Saturday, May 17, 2014

Jilala in Tangier

This continues the December 2013 Moroccan adventures.  Last installment is here.

I relish the idea that in the night, all around me in my sleep, sorcery is burrowing its invisible tunnels in every direction, from thousands of senders to thousands of unsuspecting recipients,  Spells are being cast, poison is running its course; souls are being dispossessed of parasitic pseudo-consciousness  that lurks in the unguarded recesses of the mind.

  There is a drumming out there most nights.  It never awakens me; I hear the drums and incorporate them into my dream, like the nightly call of the muezzins.  Even in the dream if I'm in New York, the first Allah Akbar! effaces the backdrop and carries whatever comes next to North Africa, and the dream goes on.

- Paul Bowles, Without Stopping

12/14/13  Marrakech

Awoke very early, 5am or so to pack and to record birds singing at the break of day.  Bill had told me about a spot in the garden by the pool where the collaged mosaic of multiple repetitive bird calls, whistles, hoots, hollars and screams converged nicely.  Headphones on, volume up, stereophonic bird symphony buzzing through my head; staying mostly still, walking around a little bit.  They paused at one point, I thought they were done, but it was more like a brief intermission as they started back up after a couple of minutes. Why would I even want to translate these layered aviary ministrations into musical terms and references?  They create their own ordered harmonic environment outside of human musical parameters.  Space is the place as Sun Ra liked to say.  The feeling or message I got from the experience of this recording was: this sure is a psychedelic world ...

Checked email from the one spot in this deluxe luxury hotel where the wi fi internet worked. It was exactly 3.2 meters from the Front Desk, and you had to hold your device at a 37 degree angle, give or take a few degrees, to get connected.  Got a message with some Pro Tools configuration instructions from Paul, the systems tech in New York - the last step needed to get our recording software working on a different computer.  It was now all systems go with the multitrack recording rig.

Nothing on today's schedule except driving to Tangier.  The crew is assigned to different passenger vans.  I'm traveling with Bill, Jay, Eric, David, Austin, and another Production Assistant.  Our driver is Jamal Charaf whom Jay calls Mgouna after his hometown, a future stop on our tour.  This will be our vehicle and travel configuration for the next 2 weeks, the rest of the trip except for the end when we go to the desert.

Arrived in Tangier around 8pm just as the jaws of night were closing in.  It looks much darker with very few street lights shining and no visible moon. The "hotel" is in the Kasbah part of town, the old town with its narrow, winding, maze-like streets.  We could only take the vehicles so far, hoofing our luggage an extra 1/4 mile or so up stairs to a small terrace which connected to the street with our hotel.  A small group of djellaba covered men lounging on the terrace observe our portage.  The eldest says to me as we go by, "You have come to Tangier for the key, yes?"  I don't know what he's talking about though he sounds serious and sincere.  There's a glint in his eye and a half smile on his face.  As there appear to be many locks with many keys in life, I can't disagree, so I laugh and say, "yes, I'm here for the key."  From my point of view, everywhere I go I look for the key.  I don't always find her, but usually I do.

We had stopped for a meal at a roadside restaurant on the way up where I noticed Sufi inspired designs in the metal grillwork that surrounded the outdoor eating area.  Previously, I'd seen examples of this in Mali at the home of a bandleader we stayed at.  The food was good too, a step up from the empty fast food type of fare American highway reststops typically serve.

The lodgings in Tangier's Kasbah felt closer to a bed and breakfast than a hotel; like a beautifully furnished small New York brownstone that is home to someone.  What it lacked in 5 Star hotel amenities it made up for with high aesthetic interior decorating, warmth, and personal care.  I found rose and orchid petals carefully arranged on the bed in my room along with a small ceramic bowel overflowing with homemade baked goods and cookies.  A large bottle of water was on the night stand.

I set up Pro Tools in the room and began making safety back-ups and rough monitor balances of what we had recorded so far.  A couple of hours later Jay stops by and checks out the Gnawa music and the Heddaoua rapping.  He seems excited by what he hears, it's the first time he's had a chance to check the audio. 

12/15/13 Tangier

Breakfast on an outdoor rooftop terrace looking out onto the congregated roof landscape of the Kasbah buildings all joined together like an intricate Escher drawing. Piping hot Turkish coffee, fresh homemade yogurt, pastries, breads, pears, fresh OJ, applesauce, hardboiled eggs breaks the night's fast.  Cool crisp morning air, faint smell of the sea.  A harsh angular sun, a little too bright glaring off the mostly whitewashed building exteriors, and not yet warm enough in the crystal blue cloudless sky sharpens the tensions and polarities in the tangential, to me, shoptalk. Resolved or sidetracked, differences set aside by going to work.  The common unifying goal called getting something done.

Tonight's mission consists of recording a group of Jilala musicians.  Jilala is the name of a Sufi Brotherhood dating to 12th Century Baghdad.  Like Gnawa, its music puts some of the participants into trance and also reputedly has healing powers.  They play flutes, drums including deep pitched frame drums, and sing.  The ceremony tonight celebrates the return home of a wayward son who had wandered abroad for many years.

After breakfast Bill and I went for a walk and found the nearby Production staging area where the Catering Department had established camp.  It was at the top of the hill just on the other side of the wall where you can see the Mediterranean Sea empty into the Atlantic Ocean and see Gibraltar just across the way.  A Location Manager assigned an assistant named Mohammed to me who didn't speak English, but still proved extremely helpful.  I gave him my Arabic name, Aziz.  We were also given a driver whose vehicle was a motorcycle welded to a heavy metal cart for hauling equipment.  I rode in the back with the gear hanging on for dear life as the bike and cart careened at reckless speed through the Kasbah's tiny streets and alleyways occasionally scraping the walls of the buildings and narrowly missing a group of elderly tourists.

Walked into the house where the event would take place.  It looked run down, unused, and somehow kind of lonely like it had been familiar with splendor and glory of grander days, but now left neglected.  The area behind where the stage would be, an alcove off the central large room, served for a trash dump.  I had to carefully navigate it at one point to string cables.  Paint peeling, dusty tiles, dirt on the floor, it desperately needed some UBIK, if anyone knows the P.K. Dick reference.  Well, I was here now.  Several people were busy doing a preliminary cleaning that would eventually transform this sad building interior into a movie set.  I would wait until they finished washing the floors and the water dried to begin setting up. 

Looking around the joint I stumbled across a man, a young woman - his wife I assumed , and the Assistant Art Director, Nazik.  The man introduced himself as the owner of the property, his name goes unrecorded.  He asked if we would like to hear the history of this domicile to which I readily agreed.  The woman told me her name which I didn't hear clearly and said she was a film editor.  I misunderstood believing she was the film editor for this film, but she was here to help as a camera assistant.

This house is called Palais Ben Abbou.  It is 5 or 6 centuries old serving originally as the residence of the Sultan's harem.  Later it became the house of the Pasha who ruled the area.  More recently, in the late 1980s,  it was the site where the Rolling Stones recorded with the Master Musicians of Jajouka for one song on their Steel Wheels album.  According to the owner, they came here and did this in homage to Brian Jones for the recording trip he made to Jajouka in 1967.

The main courtyard where we'll record has beautiful ceramic tiling on the floor and small ceramic wall panels that look like a series of blue, black, and dark yellow diamonds connected by white borders.  The paint is fading on many of the floor tiles giving a rust red hue.  This square courtyard, approximately 30 feet per side, has a raised stone platform in a room off of one end that appears the place where the Pasha had his throne.  It is in this room where the owner tells his story and I write these notes.  In front of this platform I see a design of a series of concentric circles inside a square with what looks like a blossoming flower with petals in the center.  Needless to say, it looks quite like a mandala.  The owner explained that all this gorgeous tiling had been covered with a layer of checkerboard black and white tiles.  The original designs were discovered accidentally when a worker on a ladder dropped a hammer and one of the black and white tiles shattered revealing the aesthetic underneath.  Once discovered, they stripped the entire Palais of this modern facade.

In the center of the courtyard in front of the staging area where the musicians would play was a small fountain base filled with water sprinkled with stemless red and white roses.  Four transparent glass lamps lit by candles were placed at the cardinal points around the fountain.  It reminded me of a passage from the Song of Solomon 4:15: A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon..., which the Grateful Dead also reference in their song Ripple from the American Beauty album.

Setting mics to be invisible in the frame was the next challenge.  I had liked the way the C24 stereo tube mic had been flown overhead by the grip department in Essaouira.  So, just to see if it was possible, I pointed to a spot in mid-air above the stage and told Thomas, who was already there running electric, that I wanted to put a mic there.  He immediately came up with a plan to rig it there, but then later it turned out that it would still be in the frame.

This miraculous ability to set up a mic anywhere imaginable set me thinking about a project I've always wanted to do which is to rig powerful shotgun mics on tall buildings and high points to record the collective ambience of cities.  For instance, I would put four, one for each direction, on the Chrysler Building to record Midtown Manhattan, a set of mics on the Woolworth Building or the new World Trade Center for Wall Street and downtown New York, the Basilica in Paris to capture the Montmartre area and North Paris, the Eiffel Tower for the other side, atop Big Ben in London, on the famous statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro, the International Commerce Center in Hong Kong, the Sydney Opera House, the Burj Khalif in Dubai to get some Middle East representation, etc.  When I collected all of these recordings I would then process and splice them in and out of each other a la William Burroughs while also making them sound as musical as possible, maybe overdubbing other musical elements  ... and see what happens.

Back on Earth in Morocco, new drama was about to unfold with the Pro Tools laptop computer saga.  Although we had found a solution using a different computer, Production wanted to fix the computer that had been brought down by pirate software.  I would have preferred to fix it by tossing it into the ocean.  To that end, they brought in a crack team of young computer experts dressed in white lab coats who completely reformatted the internal hard drive and then reinstalled the Operating System.  The Pro Tools X demo software was installed and the necessary drivers to interface with the O3 mic pres.  Pro Tools booted up, it looked like it would work.  Previously, the program wouldn't even open.  The computer team left me to connect the mics believing everything was in order, and took the good laptop, the one that we knew worked, with them.  They told me we had an hour to go until filming.  I got moving.  Quickly connected the mics, went to check them and... nothing.  No input at all.  Resisting the urge to panic after trying everything I could think to do to get them working, I phoned and insisted they bring the other laptop back.  They brought it right away, and everything worked, but I was getting weary of these last minute scares.

During a lunch break I had a warm reunion with Bachir Attar and Cherie Nutting whom I hadn't seen since 1991 when we recorded Bachir's group, the Master Musicians of Jajouka.  for the Axiom album Apocalypse Across the Sky.  They both looked great, high energy and good spirits, it felt great to catch-up.  Bachir would become a principal character in the film a few days later.  Today they were here to meet Bill and to see the Jilala lila in the evening.  Later, as the Jilala group were about to begin their opening procession into the Palais Ben Abbou, Bachir asked what I'd been doing these past 23 years, and wondered if I just worked with Bill?  I asked him if he had heard of Tom Waits.  He thought for a moment, then the dawn of recognition spread over his face and he said, very excitedly in his distinctive North African accent, "Tom Waits was Paul Bowles very, very, favorite rock musician!!!"  I thought that was pretty cool, another Bowles connection revealed!

A little earlier, while waiting inside the Palais, I asked Bachir to show me where he and the band set up when they recorded with the Rolling Stones in this room.  He said the Stones were on one side of the room facing the Jajoukans set up on the other side.  They played and recorded together live.

Mick Jagger and the Master Musicians of Jajouka recording at Palais Ben Abbou.

Prior to the music, this  location, now looking like an ancient royal chamber of some kind - the lack of daylight pouring in from the open roof made the interior feel more solemn and invocational even though the movie lights kept the set brightly lit - saw a lot of activity,  photos, interviews etc regarding the family reunion aspect of the evening.  Jay was in fine form, running the filming operation like a captain gently guiding a ship threw narrow straits.  High energy, but low key, relaxed and focused.  I commented to Bill that he certainly had the wardrobe of  a young, cutting-edge director sussed out looking exactly how I would think one should.  Jay's last gig was with Martin Scorcese  so I imagine some kind of subconscious osmosis going on, a subtle passing of the Director's dna baraka torch even as far along as appropriate attire.   A couple other members of Production dressed in  elegant native costume as they might potentially end up in audience shots.    Andy Karsch, with his white turban and flowing robe suddenly bore an uncanny resemblance with Aleister Crowley in the photo that appears on the cover of The Heart of the Master.  Same facial type and complexion, and same age.  Adam Haggiag also donned Arabic garb and suddenly took on a royal bearing reminding me a bit of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.  The royal aura probably attests to his lineage.  His family once owned a string of oases stretching from Tripoli to Timbuktu, and his Grandfather was a respected movie mogul in Hollywood and Italy.

The difficulty recording the Jilala music would be to get a loud enough recording of the flutes and vocals without too much bleed from the drums and percussion.  The balance picked up by the ambient mics would sound overwhelmed with the loud booming frame drum and the piercing metal castanets.  I put two of the dpa lavaliers underneath the robes of the flautists to get some kind of  invisible close mic pick-up, and two for the singers.  This would have worked, and it did sound good when the mics were in place, but unfortunately the musicians played very vigorously and the mics on the flutes got knocked out of position.  During a short break between songs I asked an A.D. if I could go reposition the mics.  I got a nod in the affirmative and went out to the stage.  First it meant finding the tiny clip-on mic and affixing it back into place.  About a minute away from getting the mic back on the first flautist I suddenly heard my named being screamed to get off the stage.  I ignored them as the screams at me got louder and more passionate resounding through the room like a giant cane trying to pull me offstage.  I knew that if I didn't get at least one close mic up on the flute it would be impossible to hear the flute clearly when they went to mix.  I did get the mic in place on the first flute and knew there was no hope of time for the second one so quickly exited stage left.  The musicians seemed pretty relaxed, they weren't the ones in a hurry.  It seems some of the people going into trance got concerned that the long pause would break the spell.  Apparently, if the trance gets broken too abruptly it can lead to death ... not just a ruined high.  I had no idea of potentially endangering someone's life by positioning a mic.  No deaths were reported to my knowledge so I assumed everything ended up ok, and the flute did get recorded.

Though some found it repetitive, I found the Jilala music interesting and subtly hypnotic.  Boom boom repetitive frame drum low booming sets the course for dark directions unknown powered by loud clanging metal percussion shaking the dust off the ages, driving out the demons, providing motive force, becoming wings for this unified sonic vessel,this non-organic voyaging machine.   Underneath the kinetic rhythm drone the liquidy, fluidic flutes recalled every river you've ever known both real and surreal from the mighty Mississippi to the fertile Nile, the five rivers of Hell: Styx - the river of hatred, the Acheron - the river of pain, Lethe - the river of oblivion, Phlegthon - the river of fire, and Cocytus the river of wailing.  They mostly reminded me of the million-miled river of reincarnation, the geographic centerpiece in Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series.  After all, tonight's drama concerned the return of the prodigal son ready to take on a new incarnation in his family life.


  1. Depending on the year, you undoubtedly met Abdeslam Akaaboune, the owner of Palais Ben Abbou. His daughter Soumaya is a dear friend. Their home is so very rich with music history. Susurra Fonseca

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