Music

Arts Feature: Music 4,000 Years In The Making

By Mark Hänser

The music of the Master Musicians of Jajouka is a gift to all who want to seek the divine through song, as I discovered myself in a Moroccan taxi many years ago.

Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Attar is the third from the right, in the dark green headwear. Photo: Cherie Nutting.

Moroccan music is intoxicating. Overwhelming, like the three smells that permeate throughout this land — orange blossoms, rose attar, and diesel fuel. My first encounter with the music of this ancient North African kingdom was in 1984 when, after studying for the summer in Salamanca in Spain, I decided to follow in the footsteps of the Beat poets and cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier. From there I traveled to the Rif mountain town of Tetouan, renowned for its Berber (or Amazigh) carpets and crafts ware. I soon found myself in a souk and then the salon of a charismatic rug merchant named Ali, who plied me with couscous, local wine (technically haram, or taboo). Marlboros, and potent kif. This went on for hours until I succumbed to his courtesy, charm, and the room’s intoxicating incense. I bought a rug, which was woven over a century ago by Amazigh Jews and which I still have. In best the Big Lebowski-style, it really ties my bedroom together.

But back to the music. I awoke the next morning, much worse for wear and definitely with a case of food poisoning. I visited the local chemist with Ali’s assistant, Barouk, found some fizzy relief in a blue bottle of tablets labeled in Arabic and French, and went on with my journey. I was going to the exquisite mountain town of Chefchouen, where most everything is painted various shades of jewel-toned blues and an incandescent white. (Blue is thought to keep both flies and malevolent spirits at bay). Barouk hailed me a taxi, and I lumbered in the back. It was a challenging hour and more between Tetouan and Chefchouen. The driver must have been driving 90 miles an hour around the continuous hairpin curves on the Rif mountain road. The sun was beating down and I was in the back seat, fairly delirious. Then the music came on. Everything became a fever dream. It was like nothing I ever heard before. Hypnotic, insistent, driving, enchanting, incantatory.

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That taxi ride has remained with me forever, a synesthetic introduction to one of the great traditions in world music. Some Moroccan music is secular, some is sacred, and much is in between. It is distinctive, but not not unlike some of the music of the Maghreb (North Africa and the northern Sahel — Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali — in particular the music of the Tuareg, known as the “Blue People” because of the indigo dye that rubs off from their clothing and colors their skin.) Classical Moroccan music is also court music, and for centuries the Master Musicians of Jajouka have played for sultans and kings. Their story also goes back centuries, to a village some 120 miles southwest of Chefchouen in a valley in the Rif Mountains. It is not easy to find, but authors Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, musicologist Robert Palmer, artist Byron Gysin, musicians Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Ornette Coleman all found their way there. The Master Musicians Of Jajouka and their leader Bachir Attar were famously recorded by the Rolling Stones in 1989 for the excellent track “Continental Drift” (featured on the fine Steel Wheels album.) Jajouka means “owl mountain” in the Dariija dialect of Moroccan Arabic.

The Master Musicians Of Jajouka featuring Bachir Attar have not only released a stunning new album on GlitterBeat Records called Dancing Under The Moon; Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records has also reissued the group’s 1995 set Jajouka Between The Mountains, replete with an extra track and refreshed sound clarity. Bachir Attar spoke with The Arts Fuse about the new releases and about the group and its history. Their manager and photographer, Cherie Nutting, has kindly provided additional information.

Engineer Jacopo Andeini recorded the music for Dancing Under the Moon, which Attar produced. Says Nutting, “Andeini stayed in the village for one week. Later, he mixed the music to present to (their label) GlitterBeat. He and Bachir work well together.” The “village,” of course, being Jajouka, which is as much a state of mind and sound as a hamlet in the Rif. Attar comments on the famous quote, first made by either William S. Burroughs or Timothy Leary, that the Master Musicians Of Morocco are “a 4,000 year old rock’n’roll band”: “Jajouka music is the question, and it is the answer. The oldest music in Morocco.” Although the group’s sound is associated with the mystical music of the Sufis, Attar says the music predates Sufism, “before all of this (pop music), before classical, before rock’n’roll. People have to think about what music means” beyond reductionist genres. People might think Timothy Leary was “crazy,” Attar adds, but Leary, like Burroughs, understood “where the roots of the music come from, they knew what the music means.” Collaborator Ornette Coleman understood their music as an aural “ocean.” (“Jnuin,” a jazzy caravanserai of a composition by Attar and Coleman with an assist from the Master Musicians Of Jajouka, can be found on the 2013 compilation, The Road To Jajouka.)

William Burroughs, Nutting adds, wrote the liner notes for 1992’s Bill Laswell-produced Apocalypse Across The Sky. Burroughs “liked the record and after its release he sent a letter to me declaring Bachir to be the authentic leader of Jajouka music.”

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Dancing Under The Moon is a musical and mystical evocation of the evening sky. The tracks are longer than those on the Apocalypse album, less explicitly “commercial.” The title track is a lunar processional, an ecstatic dance of release and celebration built on a lulling riff that winds down after an extended exultant release. “If the moon loves you, don’t care about the stars when they move,” says Attar. The song “Dancing Under The Moon” is a plea for peace. “You, me, we are not here forever. Please pray for peace.” Attar recalls a childhood lunar memory: “In the light of the Moon, there was a child, eight years old, I saw my father playing and people came to dance, from their hearts . . . And I see my grandfather also with the beautiful music.”

And it is beautiful music. Dancing Under The Moon opens with the evocative and cinematic “Dancing In Your Mind.” It is as if you are hearing a village square reveling  in celebration. “The Bird Plays For Allah” is a sweet birdsong played on the double-reed ghaita — gentle drums come in to create a jazzy foundation. Ornette Coleman’s influence is there in spirit. “Khamsa Khamsin” is regal sounding, convocational, with the drums providing a processional feel. Of all the tracks, this one most reflects the Master Musicians’ royal past. “The musicians were part of the Royal Court before the Spanish took over and divided the borders in the North of Morocco,” notes Nutting, “cutting them off from their King.” “Habibi N’Satini” opens with a plucked guinbri, joined by violins and the first vocals of the set, alternately chanted and sung. The undulated waves of rhythm and melody are lulling; the drums build up in tandem to an ecstatic release. Lastly, on “Opening the Gate,” the ghaita sounds like a snakecharmer’s call. The track reminds me of a visit to the Djeem El Fna in Marrakech, the famed square and gathering place since medieval times. It is spellbinding, a great close for the album.

The celestial sky is metaphorical for Bachir. “I don’t want to be famous, I want the music to live. Peter Gabriel is a great man, not a ‘star’ but an artist. Stars are in the sky.” He mentions his affinity for Indian music. Both Indian and Moroccan music are distinctive in their use of quartertones — “I loved Ravi Shankar, and his daughter Anoushka, too.”

Both Attar and Nutting are pleased with Peter Gabriel’s Real World’s rerelease of Jajouka Between The Mountains, now released on vinyl for the first time. “My God My Love Has Come,” the first of three tracks, is a transcendent jam-like piece, a joyous homage to the divine. The percussion is varied and intense. (My favorite of all the tracks!) On “The Real Long Night In Jajouka” drums and percussion interweave with a fluttery ghaita whose sound is evocative of a long North African night beneath the trees and stars. The set closes with “Boujeloudia,” which reaches for the sky. The ghaita play a call and response of a rhythm the suggests the tread of a herd of elephants. Very intense, this is the magic of the mountains in sonic form.

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And “Boujeloudia” is literally meant to invoke magic. The Master Musicians’ performances feature a dancer dressed as Bou Jeloud, a Pan-like figure who is half-goat, half-man. While the caprine character of Bou Jeloud is found all over Morocco, he takes on a particular form in Jajouka, where, as the story goes, Bou Jeloud gave an Attar ancestor the gift of fluty music and, when he danced, bestowed fertility on the village every spring. The music that celebrates this showcases Attar and the family of Master Musicians at their most mind-blowing.

But “only this one family can play this music,” insists Attar. “We are the gates of the music of the Earth.” It means “war to go away, don’t kill, don’t hurt people.” Bachir Attar is a very passionate man, passionate about his and family village’s art: “I have an explosion of music.” But he’s not sure if he sees a place for the group’s magical rhythms beyond another album. He’s pleased to have worked with such legends as The Rolling Stones (referring to the invigorating “Continental Drift”), but Attar has no interest in commercializing the group. “I give a lot to the rock’n’roll people, (but) I can see stopping. I am the last generation, then it’s over. You don’t want me, I’m going to say goodbye.” He feels used by cultural organizations and others, perhaps like a token shaman, a modern-day Bou Jeloud. “The head of UNESCO, the head of the Grammies, they are not artists. They never give awards for pure things. The music is the bridge between the cultures. The music is free.” He adds, “As Paul Bowles says, ‘there is nothing next.’”

Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians Of Jajouka believe that the temporal world is transitory. The music alone will live on forever. Attar is philosophical about the fires that swept Morocco, as well as Spain and Portugal, this past summer: “Thank you God for whatever you give to us, thank you for what you take from us.” I mention seeing him and the Master Musicians at Sanders Theater in Cambridge many years ago and that it was a joyous show. Attar has happy memories of that gig and has plans to tour the US again in the not-too-distant future. “I love America,” he says. Their music is a gift to all who want to seek the divine through song, as I discovered myself in a Moroccan taxi many years ago.

Cherie Nutting suggests that all those interested in Bachir Attar and The Master Musicians Of Jajouka and their touring plans to follow them on Facebook for more information.


Mark Hänser is a visual and performing artist, poet and writer, actor and musician, and educator. Mark has a BA in History from California State University Long Beach, where he majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies; a BFA in Painting and Interrelated Media, with a minor in Art History, from Massachusetts College Of Art And Design; and an Ed.M in Arts In Education from Harvard University. He has written and edited for a number of publications, including the Boston Phoenix, where he wrote about music.

Mark has taught art in a number of Boston-area arts programs, and taught drama for a semester at the Cambridge Friends School. He really enjoys donuts.

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