Friday, September 26, 2014

Apocalypse Across the Italian Sky

Material and the Master Musicians of Jajouka going full tilt through the bardo....

From left to right: Graham Haynes - trumpet, Peter Apfelbaum - alto sax, flute, melodica, Aiyb Dieng - percussion, Hamid Drake - drums, Bill Laswell - bass, Bachir Attar - rhaita, gimbri, flute, Ahmed Bakhat -violin, Mustapha Attar - rhaita, dumbek, flute, Mohamed el Attar - tebel drum, Abdellah Bokhzar - tarija drum, rhaita  Not pictured: James Dellatacoma - bass and stage tech. Photo supplied by Ludmilla Faccenda.

Upon meeting us in the lobby of the Majestic Star Hotel in Torino, Italy, magician musician Bachir Attar pulled out 3 or 4 buttons showing the Jajouka Moroccan lion calligraphy design, each one a different color, and asked us to choose.  I saw this same forward thrust of energy the next day when he began playing the raspy high-pitched rhaita, the Moroccan mountain horn, introducing a musical induction and voyage through space. The drums kick in right away shaking the room without excessive volume, a second rhiata weaves in and around, along with and counter to Bachir. The rhaitas sound like different currents and eddies in a river of sound; the violin echoing and underscoring the melodic line, a nice warm opposite texture to the rhaitas.  Hamid and Aiyb join in on drums and percussion immediately opening up the rhythm to new dimensions of depth while keeping the same beat; they slide in and lift up the groove; sax and trumpet start with James Brownish melodic punctuations, a precursor of the funk that's about to unleash when Bill starts a bass line that ties everything together into a strong, coherent motion forward driving this musical engine through the night.  

These musicians, never having played together in this configuration, became a solid unit, a living musical entity with nothing more than about a half hour to forty minutes of playing together at soundcheck, and that was more about making sure the stage sounded right.  Bill had drawn up a structure of ideas for a set list.  Everything was improvised on the spot. There were shaky moments once or twice, but they always stayed aloft and kept going.  It did turn into magic, I lost all track of time.  When they stopped I thought it was way too soon, I couldn't believe that much time had gone by.

The Master Musicians, particularly Bachir,  know how to use their instruments to play calls - calls for whatever, there are a variety like the Enochian Angelic calls of Elizabethan and Golden Dawn fame.  Calls can be a special kind of prayer - not for the person making the call, for something else.  E.J. Gold has been playing calls on the didgeridoo every morning for the past few weeks.  I heard Bachir say, " I think it can make a difference" around the time he gave out the magic lion discs.

The rhaitas, flutes or gimbri make the calls with the violin support, though the violin will take the lead at times.  The drums greatly expand their capacity and throw with the Material drums and percussion like an overdrive thruster reaching much further and beyond.  The trumpet and sax become two tonal support pillars and alternate funkster melody corridors; sometimes they'll take the lead and play the call.  Sometimes even the bass will play a call.  Through strongly coherent low frequency communication the bass expands the whole operation planet wide.  I'll tell you how.

Humpback and blue whales can communicate thousands of miles using low frequency "whale songs" combined with an innate acoustical knowledge or map of the ocean's geological features to resonate and bounce the sound off of.  It's been said that a whale can communicate to another one on the other side of the world in under 9 minutes. I run the bass and drums through a  Kosmos Subharmonic synthesizer which amplifies the same 10 - 40Hz range that whales communicate in.  I love my work.

Music playing, word falling, photo falling breakthrough on the planet of violent robots; a temporary respite, but you have to start somewhere.  CNN reports the day after the Torino concert: "The truce in Eastern Ukraine is holding. (news anchor sounding pleasantly surprised)." The government in Kiev passes resolutions giving concessions to the rebels described as holding out an olive branch.  Italy is famous for it's olive groves rife with branches.  Ginger Baker, another world drummer with strong African roots, retired to an olive farm atop a hill until called back into service by John Lydon and Bill Laswell.   Michael Corleone finds a little peace on his family's olive farm in Italy in the Godfather.  Livia is an Italian girls name derived from Olive or Olivia as in Anna Livia Plurabelle, the overarching female presence in Finnegans Wake.  At the end of the documentary series, The Untold History of the U.S., Oliver Stone, remarking on the disease of constant war, says that we need to feminize the world.  Associations across the sky like meandering rhaita lines calling healing baraka force into manifest existence.

It began with the Moroccan lion.  At the Egypytian Museum in Torino, the largest outside of Cairo, I discover its collection had dozens of  large statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet housed in two dark rooms with walls of black mirrors creating an atmosphere of infinite dark corridors through the underworld. The statues lit up standing in majestic silent presence.  They came from the temple of a Pharoah who had commissioned 365 seated and 365 standing statues of Sekhmet, one for each day of the year.  Now that's what I call protection. She was a warrior goddess, a healer, and  a protector of Pharoahs especially in war.  Pharoah Saunders was originally booked to play these shows, but couldn't make it.  He would have felt right at home.

Minutes before Bachir arrived with the lion buttons, just after saying hello to Cherie Nutting and James, Bill Laswell gave me four more Sun Ra cds: Sun Ra Visits Egypt, John Cage meets Sun Ra, Cosmo Funkmythology - The Last Studio Recordings, and Second Star to the Right ( Salute to Walt Disney) as well as new book by Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Dance of Reality - A Psychomagical Autobiography.  On page 3 Jodorowsky talks about his introduction to the tarot which would become such an important vehicle for him:

"...but what fascinated me most was a rectangle inside which a princess, wearing a three-pointed crown and seated on a throne, was carresing a lion that rested its head on her knees.  The animal had an expression of profound intelligence combined with an extreme gentleness... Concealed beneath a floorboard the card STRENGTH became my secret treasure.  In the strength of my innocence, I fell in love with the princess.

The next page, Jodorowsky tells a story of going to "the circus of the Human Eagles" with his father who had been a performer at one time.  One of the clowns placed a lion cub in his arms that lead to a strong experience which he recounts.  Jodo says that he absorbed his animal energy.  These coincidences with lions recalls Robert Anton Wilson's Coincidance - A Head Test where lion symbolism pops up here and there in regard to it's designation as one of the animals of Tiphareth.

If a tape recorder had been running the first night at dinner an incredible book of inside music stories could have been written.  Graham Haynes, automatically jazz royalty being the son of drummer Roy Haynes and, according to Bill, perhaps currently the best trumpet player around these days, tells a number of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman stories.  Alice Coltrane told Graham about the  three month process John had gone through writing A Love Supreme.  Another time Coltrane took a harmony lesson from Ornette paying him $100 by check.  Ornette kept and framed the check.  Bill mentions seeing B3 organist Larry Young play in Lifetime, Emergency!  The description of Young's playing in the encyclopedia also helps describe the music of Material/Jajouka so I'll include it here:

His characteristic sound involved management of the stops on the Hammond organ, producing overtone series that caused an ethereal, drifting effect; a sound that is simultaneously lead and background

Later, Bill was at a club in New York waiting to hear Larry Young debut with his new band when word came that he had died enroute to the gig.

The evening ended for me shortly after Ludmilla Faccenda, the promoter of these shows, and general guide to our time in Italy told me about the Egyptian treasures and the Shroud of Turin both within walking distance of the hotel.

The Egyptian Museum had several original hieroglyphic scrolls from the ancient texts collectively known as the Papyrus of Ani, popularly called The Egyptian Book of the Dead.  The ancient Egyptian name for these writings transliterates into English as Utterances of Going Forth By Day.  Another translation calls it The Book of Emerging Forth into the Light.  They were in very good condition for the most part, much color still present.  These writings played a significant role inspiring the Hermetic Magic of the Golden Dawn.  I scanned some of the instructions ( they call them spells) into my tricorder for possible use as navigational guidance for tonight's concert. 

The museum also had a carved stone block from the temple of the renegade Pharoah Akenhaten.  It had a large hieroglyph of a hawk carved into it among a few other figures, the solar Horus hawk was the most prominent.  I tried to psychometrize it with no apparent success... or so I thought at the time.

On the way to the museum, up a narrow side-street which turned into a pedestrian walkway, I cast an audio net fishing for sound with two silver omnidirectional microphones attached to a portable Tascam PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) recorder.  Recording street sounds you often hear nothing unusual then suddenly an interesting bell will strike, or some random poetic conversation will drift by, perhaps a loud boom with great natural reverb will sound out and you will have captured a rare audio event, landed a fish in your net.  The walk to Ancient Egypt was particularly musical that day - a string quartet playing Beethoven's 5th in front of a fashion shop, a guitarist playing Andres Segovia guitar runs on a quiet, but overdriven electric guitar.  A trumpet player with a clean, pure tone had found a post on the far side of the ground level museum entrance where the walkway becomes very narrow before opening up into a small square.  He would play some phrases down the narrow corridor then swing his horn 180 degrees to play into the square.  I recorded both sides. 

The audio net was out in the museum, pcm'ed ambience the whole time in it and also read the catalog descriptions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead texts into the record.  Thankfully, there were English translations.

Mine is the radiance wherin Ptah floateth over his firmament.  I travel upon high!  I tread upon the firmament of Nu!  I raise a flashing flame with the lightening of my eye, ever rushing onward in the splendor of the daily glorified Ra, giving my life to the dwellers on Earth.

Found a large square two streets over on the way back to the hotel, a medieval church with ornate statutory at one end, and a percussion troupe doing it's thing at the other. People, not a whole lot, milling about or drinking cappucinos in one of the outdoor cafes.  I recorded these drummers at varying distances from right up close to the other end of the square for a variety of acoustical pictures.  The weather was perfect this day. 

Teatro Regio Torino ( the Royal Theater) is a 1500 seat venue that normally hosts operas and symphonic concerts.  They rarely use sound reinforcement I was told.  I can believe it, the Front of House sound mixing area was at the very back, but you could hear someone whispering on stage when it was quiet.  The sound projected well.  This made for a loud stage volume, but it wasn't so bad as all the instruments were acoustic except for the bass which carried everything.  The slightly domed ceiling had what looked like a few hundred narrow glass tubes of varying lengths attached to disperse standing waves. 

The concert starts with Bachir's rhaita calling, a secular muezzin call instantly transforming (trance forming) the chamber into a sacred mosque inner sanctum holy ground space vehicle. The theater is instantly alive as one unified entity begins jelling into motion slowly but surely lifting itself across the sky -  another Funkadelic Mothership Connection this time via North Africa.  Music is one way for God to say, "here I am."  The sound is rumbling, cavernous, but also defined and clear, crystalline percussion, warm, solid articulate drum kit; the low end of the bass reaching subterranean depths but never boomy or obscuring.  When the appreciative audience claps their approval they sound like a crowd of thousands roaring from a distant city thanks to the echoing acoustics.

Hamid Drake, Bill Laswell, Bachir Attar, Ahmed Bakhat, and Mustapha Attar.
photo by Cherie Nutting

The music is dynamic, sometimes apocalyptically loud, then later it gets tender, as delicate as a butterfly's gossamer wings when the Moroccans pull out their bamboo flutes weaving hypnotic melodies then joined by Peter playing a western transverse flute with its clear, angelic tone.  Bachir pulls out a gimbri for one song, its rich warm plucked tone guiding the spaceship in another direction.  Naturally, there were dub beats and bass lines which the Jajoukans sounded right at home with.

I had breakfast with Peter that morning and he reminisced about when Timothy Leary, a family friend, used to visit when Peter was a child growing up in Berkeley.  Leary would bring a bamboo flute and play with Peter on the drums.  I suspect this had some kind of subliminal influence on Peter's flute playing.  This is the first I've heard of Leary playing a musical instrument.  Apfelbaum has warm memories of his time with Tim, he was like a friendly Uncle who made time to be with the kids.  It's nice to hear something positive and human about this controversial figure who would later get demonized by the media as the LSD guru.  Leary visited Jajouka, so its fitting to my associative mind that Peter would eventually share the stage with the Master Musicians.  Leary's other significant contribution to planetary evolution the SMI2LE formula (Space Migration + Intelligence Increase + Life Extension) also describes the metaphysical effect that these Material shows had.

This band was challenging to mix especially at the start partly because it was a new combination of musicians playing improvised music; they were finding their own mix on stage.  It was made easier by the fact that the instruments had distinct ranges, distinct frequency bands of their own.  Everything sounded clear and separated, but cohesive.  I suspect that not having any electric guitars helped.

Random comments: Hamid and Ayib often play like twins who came out of the same womb, four hands and four feet, two central nervous systems energetically linked to form a single drum and percussion entity.  More of a media event than I am used to; rave reviews in the papers the next day.  The audience looks older and conservative yet they respond enthusiastically establishing a strong rapport; looks can be deceiving.  No one complains about the volume even when it's thundering across the sky.

Post concert dinner begins at midnight, a restaurant stays open specially for us run by a short gregarious Italian matron and two younger staff who might be her son and daughter.  We are seated at a single very long table.  Across from me are the four Jajoukans who are not Bachir.  We don't have a common verbal language, they speak Arabic yet there is communication of sorts between us.  As everyone else makes conversation, they sit silently and patiently not even talking amongst themselves, nor do they look bored.  They remind me of monks with that kind of reserve and discipline.  They are master musicians even offstage.

Bachir, with the help of Cherie talks about all the musicians who have made the pilgrimage to Morocco to meet him and his musical family and soak in the Jajouka vibe.  It started with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones who was brought there by Brion Gysin.  Later Bill remarks that if Gysin hadn't liked the music of Jajouka we might never have heard of them. Several years later Mick and Keith and the rest of the Stones made it as far as Tangier.  Ornette Coleman recorded in Jajouka; recently the Jajoukans reciprocated playing at the tribute to Ornette held at Prospect Park in Brooklyn as part of Celebrate Brooklyn.  Donovan made it to Jajouka and became friends with Bachir and Cherie.  A band called Happy Mondays holed up there for awhile and they were expecting another one called Zero Magnetic Attraction to visit not long after returning home.  Bachir tells a story of the time Jimmy Page visited, in the early '70s I guess, and no one knew who he was.  Page drove up in an expensive black car got out, pulled out a bunch of hash which he set on a table then was immediately asked to leave.  He didn't identify himself and the villagers thought he was a drug dealer, so he left without a fuss.  Some years later Bachir  recognized him at a restaurant in Paris and walked up to him saying, "I know you, you were in Jajouka."  Page just laughed.  Someone told  Bachir who it was and that's when he discovered the identity of this mysterious visitor to his home village some time ago.

The next morning we drive to Milan for a concert the following night.  I spend the afternoon writing then take a long walk in the Chinatown neighborhood around the hotel fishing for sound.  A short poem by Kerouac from Some of the Dharma illustrates this scene:

It's Saturday morning in China, and I see the fantastic blossom
          sparkling in the emptiness,
              and intuition smiles brightly everywhere -
                  the jewel in the lotus,
                       the transparent crystal clearness of the world.

Another gorgeous day of perfect weather.

Before soundcheck the next afternoon I give Graham, Aiyb and Hamid copies of a cd I recorded and produced of the piano jazz trio Too Noisy Fish.  Hamid reads the lettering as God Noisy Fish, not an inappropriate mistake likely a result of years of zikhr and music; what might whimsically get called a Jungian slip. 

A new guide from the Milano festival organization, Francesca Scarinci, joins us in Milan to escort the group to the theater.  Francesca resembles the woman in Jodorowsky's STRENGTH card, the same eyes. Flirting has been outlawed in the Higher Dimensions, but spiritual contact goes beyond gender and says hello to the night. I tread upon the firmament of Nu. 

We play this night at Teatro Manzoni situated in the center of Milan's fashion district and tonight is the first night of Fashion Week.  The street in front of the theater is closed to automobile traffic.  We have about a 3 hour break after the soundcheck so I go for a walk.  If there's a prevailing new fashion I can't tell what it is from the celebrants in the street.  Lots of people looking very original in this low key European festival atmosphere.  It didn't feel at all pretentious, frivolous or overly serious.  I took a respite outside a jogging park eating a fish sandwich, drinking cappuccinos, writing poetry and taking notes.  Mother Notte showing her finest wares in a pageant of color and style - "the beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town."

I left through the backstage doors with assurances that I could easily get back in.  Upon returning the doors were locked, no one was around and there wasn't a buzzer or intercom in sight.  The main entrance to the Manzoni is accessed through a gallery on another street.  It could have taken some time to find it in the festive chaos of the fashionistas.  As I was banging on the doors, an Ethiopian live sound engineer now living in Rome, alas I didn't note his name, asked if I needed help and directed me to the entrance. The concert T-shirt I was wearing clued him in to my intention.

It's been my experience that when something positive is trying to manifest a certain amount of resistance springs up presenting an obstacle to overcome.  This happened right away for me when a nail punctured my tire less than five minutes after I left for the San Francisco airport.  The tires had been rotated and check just the day before.  I went to put a spare on, but there was no jack to be found in the vehicle.  Drove back to the farm where I live, borrowed a jack from Patricia and was soon on my way.  As I was leaving she said, "That's it, no more bad travel karma for you on this trip." Her words proved to be right, travel for the rest of the trip went unusually smoothly.  There wasn't even any air turblance along the roughly 12,000 miles I flew there and back.

The other major piece of resistance occurred at the start of the concert in Milan.  When the full band kicked in the sound was much brighter and louder than at soundcheck.  I adjust to compensate for this.  Five minutes into the concert, Max, the house sound tech tells me I have to turn down because people are leaving.  This sounds like BS to me, people will say anything to you to get you to do what they want, but I attempt to compromise.  Not good enough though, Ludmilla steps into the booth and very nicely asks me to turn it down.  By this time the band is naturally playing a little quieter made obvious to me by the fact that she's talking to me in at a normal conversational level and I can hear her easily a few feet away.  Then I notice LED lights on a processor activating to indicate that the whole system is being compressed.  That wasn't happening at the soundcheck.  I look at this piece of gear and see that it's a TC Finalizer which is normally used to master recordings at the final stage before manufacturing them enmasse.    I work with the software version of this box, the TC Masterworks when mastering in the studio and I know that when you lower the threshold to bring on more compression, the sound actually gets louder and brighter.  Basically, what's going on is that while I'm trying to contain the volume, he is making it louder and brighter while believing that the added compression will lower the volume.  So I lean close to him and calmly say in a command tone, "will you please back off the compression?"  Max gets a little agitated and reaches over pushing a button on the box saying, "there, I've bypassed it, no more compression at all!"  As soon as the bypass switch activated the sound immediately got quieter, warmer and the mix sounded much more open.  I was very grateful, this was more than I asked for.  When the mix got a bit more settled I took a walk around the theater, nearly going right up to the stage to hear for myself how loud it sounded.  I was admittedly mixing at rock concert  (but not heavy metal) levels, however the Master Musicians have been called a 4000 year old rock 'n roll by no less than William Burroughs and who am I, or anyone, to argue with Burroughs on this point?

If I may be permitted a slight rant.  I see the volume issue as another indication that eyesight has a far more dominant role than hearing in our culture by the fact that no one thinks twice about wearing sunglasses when the light is too bright yet most people can't even conceive that the same kind of sensory attenuation can reduce sound pressure levels by wearing ear plugs and adjusting them for optimal volume.  Maybe it's because sunglasses make a fashion statement while reducing light that's too loud.  So I call upon the fashion designers of the world to make ear plugs a fashion accessory ... ok, maybe that's ridiculous, but it doesn't seem absurd to ask people to learn how to change their own reality in this regard instead of expecting something external to do it for them.  If going to a concert that might get too loud for you, bring ear plugs and don't be afraid to use them if necessary.

The concert was completely different from the one in Torino.  Just as powerful, intense and time warping, but musically something else.  I have recordings of both shows.  Audience response felt even more enthusiastic in the sold-out house  No one seemed put off by the volume and it seemed like the theater was just as full as the start of the show. One notable difference between the two shows occurred when the Master Musicians left the stage and walked through the audience playing while Material held the groove.  The last time I saw that was at a Sun Ra concert in the East Village circa early '80s.

The Milan concert was even more of a media event.  Bill and Bachir shot a pre-concert interview segment with a popular Italian TV personality who seemed genuinely interested in the music.  Imagine seeing something like this on David Letterman ... I don't think so, not yet anyway.  Two camera crews shared the sound booth with me one for Web TV, the other for the mainstream network running the interview.  They were both provided audio feeds from the board.   There was another clip made for the internet that unfortunately sounds like they used the camera mic to record the sound and the video image is much more low resolution.  Here's a clip with the good audio and picture:

Despite not having much rest the past few days and being jet lagged, I felt incredibly energized.  Stayed up all night writing then packed for an early pick-up to the airport.  Said goodbye to Bill, James and Aiyb in the lobby, we were going to different airports.  Aiyb got a little emotional, but then so did I.

Stopped at a traffic light alone in the back seat of the taxi, the early morning sun  shining through, my state calm, but definitely altered from the music and working all night, everything combined in that moment to produce an experience I've only felt this completely a few times before.  It only lasted the minute or so we stayed at the light, but seemed much longer when I was there,  I can't describe it, but Jack Kerouac comes close:

The form of emptiness which has taken the form of form, is what you see and hear and feel right now, and what you taste and think as you read this.  Wait awhile, close your eyes, let your breathing stop three seconds or so, listen to the inside silence in the womb of the world, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, re-recognize the bliss you forgot, the emptiness and essence and ecstasy of ever having been and ever to be the golden eternity.  This is the lesson you forgot.

 - Sutra 14, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity.

Until next time ...

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