The Master Musicians of Jajouka are an all-male group from Jajouka, a small village in the foothills of the Rif Mountains about a hundred kilometers south of Tangier, Morocco.
Described by William S. Burroughs as “a 4000 year old rock’n’roll band,” they are born into a unique family of musicians who have received royal patronage for centuries. Exempt from all work except making music, the Master Musicians have done nothing else since birth. They are taught from a very early age by their Master Musician family to play an ancient music that is unlike any other.
Two of the great influences on the Beat Generation, Brion Gysin, the painter and inventor, and Paul Bowles, the writer and composer, first heard the wild music of Jajouka at a festival in the summer of 1950. Gysin was entranced and determined to hear the music regularly, for the rest of his life. These were the days of the Inter-Zone, when Tangier was an international city, where anything could and did happen. In this adventurous climate, Gysin opened the now-legendary restaurant, The 1001 Nights, in the kasbah of Tangier, hiring the Jajouka musicians as the house band. However, it wasn’t until after 1968 when Gysin brought his close friend Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to Jajouka, that the sacred music was brought widely to the attention of the Western world.
The Jajoukans musically recreated festival music from their most important religious holiday and Jones eagerly recorded seven hours of the captivating, complicated sounds. It was this festival that led Gysin to believe that there were connections between the ancient rites of Pan, the ancient Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, and the local tradition in Jajouka of a young boy dressing as Bou Jeloud, the Goat God, Father of Skins, and dancing madly, whipping the villagers into a frenzy, and ensuring the health of the village for the coming year.
Jones drowned a month after returning from Morocco and the album he recorded, Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka, was released two years later, in 1971. Jones had manipulated the recordings, using various psychedelic sound treatments, that were somewhat popular at the time, yet which left the music lacking its original haunting, penetrating authenticity.
The release of “Brian Jones presents The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka” was very influential and led to scores of people visiting the village in the following years, including Ornette Coleman, the saxophone player, who recorded a track for his album “Dancing In Your Head” in the village. In 1995, the album was reissued on Point Records with extra tracks left intact, representational of the original sound.
The music of Jajouka has always been highly respected and sought after by those living in the region. The Master Musicians were the Royal Court musicians for seven kings of Morocco prior to Morocco’s occupation by France and Spain. Villagers come to Jajouka on pilgrimage, to visit the shrine of the holy man Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, who brought Islam to the valley centuries ago. It is said that this holy man plowed his field with a team of Berber lions, a feat which inspired the special Jajouka insignia, a lion created through the calligraphic weaving of sacred text from the Qu’ran. Sidi Ahmed Sheikh also had the power to heal mental illnesses and he blessed the music of Jajouka with this same healing power and to this day, the Master Musicians along with the Holy Man in the village heal the mental illnesses of the people sent from surrounding villages.
The Attar family, the keepers of the sacred music, are also the founding family of the village. They possess baraka, or the blessing of Allah, which gives them the power to heal, and the endurance required to play some of the most intense and complex music around. This family, though under tremendous financial strain, still carries on the traditional rites to this day.
The music of Jajouka uses a number of traditional instruments, including the ghaita (the Arabic version of the oboe), the lira (a bamboo flute), and the guimbri (a three stringed lute), along with double-headed Moroccan drums. The music is composed of several fairly simple parts, which are then intricately woven together in a way foreign to most Western ears, so that the resolution of individual phrases and sections can be difficult for outsiders to discern. The music can be extended indefinitely, and many performances last for days at a time, with some musicians taking breaks and others stepping in to take their place.
In 1980 the Master Musicians of Jajouka began a series of European tours, but lost momentum with the death of their chief and band leader, Hadj Abdessalam Attar, in 1982. One of his younger sons, Bachir Attar, now fronts a rejuvenated group from Jajouka and the surrounding hills. As a kind of ambassador of Jajouka, Attar frequently journeys from his homeland to Paris, London and New York, working to get the music from Jajouka out to the world, composing new songs, and collaborating with other musicians, such as Deborah Harry, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, Maceo Parker, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and The Rolling Stones, with whom The Master Musicians of Jajouka also recorded in 1989 in Tangier, an event well documented in Paul Bowles’ diary with the title “Days: A Tangier Journal.”
Bachir Attar’s latest collaboration combines the ancient sounds of the Master Musicians with composer, producer, DJ, club promoter, and tabla player, Talvin Singh. The album “Searching for the Passions” will be released under the Point Music Label (Decca Music Group) in the Spring of 2000.
Regarded by Jagger as “one of the most musically inspiring groups still left on the planet,” legend has it if they ever stop playing the world will come to an end. So, in the words of the late William S. Burroughs, “listen to the music, the primordial sounds. Listen with your whole body, let the music penetrate you and move you, and you will connect with the oldest music on earth.”
Bachir Attar is the son of the late Hadj Abdesalam Attar, who was the undisputed leader of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. He has inherited that role and is now responsible for the preservation of an endangered musical tradition, a tradition now virtually non-existent in the Western world, where time and money take precedent over ritual and meaning. This responsibility includes the care of the entire Attar family, which easily numbers several hundred. Unfortunately, due to modern constraints and impoverished conditions, the band itself has quickly diminished in size, the simple reason being that many of the potential musicians move away from the village to attend school in the city instead of learning the complex music of the ancestors. Bachir Attar has known since birth that he is the one with the baraka, the one to carry on the tradition, and so he devotes his life to securing performances for the musicians and documenting the rich and fascinating history of his family.
Brian Jones Plays With The Pipes Of Pan At Joujouka (Rolling Stones Records, 1971)
The Primal Energy That Is The Music And Ritual Of Jajouka, Morocco (Adelphi Records, 1974)
Tribe Ahl Serif: Master Musicians Of Jajouka (Musical Heritage Society, 1975)
Apocalypse Across The Sky (Axiom, 1992)
Jajouka Between The Mountains (Real World Records, 1995)
Master Musicians Of Jajouka (Point Music, 2000)
Boujeloud’s Cave – 1974 (2002)
Live Volume 1 (Jajouka Records, 2009)
The Source (Le Son Du Maquis, 2010)
The Road to Jajouka (Howe Records, 2013)
Apocalypse Live (M.O.D. Technologies, 2017)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.