playing large metal castanets known as qraqabs.  It sounded good and strong in that small space, not too overpowering.  The girl stood before them swaying and moving, letting the music take her somewhere else.  It didn't seem long before she fell back and collapsed, caught by Malika.  After taking care of the girl, Malika took her place in front of the musicians and also let the music possess her or let it open a door for something to possess her.  She too, fell back and was caught by another woman who then attended to her.  I have to say that I did question the authenticity of the spirit possession, especially the second time.  After all, the cameras were rolling.  I looked directly at Malika after she fell back to get a read on her state of mind.  The whole ceremony only seemed to last 30 or 40 minutes. This just marked the beginning of the wind up.  It sounded a "doh," the first note of the octave.

That was the day's filming after they wrapped at Mahmoud's.  At the hotel I received a MacBook Pro laptop computer from Adam via Karim.  If it worked then the portable recording studio I had ordered would be complete.  Adam said, "It already has Pro Tools, you might not need to install it."  I immediately brought it to my room along with the 003 interface (the hardware) to see if it would work.  The Pro Tools program on the laptop did open but wouldn't "talk" to the 003.  It only gave me 4 inputs and outputs, I needed 16.  I uninstalled the Pro Tools that was on the laptop and tried to install the version brought from New York.  That's when I started to run into trouble.

The MacBook was set up for the French language.  Instructions to install the program showed up in French on the computer.  Got as far as I could until reaching a prompt I couldn't understand. So I went into System Preferences to change the language, normally an easy switch, but the selection wouldn't stay on English.  First sign that we weren't in Kansas anymore with this box ( reference from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy enters the Bardo, when she realizes all is not normal).  I brought it downstairs to get some help. No one was around, everyone had gone for dinner.  I went to a restaurant next door and asked if anyone could help.  At this point I hoped the issue just had to do with my lack of French.  Someone at the restaurant said they could help then proceeded to do what I had just tried.  It still wouldn't switch to English.  The restaurant fellow got someone else but they also encountered the same issue.  Saw Adam back at the hotel and told him the situation.  He found a back door solution by de-selecting every language except English.  I could now understand the software installation prompts.

Tried to install Pro Tools in English.  It started ok then reached a point giving a prompt that said it couldn't read the Pro Tools install software.  I cleaned the dvd install disc and tried again. No luck... tried a third time, the same. That morning, in a brilliant move, we'd all been given local cell phones.  I called Adam and told him the problem.  He had the number for Dreamhire in New York so I went to the restaurant they were at to get it.  It was there I met Production Assistant Seloua El Gouni who would soon become the Sound Department's best friend, friendly guide, and most valuable player.  She was young, 22, managed a recording studio when not working on films, and was able to get things done.  It was now 11pm.  I'd been working 16 hours and hadn't eaten since lunch.  Too involved with this issue to care about food, but Seloua insisted I order dinner before the kitchen closed and arranged a meal of delicious fresh pasta that fit my diet.  At least the food was good as my life was ending.

Got voicemail at Dreamhire.  Adam tried and did get through to Paul  Oliveira in Tech Support.  Paul told me that I could use the Pro Tools 9 program that had come with the computer and make it talk to the 003 by installing drivers for it which was on the dvd from Dreamhire.  That sounded easy enough.  He also said that the PT8 program from New York should have worked.  After dinner I tried to reinstall the PT9 that was on the Mac.  The program went along merrily until requesting the authorization code from an iLok.  An iLok is a USB device that allows one to download this code from the internet.  I reached Adam and asked for the iLok.  He said that there probably wasn't one.  He said it was probably an illegal "cracked" copy of the Pro Tools software that had come with the computer.  That turned out to be right.  That's as far as I got that night.  Tomorrow I would try a different computer.

Dec. 11

The details of this day became a blur, one of the most challenging and difficult days ever in my experience.  It started on a good note.  Able to get wi fi in the lobby, I checked my messages.  First email I read in Morocco came from Peter Vandengerghe of  Too Noisy Fish informing me that the record of theirs I'd recorded and produced earlier in the year, Fight  Eat Sleep had been named Jazz Album of the Year for 2013 by a magazine called New York Jazz Record.

The call was little little later this morning, 9 am.  Breakfast the same as yesterday.  We went back to Mahmoud's house and taped some interviews.   That went until almost lunch.  The job then became to find a way to record the Gnawa Lila that evening one way or another.

Tried Adam's MacBook Pro computer, it wouldn't even recognize the dvd install disc.  Got another laptop from one of the Asmas.  It also wouldn't read the disc.  Now, it appeared we'd been given a faulty dvd from Dreamhire, though in hindsight I'm not sure that's true.  Later, I tried burning a cd on Adam's computer and the drive also wouldn't recognize the cd.

Next, we tried Dreamhire hoping they could direct us to a Pro Tools download site, but it was too early in New York.  I didn't know it was possible to download Pro Tools from the internet but it seemed logical that this would be possible.  Adam, Seloua and I went into full crisis mode.  Bill, Jay and Karim were also involved.  At one point Bill came downstairs and said it looked like the Nebuchadnezzar in the lobby, referencing the bridge of the spacecraft in The Matrix film.  People furiously typing on laptops, making phone calls, tweeting on twitter for dear life, jacked into the internet searching for a download site that will save our day.  The Matrix seemed an apt comparison.  It was the humans pitted against the machines, and the machines were winning.  The Nebuchadnezzar, led by Morpheus, took its name from the Biblical character who was a king of Babylon around the time Buddha and Plato walked the Earth and who constructed the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  The Akkadian name, Nabû-kudurri-uṣur, means "O god Nabu, preserve/defend my firstborn son"  O god Nabu give me a Pro Tools program that works.

I didn't see Nabu in the vicinity but we did have Facebook.  People sometimes deride social networking, but in this case it came through and really showed its usefulness.  We couldn't find anywhere to download Pro Tools. Contacted a music store in Marrakech to buy it there.  I don't remember what happened with that, apparently a dead end.   Seloua connected with a friend on Facebook after some back and forth trying to discover a Pro Tools download site.  He was able to find a free download for a Pro Tools 10 trial version.  The demo version would work, I only needed it for very basic recording operations, and it would last for 30 days before expiring.  Our shoot was scheduled for 22.

The internet ran slooow, really....really..., really.......slow.  I found out that if you lose a download, you can reconnect and pick up where it left off.   Bill, Jay, and I devised an alternate recording plan if we couldn't get a Pro Tools system up.  It consisted of recording the two most important tracks onto my small Tascam, and using a Zoom 2 track digital recorder for ambience, along with audio inputs into the C300 camera they had brought for B roll footage, the only camera that recorded sound.

While the download was happening, Bill and I went to the space where the Lila would take place to check it out.  It was just down the way, around a corner from the hotel.  It wasn't a mosque but was considered a sacred space of some kind.  A large room at one end of the main space had been set aside for prayer, we couldn't go in there or put anything in it.  Mahmoud and his sister were there having an animated discussion.  Bill filled me in a little on the background of this highly respected Gnawa music family.  Bill also knew and worked with Mahmoud's younger brother, Mokhtar.

Back at the Command Center Post in the hotel lobby Seloua looked distraught.  She had just received news that newlywed friends of hers had been in a fatal car accident.  I spoke with her and suggested something she could to maybe help them.  Everyone was being put through the wringer today.

After we got the Pro Tools 10 file we found out that we still needed an iLok to download an authorization code.  I didn't think we had one. I hadn't ordered it, hadn't anticipated a need for one.   Avid, the company that makes Pro Tools, is ruthless in the battle against piracy and our computer had been in the company of  pirates.  It didn't seem possible to find an iLok in Essaouira.  It was decided that I would go set up all the mics and everything for a multitrack Pro Tools recording except the computer in case we got the program to work.  A vision of some hope soon arrived when Jay showed up waving an iLock at me saying with much gusto, " Oz, is this an iLok?!"  I couldn't believe this, it was an iLock, but for me it was like finding a key to hidden treasure.  On its own initiative, Dreamhire had provided an iLok with some mixing plug-ins

I continued setting up, it was getting late, close to when the Gnawa musicians would start.  I was given an assistant to work with named Allah.  I believe he was related to Karim.  He had some kind of audio experience and turned out to be a big help. He was accompanied by his beautiful European wife who spoke English.  They worked as a team to help me.  I would tell her what I wanted him to do and she would translate it to him if needed, he knew some English. Without them, I wouldn't have had the mics up and cables run in time.

I had been warned by Bill that the mics would have to be inconspicuous when they filmed but didn't realize that Jay and Eric didn't want to see any mics or mic stands at all.  Not being able to position microphones where I wanted definitely created a challenge.  My favorite and most expensive mic, the AKG C24 stereo tube mic couldn't find a suitable place out of frame.  I was at a bit of loss as to where to put it so that it would at least be in the same room as the musicians when Jay pointed to the ceiling above the stage and said "Why don't you  hang it from there."  I asked," how?"  He said, "tell the grips where you want to put it and they'll rig it."  And  by golly they did, exactly where I wanted it, a stereo overhead for the stage.  Grips are magicians, they can rig anything!

 At the hotel lobby, Adam had taken over trying to get a working program up on the pirate computer. He was in constant communication with Paul Oliveira from Dreamhire in New York who was helping direct this rescue operation.  Karim and Seloua had arranged alternate recording equipment to be driven in from Marrakech, 3 hours away.  It wouldn't arrive until 7:30 pm.  We would probably miss recording some of the performance if that turned out to be the solution.   Adam came back with an authorization code on the iLok. The program opened but wouldn't talk to the 003 interface.  I couldn't get any input signal from the mics.  Phone call to New York.  It's getting very loud in the space filling up with people, festive but serious atmosphere; people playing instruments; hard to hear on the phone. Paul says to load the drivers Dreamhire provided.  We discover an issue with the 003, the host light indicator, which means that it's working, won't come on.  Paul tells us to pop the lid off of it and reseat all the ribbon connectors.  Power it back up, and it works!  However, the drivers install into the laptop but won't work with PT 10.  Paul says we have to download different drivers from the internet.  Adam goes back to the hotel to do this.  

Ever since arriving on set to set-up for the Lila ceremony I had used every resource at my disposal to get through this night with a recording.  I wasn't trying to influence or make anything happen.  I didn't resort to prayers or supernatural supplications of any kind.  After all, it's bad luck to be superstitious.  The energy in this space felt charged beyond belief.  I wasn't riding it, at least not yet, more like trying to keep my head above the water and not get overwhelmed.  I completely focused on the present, not allowing random thoughts, concerns or worries to interfere; relying on habits and instincts to guide me through.  Fortunately, I had developed good habits for crisis management.  It's called bardo training.  Everything I'd ever done in the area of mind and body expansion was to prepare for this moment, it seemed.  It was all on the line.

It was getting very close to shooting the first scene with the Gnawa musicians.  They would start with a procession about a half block away form the entrance to the Lila space.  Mahmoud played a large, low, booming drum with mallets.  There were a few of these drums and the metal percussion clappers typical of Gnawa music.  I would record them with the portable Tascam two track.

M'allem Mahmoud Ghania

It was starting.  The narrow street was packed with musicians and people.  The drumming began.  Loud, powerful, booming, somatically shaking, hammering, rattling, all encompassing, tactile, intimate rhythms enveloped the street.  I followed Adil and Eric as they charged into the crowd figuring that if I was behind the camera then I wouldn't be in the frame.  However, I couldn't keep up.  The chaos of the crowd separated  me from them.  I realized that they planned to go through the procession, turn the camera around and shoot the other way, toward me, in which case I would definitely be in the frame.  I ducked into a recessed doorway out of sight and recorded the procession as it ambulated by.  Then a breakthrough. Something happened. It shifted.  I was on top of it, riding the energy now instead of reacting and getting battered by it. Still no Pro Tools, but at that moment I knew that whatever happened, it would work, we would get a recording, it would be a success.  I broke through to a space I index as 'the song remains the same ' because I grew up on Led Zeppelin and Aleister Crowley.  That feeling never left me.

I followed the musicians into the Lila site.  They continued to play moving about the large room.  After a few minutes Adam came up and said, "It's working,  Pro Tools is up," and indeed it was.  Adam had been on the phone with Paul configuring the new drivers, and I wondered how he could possibly hear anything against the loud Gnawa drumming.  Coincidentally, the rig started working very soon after the Gnawa music began.  Rhythms that rang across the night.  I quickly connected the mics, already in place, and began checking the sound through them.  Miraculously, every line worked.  The group took their positions seating themselves in the stage area. and resumed playing, now with Mahmoud playing the gimbri, the Gnawa bass.  This wasn't the official ceremony yet, more like warming up to it.  It wasn't being filmed, so I used it for a sound check.  They played for about a half hour then broke for dinner.

The equipment from Marrakech arrived about 15 minutes after we got Pro Tools running.  Bill asked if I needed it, and I  said no.  He asked if I was sure, and I said yes confidently.  It was sent back.  Though Pro Tools worked, the laptop still acted strange.  The keyboard keys were positioned in French style, slightly different than American 'qwerty' keyboards but the configuration was American making it so that not all of the keys registered correctly from how they read.  When you hit the "q" key it typed "a."  This added to the chaos factor, but I was able to get around it.

The hardest part about recording live Gnawa music is making sure the gimbri is heard over the rattling percussion.  Mahmou's gimbri didn't have a pick-up but a few minutes before starting his son placed a pick-up on the gimbri, nestling it where the strings attached to the bridge then plugged it into a small amplifier.  I quickly set up a DI, a direct line for it.  Most of the time it sounded great but because it wasn't affixed in any way, just resting between the strings and the bridge, and Mahmoud is a vigorous player, it was prone to getting knocked around.  Every once in a while you'd hear these electronic explosions as the pick-up got hit.  I also had a small clip-on dpa condenser mic normally used to record cellos taped to his gimbri.  A lavalier mic was clipped to his collar to pick-up his singing.  I was surprised by how well it sounded.  Jay loved it too when he heard it a couple of days later in Tangier.

My recording booth was in a recessed alcove in the back part of the main room beside the prayer space.  As everything in the room could potentially get in the frame, it was blocked off by a black curtain.  All the participants were told to ignore that man behind the curtain.  They did, to the point where I had to forage for some food which fortunately proved easy.  I went upstairs where the makeshift kitchen was, made the international sign for 'I am starving' and promptly got served fresh lamb, couscous and bread.  That deliciously filled the void.  I noticed a small room on that floor filled with men smoking kif.  Naturally, for an Islamic event, no alcohol appeared to be around.

After dinner the ceremony began.  For most of the 5 hours they played I sat behind the curtain with the recording controls, glued to my headphones.  On the rare instances they stopped playing I would go to the stage area and reposition mics.  I would also stop the Pro Tools recording whenever I could and SAVE.  You only get audio files after they're saved.  As stated above, the recording program crashed soon after the music stopped.  I backed up, packed up with help from Bill and Seloua, and called it one incredible night.

The next morning I opened up the Gnawa session to make sure I hadn't hallucinated the whole thing.  The computer, our pirate computer, was acting funny but the session opened.  The audio files, however, got scattered to 3 different locations.  Normally they all go in a single Audio Files folder inside the session folder but not this time.  Fortunately, after searching around, all the files were found.  Everything was there.  That was the last time Pro Tools would work on that computer.


Two days ago was the first time I got to my studio to go through, check and index all the audio recorded for the film.  Of course, I checked it as much as I could on the trip but it wasn't often possible to monitor Pro Tools in my room.  I listened to the Gnawa procession, the first music of the Lila, recorded outside on the two track before we knew if Pro Tools was going to function.  To my astonishment, I discovered a low frequency audio anomaly happening at about the moment the procession passed by when I was in a recessed doorway.  Low harmonics from the bass drums start taking off, droning and modulating like a strange, but natural effect. It's not distorted, and could be controlled with compression and filtering.  It sounds like rolling thunder, or a very deep non-human voice.  Maybe Nabu finally did show up?  The more mundane explanation probably has to do with recording in that doorway, basically recording inside a bass trap.

Joe the Dead belongs to a select breed of outlaws known as the NOs, natural outlaws dedicated to breaking the so-called natural laws of the universe foisted upon us by physicists, chemists, mathematicians, biologists, and, above all, the monumental fraud of cause and effect, to be replaced by the more pregnant concept of synchronicity.
 - The Western Lands, William S. Burroughs

To be continued...

Friday, January 17, 2014

Group Experiment In Astral Projection

 In the next few days a small group of us will launch an experiment to astral project back to the Library of Alexandria and to the Kennedy assassination in Dallas.  This email explains the genesis of the idea:


In November 1994 I took a trip to Egypt.  When I returned I read a lot of Phil Dick, and the idea occurred to me to form a team of astral projectors to recover the Library at Alexandria and to explore the Kennedy assassination.  I mentioned this at Mike Johnson’s blog a few weeks ago and suggested Oz Fritz would probably prove an asset to such a venture. Mike agreed and said he’d like to tag along.  Step by step we gathered here.  Oz has suggested a few texts to help us.  It occurred to me to use music:  the Bach cello suites for Alexandria (inspired by Mike Johnson’s blog) and Beethoven’s Op. 130/133 for Dallas.

We will see what we will see.

Live long and prosper,

The group has 7 members at the moment, all of them quite familiar with the works of Robert Anton Wilson.  You can count on ample, but balanced skepticism as one parameter.  No one seems an expert astral projector yet the group has already yielded some interesting results.

It inspired this brilliant post-modern assemblage by Steve Fly, Astral Projective Verse: Olson, Ophiel and Sun Ra  The whole piece should get read;  here's a paragraph that stood out for me:

To use the imagination, in tandem with the scientific reasoning faculty of the mind-body-language interface to get out there beyond language. Into telepathy, faster than light, everywhere and nowhere at once, the paradox of time-travel etc etc. Into the paradox, and out through the side door, taking bits and pieces of whatever the individual might think can help them on their journey, on the road of life to discover for themselves what the hell is going on. 


 A message I wrote recommending the book and mentioning remote viewing:


Hi everyone,  


I've never really directly experimented with astral projection per se but have done something very similar. I call it remote viewing, you can target spaces like Alexandria and Dallas and usually get gnosis of one degree or another. The difference for me is that with remote viewing you don't have the same sense of being out of your body. I have astral projected spontaneously with the sensation of consciousness getting completely separated from the body. I'm definitely no expert or even good at astral projecting at will, but joined this experiment to try it more and get better. I'll also use remote viewing which is more like second nature from floating. I have tried some of Crowley's astral projection advice in the tank. 


The Art and Practice of Astral Projection by Ophiel is a book that E.J. Gold recommends on the subject. I'll dig out my copy when I get back. 


 Practical suggestions from Mike Gathers:


I suggest we put some effort into describing the scene we intend to project ourselves into.  What were the smells, the sights, the sounds, the vibe of the place, the culture space-time vibe, etc, etc.   Imagine our experience as unsuspecting bystanders when Kennedy got shot right in front of us.  The shock.  The panic of the crowd.  Or imagine ourselves as an assassin, or some other player "in-the-know."   The rush.  The thrill of a successful kill.  The getaway.  Imagine the experience of multiple perspectives.   What would it be like to be Kennedy.  Did he have any intuitive warnings about the day.  Or Jackie O.  Or the driver.  Oswald himself.  LBJ.   


I can't speak much for my technical skill at projecting my energy body, but I believe if we immerse ourselves into the experience of imagination, we may find the results we are looking for.


Well, there you have it.  I'll be reporting back.



Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Following the Paul Bowles Trail

Got a call last August from Bill Laswell about a recording project in Morocco.  We would go to 10 or 11 different locations and record music for a film to be directed by Jay Bulger, a friend of Bill.  Bulger wrote and directed Beware of Mr. Baker, the superb biopic of drummer Ginger Baker.

The film was to be loosely based on a book by Paul Bowles, Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World, a travelogue that includes accounts of Bowles' recording expeditions throughout Morocco in the 1950s.  The film was initially seen as a continuation of his musical journey, but would turn into much more.  Still, Paul Bowles and his legacy remained an invisible presence throughout the production.

Bowles' had quite a varied and eclectic career as a composer, writer, translator and traveler.  He studied music with Aaron Copeland in Paris and later composed music for plays by Orson Welles' Mercury Theater and for Tennessee Williams.  He translated Jean Paul Sartre's classic existentialist play No Exit into English from French.  Paul Bowles is mostly known today for his novels and short stories largely based on his personal experiences as an expatriate and itinerant traveler.  His literary forte is in describing his environment, not only visually, but sonically as well.  His background in music brought a sharp awareness to the sounds of things which he was easily able to put into words.  The short story collection, A Distant Episode seems an excellent place to jump into his exotic foreign worlds.

The quality of Bowles' descriptive writing, his ability to capture and transmit the atmosphere, ambience, sights and sounds of the spaces he traveled through inspired William S. Burroughs to  move to Tangier.  Morocco had a huge influence on Burroughs.  It was while living in Tangier that he established himself as a major writer with the publication of The Naked Lunch

The detailed attention to sound in PB's writings was likely influenced by his work as a sound engineer.  Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands are Blue has two chapters about his travels around Morocco recording music.   He received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to go on recording expeditions for the Library of Congress archive where the tapes remain to this day.  He made over 250 recordings of different kinds of Moroccan music.

The first journal entry on the trip recording for the Rockefellers is dated August 29, 1959, four days after your humble reporter had his birth day.  When a group of us had dinner with Paul Bowles in Tangier in 1991, I was clearly aware of following in his footsteps as a recorder of this music.  Now, some 54 years and 3 months later, it appears time to continue that journey and take it to the next level by filming  multicamera and recording multitrack audio.  Soon the world will be able to see and hear with great clarity this powerful music that puts people into trance and contacts the spirit world.

The Paul Bowles connection runs deep in this film venture not only thematically but personally as well.  Line Producer (head of Kasbah Films, organizer of the Moroccan and German crew) Karim Debbagh met Bowles when he was 19 while helping with a documentary and later worked with him to organize his archives and library eventually becoming part of the family that gravitated around Bowles.  Another close friend is Cherie Nutting who helped Bowles manage his affairs in the last part of his life.  Cherie took some incredible behind-the-scenes photos of the production.  She also manages and promotes the Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar who have a featured role in the film.  Cherie and Bachir first met in Paul Bowles' apartment in Tangier.  Bill Laswell visited Paul Bowles a few times and recorded him reading poetry and excerpts from his writings in his apartment then later added ambient soundscapes and released it as Baptism of Solitude.

My first exposure to Paul Bowles' literature came through the music of The Swans album, The Burning World. At the time, bandleader and writer Michael Gira looked, and played the part of an expatriate writer who had lived in North Africa soaking up the Paul Bowles/Tangier influence.  The second song, Let It Come Down borrows its title from Bowles' second novel, and The Sheltering Sky gets referenced as a lyric in another song.  This album seems an underrated classic though I notice it is picking up some buzz on the net.  It marked a watershed project in my audio trajectory as it was the first time I assisted Jason Corsaro who became my engineering mentor.

I recognized that this film project was a special one, a once in a lifetime experience, not only from the history involved but also from the nature of the music that would tell this story.  It seemed too good to be true.  In this business it's not uncommon to hear fantastic ideas for projects that never get realized.  When challenges with the production arose, rather than worrying about things out of my control I took the attitude that if it's meant to happen, it will happen.

The Music

Moroccan music holds a great deal of interest because of its ability to transform and alter consciousness.   In gnawa ceremonies, for example, some people, usually women, will go into trance so strongly that they completely disasscociate from the nerve endings in their bodies.  Hot coals will be walked on or needles stuck into the body with no signs of scarring.  Legend has it that if the trance is broken too quickly the person could die.  These dramatic and somewhat sensationalistic extreme results belie a whole range of more subtle altered states of awareness engendered by this music.

Deborah Kapchan, in an essay that appears in Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Meditteranean writes of a particular mood reached by gnawa music they call Nashant which often proceeds to full trance:

Nashant is intricately related to Moroccan ludic events ( al-la'b, in Moroccan arabic) ... it relies on the response of the audience to create feelings of consensus - literally, feeling together (Noyes 1993) - and ardor.  Indeed, nashant delineates not only a state of being, but a rhythm of being.

Some of the qualities of nashant are:

briskness, sprightliness, liveliness, animation, vivacity, agility, alacrity, eagerness, ardor, zeal, energy, activeness, activity, action, operation, strong power ( physical and mental), vigor, vital energy, vitality.

In her excellent book, Traveling Spirit Masters - Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace Kapchan speaks of the value of trance:

Possession requires an alchemical reaction, a transmission of subtle and dense matter as two different substances encounter and change each other.

I still vividly recall recording William Burroughs reading from The Western Lands. On a break his assistant James Grauerholz told him what a good job he was doing whereupon Burroughs acidly replied, "it's not me, it's not me!!"  Perhaps he had listened to Moroccan music enough to access the state of possession in trance to the point where he could voluntarily go there without the music?  Self possession is what they call the ability to become aware and allow the possessing spirit to have some degree of control not unlike an actor voluntarily role playing the persona of their character.

If it's true that Burroughs could access the trance state at will then it appears that this kind of consciousness attunement is something that can be learned and mastered.  Moroccan music, apart from entertainment and anthropological interest can access initiatory information regarding altered states of consciousness.  It can provide an education into unknown worlds and states of being.

Sound for Film

One day in 1987 I took a small group to the Chelsea Square restaurant on 9th Ave and 23rd St. for breakfast.  While waiting for a table I recounted my adventures getting hired as an intern in a recording studio.  Someone overheard me and asked if I was a sound engineer.  I remembered that I would be in the future and answered yes.  He explained that he was a music editor for films and might require audio engineering services in the future.  He invited me up to Sound 1, the premiere studio in New York for mixing film soundtracks.  At the studio he talked about a film he was working on while giving a quick overview of how audio gets viewed in a film production.  "Audio," he said, "is a second class citizen in the world of film production.  Sometimes what you hear has been transferred 7 or 8 times from its original source."  That's 7 or 8 analog generations away from the master.  I don't think I ever fully believed him until now.  I don't recall his name but can always look it up as I do remember that he became the music editor for one of my favorite films, Beetlejuice.

The next step after accepting this mission was to find out the instrumentation and line up of the groups being recorded.  This would determine the equipment to be ordered.  After getting this information from Bill, I drew up a list for a portable Pro Tools based recording system capable of handling 16 tracks.  It was a system I had success with in Mali for the past 6 years or so.  One of the film's producers, Adam Haggiag, would help requisition the audio gear. 

The film, originally scheduled to shoot in October, got delayed when Jay Bulger accepted an acting role in a Martin Scorcese picture.  I had no communication with anyone about the film apart from Bill until the schedule was figured out around the beginning of November.  We were scheduled to begin shooting December 9th. I didn't know exactly when I'd be leaving or how long I would be there.  At that point I thought I was only being hired to record music.

When we got  a schedule, Adam introduced himself to me in an email.  I replied with the equipment list.  Also mentioned that previous clients had opted to buy some of the equipment rather than rent it.  Copies of our correspondence were cc'ed to Producers Andrew Karsch and Karim Debbagh.  One or both of them thought we could get all the equipment in either Morocco or Germany and save the cost of shipping it from the U.S.  I was fine with however they got it but requested a day to set up the system and test it before going into the field, something I've never failed to do on previous trips.  I thought that one month notice was cutting it close for getting the gear but knew it was possible.  The day before Thanksgiving, November 27th, we got an email saying that it was too complicated to get the equipment overseas, that we should plan to bring everything from the U.S.  Nothing could really be done until after the holiday weekend, December 2nd.  That gave us a week before shooting would begin.

I gave Adam the name of an equipment vendor, Dreamhire, we had used in the past for Bill's recording projects in Morocco and West Africa. Miraculously, they were able to provide nearly everything on the list immediately.  A few substitutions had to be made for equipment only available on short notice, but nothing too compromising.  I had to sign off on the equipment as soon as possible so that a carnet, a special customs document, could be arranged.  The only item not rented from Dreamhire would be the MacBook Pro laptop computer.  The rental of it from Dreamhire was considered too expensive.  Someone thought it would be cheaper to get one in Morocco.  This would prove to be a mistake.  I looked up the system requirements for different versions of Pro Tools and sent them to the producers.  I had hoped that the basic guts of the recording system would all come from the same vendor to ensure a working system.  Getting the laptop in Morocco made me nervous, but in theory, it shouldn't have been a problem.

About a week earlier I'd been asked by Adam if I was willing to record interviews.  I said, no problem and added 4 lavalier mics to the equipment list.  I had already planned to bring a small Tascam flashcard PCM digital machine which would be perfect for recording interviews without having to set up Pro Tools.

Caught a red eye flight to New York on the night of December 6.  A snowstorm had just begun as we made the 90 minute drive from Grass Valley to the Sacramento airport.  Only one slight moment of panic on the way down when it seemed the brakes might not engage going down a hill.  The snowstorm got worse as my friend drove back home from the airport.  His SUV did go off the road and had to be retrieved the next day, but there were no injuries and the car wasn't too damaged.

Arrived in New York at 8am feeling energized.  Checked into the hotel, ate a surprisingly good large breakfast then hired a cab to go to Dreamhire in Long Island City.  The taxi driver was from Guyana. He referenced Jim Jones and his crazy kool aid cult as a way to place his country.  I asked how he liked living in America.  He said that it's not what it used to be.  I asked what he meant, and he told a story of being robbed at gunpoint two weeks earlier.  Had a bit of a problem finding Dreamhire as it's really in Astoria though the official address says Long Island City.  Same street address, different city.  Dreamhire seems right on the border.

I checked out all the equipment at Dreamhire.  Set up the Pro Tools 003 and the Presonus mic pres with a borrowed laptop and it all worked fine.  Smooth, no problems.  Went over the whole order and made some small adjustments.  It was exciting to see all the equipment and fire it up.  I had a lot of confidence in the vendor.  As long as I got the same kind of laptop in Morocco we would be good to go.

Took the train into Manhatten and got out at 57th and 7th.  It was a brisk, sunny day with a steady cool breeze.  New York was alive with the throng of everyday workers, holiday shoppers, and tourists.   The traffic sounds, honks, horns, squeals and rumbles, amplified by ricocheting and reverberating off the corridors of tall buildings hinted at some kind of purposeful cacophony.

Walked downtown taking in all the sights and sounds.  Met Bill, Yoko and Aman for lunch at Monster Sushi on 23rd and 7th.  I was a little late, but we arrived at the same time.  Strategized about the trip, traded music and got caught up.

It went smoothly getting he equipment onto the flight the next day.  I met Adam at the curbside and recognized him immediately.  The equipment was brought in a black SUV station wagon.  I had a Sky Cap and cart waiting.  The Sky Cap knew exactly where to take carnet freight to get on the plane. 

While waiting for the flight we met up with David Life and Sharon Gannon who were on their way to Germany for a yoga event.  They run the Jiva Mukti yoga center in New York which attracts its fair share of celebrities.  I've known them for over 20 years and Bill has also known them awhile.  Even back then they had the reputation for being cutting edge yoga teachers.  I've always had great respect for them.  Last time I saw David and Sharon was in early 2001 at a temple opening in Southern India that Janet Rienstra had invited me to record.  We took seeing them as a good omen.

Getting the equipment through customs in Casablanca proved extremely easy.  They didn't even look through it.  It was loaded into a truck that went straight to Essaouria where we were to begin shooting the next day.  There was supposed to be two cars for the passengers.  We had traveled with Producer Andrew Karsch who was going to Marrakech while Adam, Bill and I were to travel to Essaouria to join the film crew.  Only one driver showed up so we had a little two hour detour to Marrakech before arriving at the location.

Jay Bulger came bounding down the stairs when heard that Bill had arrived at the hotel in Essaouria.  Though we had never met, on the way past he said, " hi Oz," as if we knew each other well.  Jay was on fire.  He began excitedly telling Bill his ideas for shooting various scenes. He reminded me of someone flushed with the passion of a new revelation, the revelation in this case being his film.

We went for dinner at a place that barbeques fresh fish and squid caught that day.  It tasted incredibly delicious.  Jay ran down his ideas for the whole film both conceptually, and how to realize the themes practically. He had a  very clear, detailed vision of what he wanted to accomplish.  Jay, the DP, another camera man and the Art Director had already been in Morocco for a month scouting locations and planning the shoot.  They had been living, eating, breathing Morocco while traveling the country.  Jay had also been on a non-stop diet reading books about Moroccan music and how it exists in their culture including various forms of Sufi influence upon it, and the effects of slavery.  His demeanor was of someone very focused on his work but also someone who had been struck by lightening.  It seems his researches may have led him to tap into some sort of outside agency, a vast active life intelligence system of one kind or another.  I always told him that this project was much bigger than any one person; that still rings true, now, moreso than ever.

In magick terms, Jay, as Director, plays the role of the chief invocant.  It makes sense that he would get fried by the fire of the vision more than anyone else.  He channeled it directly, wired right into it., "jacked into it", as William Gibson would say.  When he was going through the scenes with details of how he was going to shoot them, one after the other,  I was reminded of something I read about what it was like to be around Bob Dylan in the early days when he was able to pull amazing songs effortlessly out of the air, one after the other.

Back at the hotel I met Eric Robbins, the DP, David Bell, the Art Director, and Austin Kite, who was in charge of the making of the "Making of" this film and who also shot a ton of B roll footage.  They are all US east coast based.  Eric and David had worked with Jay on the Ginger Baker document and actually went several years back with him starting out with rock video productions. 

That night Jay asked me if I'd be willing to record all the audio for the film, not just the music and some interviews.  It hadn't occurred to me that when they asked if I would record interviews that it really meant recording all the non-music audio as well.  I said that I'd never done it before but was willing to give it a go.  After all, I was the only person there somewhat qualified.  If I didn't agree to do it, who would?  The primary cameras they were using didn't record any audio at all.  I only had a vague idea what I was getting myself into, but that's not the first time.

To Be Continued...

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Sheltering Sky

Soon as it got light on the morning of December 29 I grabbed a bottle of water and walked east for one hour into the Sahara desert.  Started from a unique spot: where the expansive North African desert peaks into the Atlantic ocean.  The red Moroccan flags marking the entrance to our camp were barely visible in the distance.  Generated a Star Ruby, stars reaching from the ground to the sky.  Greeted the morning sun as it rose in the east, a blazing yelloworange orb breaking through the horizon to ignite this day.

Reflected on an extraordinary adventure.  A group voyage out of ordinary time into all kinds of spaces intersecting unseen dimensions.  Alternate realities, parallel worlds that produce tangible effects. A film and sound recording expedition through territories constantly unknown until the moment you find yourself in them.  Only then do they become a little bit known ... and  recorded; to be explored further via multiple playbacks, recreations of moments of time weaved together in a tapestry of storytelling. This expedition required spontaneous action and reaction.  Extemporaneous magick.  Quick thinking, which seems quickest when not thinking but running off of the lightning gnosis of intuition.   Music, magic, mayhem, madness, m'allems and masters.  A film with vision, recording visions, but as yet no name.  Still empty yet full of chaos and possibility... like the desert.  Like where the desert meets the ocean.

Reflecting on a Star Ruby, a precious stone of incredible radiance I discovered at the house of the lila in Tangier.  The 600 or so year old house on the hill of the Kasbah near the lookout to Gilbralter.  Once the home of the Sultan's harem, later the Sultan's main crib.  More recently, the site where the Master Musicians of Jajouka recorded live with the Rolling Stones in 1988 or '89.  Tennessee Williams had an apartment right next door.

Recalling the inherent goodness of people who work very hard for a common cause and intent.    Capturing, processing, and eventually communicating the images, sounds, majik and extreme beauty found in these gateways to the other side in this special part of the world, collectively known as Morocco.  God bless the crew. Chokrame Morocco.

You can not separate the music from the people, place, time, environment, or ritual functions.  Not the music we recorded for this no name film.  It is said that the act of observation changes what is observed.  Watching music in Morocco profoundly changes the people doing the observing, those who are attentive and awake to it.  Ride the loa with gnawa in Essaouria and don't look back. 

Contemplating Melamet, the Sufi path of blame.  Sometimes called the profession of blame.  Blame gets intentionally received providing energy for transmutation.  Under certain conditions it's a constant source of lead fueling the alchemical alembic to transform into 'what thou wilt.'  Aleister Crowley is considered to have been Melamet.  As someone working in his lineage, it seems I am sometimes privileged to reliably receive this energy without intending it.  I'll use anything I can get my hands on to get through the night.

Paul Bowles called the Sahara desert experience a "baptism of solitude." Burroughs wrote in The Western Lands:" nothing here now but the recordings ...they are as radioactive as an old joke."  High signal to noise ratio radio active broadcasting multiple forms of the most ancient joke, how to make God laugh.  The story unfolds here over the next several days, weeks, years, centuries.

On the morning of December 29th I walked into the desert for one hour ... and never came back.