Renewed Pandemonium: The Continuing Legend of the Master Musicians of Jajouka
Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact email@example.com for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
As the performance nears end, a dancer takes the stage, clad head to toe in goat skin. To the accompaniment of five shrill oboes and an arsenal of seven drummers, the dancer runs around the stage, flailing left and right, oleander branches in his hands, driven by the outlandish, incomprehensible rhythms and piercing tones of the musicians in overdrive.
Boujeloud, this character of legend, dances to realign the forces of fecundity once a year in a northern Moroccan ritual. It is a dance few of the spectators will soon forget. This spectacle is not taking place in a Moroccan village to insure a plentiful and prosperous year, but rather on a U.S. stage for the entertainment of concertgoers, happily consuming a convenient cross-cultural experience. The Master Musicians of Jajouka performed these rites this past fall in concert halls from Ann Arbor to Berkeley in their first North American tour.
Like the Throat Singers of Tuva, the Bulgarian State Women's Choir, and the Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Jajoukans have found a new gig bringing a local musical tradition to European and American ears hungry for music untainted by global pop. To satisfy that appetite, their music has found its way onto airwaves, into record shops, and even into dance clubs all over the world.
By evidence of the current boom in the world music scene, the mass market is becoming one of the largest patrons of once local arts. Artists from East to West have long wrestled with the tension between artistic integrity and the demands of sponsors. As the Master Musicians of Jajouka enter the international market, will Boujeloud be asked to dance on cue to the tune of the global market?
A glance backward through Jajouka's musical legends and history reveals, however, that the Master Musicians have always played music in various settings for different occasions for different patrons. Their current incarnation as touring and recording artists is merely the latest episode in a long and varied history of adaptation in the face of changing social situations, through which the music has always remained vital. Their recent musical collaborations suggest that this vitality will remain the norm.
Jajouka is a village in the foothills of the Rif Mountains in Northwest Morocco. This area has seen a parade of cultures over the last two millennia, beginning with the indigenous Berber population, continuing with Phoenician and Roman settlements, and on to the Arab influx beginning in the 8th century.
The Master Musicians have been the town's musical ensemble for centuries, playing at weddings, social gatherings as well as performing Boujeloud's ritual music and dance at the yearly festival of 'Aid al-Kbir. Unlike most wedding troupes, however, membership can be attained only by birth into specific families, traced to two ancestors, Attar and Rtobi. Legend relates that these two original Master Musicians were instructed in music by the saint Sidi Hamid Shikh, who introduced Islam to the region of Jajouka sometime after the 9th century A.D. In return for their musical services, the saint promised the musicians that they and their descendants would always be able to live by means of music alone. To this day, the Master Musicians hold a ceremony every Friday at the saint's shrine in Jajouka at which pilgrims call on the musicians to channel the saint's baraka—or divine blessing—through the music to ask God to heal the sick or, perhaps, provide a pregnant mother with a male child.
At one time the musicians received a patronage from Morroco's ruling dynasty, and a tithe from local farmers. Before the French occupation of Morocco in 1912, a small group of Jajoukans lived in the royal palace and played the sultan to bed and to the mosque on Fridays. This patronage enabled them to continue living, as the saint promised them, free from the need to work outside of music. At some point during the French protectorate, however, Jajouka lost its patronage from the King.
At the moment when the musicians needed a new musical outlet to replace their lost patronage, Jajouka's western patronage began. Brion Gysin, the English writer and painter, heard the Master Musicians first at a saint's festival near Tangier with expatriate American composer and author Paul Bowles in 1950. He was so struck by their music that he declared, "I just want to hear that music for the rest of my life. I want to hear it every day, all day". Gysin established a nightclub in Tangier, The Thousand and One Nights, with the specific purpose of providing a venue to hear Jajouka music on a consistent basis. This engagement lasted from 1954 to 1958 with a break in 1956 when Morocco gained its independence.
Jajouka's most famous entrance into Western musical consciousness, however, was the release of the LP, Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka (1971: Rolling Stones Records; CD reissue on Point Records). Jones, who was brought to Jajouka by Brion Gysin, recorded the group in 1967 while still a member of the Rolling Stones. Jones' mysterious death in 1969, his use of exotic instruments such as sitar and marimba on the Stones' mid-60's recordings, and the Stones' toying with devil imagery gave the album an instant mystique uncommon for an album of international folk music.
The most gripping track on the LP is a montage which fills side one, opening with the processional music for the saint Sidi Hamid Shikh, followed by a women's group chant with hand drums, and closing with the Boujeloud music. Jones wove these pieces together in psychedelic fashion with tape-loop echo and phase shifting, creating a thunderous, apocalyptic effect throughout the whole side.
Brion Gysin's liner notes to the LP focus on the connection of the Boujeloud ritual to the rites of Pan. Gysin suggests that Boujeloud's dance during the 'Aid al-Kbir is a disguised version of the Roman Lupercalia rite, and that Boujeloud is, in fact, Pan the fertility god himself, surviving from Roman times under the veil of Islam. In Morocco, Roman and African pantheons were widely and easily assimilated under the Arab concept of genies. The springtime Lupercalia featured a race in which a man in the role of Pan ran through the streets chasing women. A barren woman, if hit by Pan in the chase, might overcome her sterility.
A full-page advertisement in Rolling Stone magazine announced the new release. A quote from Dr. Timothy Leary heralding, in large Gothic type, "The 4000-year-old Rock and Roll band," reflecting the enthusiasm of the psychedelic generation. “Sit around cutting and smoking Kif (marijuana) and when the fiesta was ready, play all night. Talk about hip. Four thousand years of canny old show-biz wisdom.”
What was actually being sold here? Though Brian Jones' had reworked the raw tapes he recorded in Jajouka, adding his own stereophonic sensibility, the liner notes concentrate on the authenticity of the Boujeloud dance, which held the most appeal for counter-cultural westerners. In fact, however, only the last piece on the first side originates in the Boujeloud dance.
Regarding Dr. Leary's "4000 year old Rock and Roll band" moniker, the "4000 year" aspect must refer to the cultic practices of the rites of Pan in general rather than to Master Musicians of Jajouka specifically. The Attars are of Arab origin, and Arabs have been in Morocco for not more than 1300 years. The "rock and roll" aspect alludes, ostensibly, to the great amounts of kif allegedly consumed by the musicians, and perhaps also to the fertility rites (in the original rhythm-and-blues sense of "rocking and rolling"). But the Master Musicians of Jajouka, with their various religious and community functions, can't really be considered a counter-cultural, youth-oriented performing unit, which the term "rock and roll band" seems to imply.
This is clearly a case of the media constructing an identity for foreign musicians, tailored to appeal to a certain record-buying audience at home. To entice the young, hip Rolling Stones audience with an album of Moroccan mountain music, the company emphasized the elements that most resonated with their lifestyle - sex, drugs and rock and roll. The Master Musicians of Jajouka entered the western world, then, as a newly discovered group of ancient pagan hippies.
The Jajoukans apparently welcomed their newfound cross-cultural notoriety. Not only did they need a new financial opportunity, but the legends and history of the Master Musicians show culture-crossing to be more the norm than the exception. The Attars, of Arab descent, were part of the migration that brought Islam to Morocco. Boujeloud, through his identity as Pan or at least an indigenous Berber deity, entered the Attar's folklore after their arrival in Morocco.
The story of Jajouka's involvement with the West itself reads like a legend. At a time when the ravages of colonialism had threatened the continued existence of the group, a young blond Englishman arrived in their village. In his wake, The Master Musicians of Jajouka have become known around the world, releasing several recordings, and guesting on albums by the Rolling Stones and Ornette Coleman. Although Brian Jones spent only one night in Jajouka, he holds a special place in the musicians' hearts. The events he set in motion, despite their obvious commercial aspects, have provided for the musicians, similarly to their other characters of legend.
The doors to the Western musical market which Brian Jones and Brion Gysin opened have, however, been slow in revitalizing the group. Bachir Attar, leader of the group, has said that the current generation of Jajoukans may be the last to play this music, as fewer and fewer of the younger Attars are interested in continuing with the music of their forefathers. Perhaps the current flurry of activity may change that situation.
The Master Musicians' 1992 album, Apocalypse Across The Sky (Axiom/Island Records), their first major release since the Brian Jones LP, is, on first listen, a much more straightforward presentation of the music than Jones' recording. The oboes, lutes, drums, and flutes of the ensemble shimmer, free of the psychedelic varnish of Jones' production. However, Bill Laswell's uncanny ear and high-tech production infuse the recording with subtleties that will please both purist and non-purist.
Bachir Attar himself has been living on and off in New York, active in the city's cosmopolitan jazz/improv scene. On his solo album, The Next Dream (1992: CMP), also produced by Laswell, he weaves traditional Jajoukan melodies and grooves with more sparse percussion and freer forms, opening the space for improvisation. The recording also boasts a guest appearance by Maceo Parker, long-time tenor saxophonist for James Brown's band. Attar has said that "the music has always changed... and it must continue to change if it is to remain alive.” 
Boujeloud dancing on college campuses? Jajouka rhythms floating in the mix at the local club? Sidi Hamid Shikh told Attar and Rtobi that their descendants would always be able to live making music, but he didn't guarantee their world would stay the same. Boujeloud is now shaking his switches at hundreds each night rather than waiting all year to unleash his pandemonium. Through the baraka of the saint, the graces of Brian Jones and Brion Gysin, and the fecundity of the goat-god, this activity emerges as an auspicious renewal of a grand musical tradition. And it may seem stranger to us than it does to the Master Musicians of Jajouka.
Tim Fuson is a graduate student in ethnomusicology at U.C. Berkeley. He has studied Gnawa music in Marrakech and pop music in California, and performs both.