tue 28/09/2021

The Master Musicians of Joujouka review - a 4000 year-old rock'n'roll band | reviews, news & interviews

The Master Musicians of Joujouka review - a 4000 year-old rock'n'roll band

The Master Musicians of Joujouka review - a 4000 year-old rock'n'roll band

Healing music from the Rif Mountains of Morocco

Boujeloud, the goat man of JoujoukaHerman Vandershot - SOFAM

The Master Musicians of Joujouka, described by William Burroughs as a “4000 year-old rock’n’roll band”, and recorded by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones in the late 1960s, have always been something of a cult – even in their own land.

Based in the rural foothills of the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco, they are a professional clan that delivers performances renowned for their extraordinary transformative power.

I first heard them in 1980, when musical adventurer Rikki Stein, later manager of Fela Kuti, brought the musicians to Britain on their on their first tour, a low-key affair, that included informal outdoor venues at Dartington Hall and Port Eliot, and private parties at houses in London and Devon. It was at the time when Peter Gabriel and I were dreaming up WOMAD, and listening to a great deal of wonderful music from traditions we hardly knew. I wasn’t ready, though, for the mix of the visceral and spiritual that these gentle yet wild Moroccans were so keen to share with a new audience. Many, from Brion Gysin to Jarvis Cocker, Ornette Coleman to Robert Plant have spoken of the impact of this music – sounds that blast one’s head open in the way of a potent mind-altering substance, and light up the body, as if plugged into a cosmic form of the mains. The most startling feature of their sound are the raitas, high-pitched, harmonic-rich reed instruments that are kept going thanks to uninterrupted circular breathing. It wasn’t surprising to learn that the Master Musicians played at a shrine every Friday, for the benefit of people suffering from diseases of the soul.

This is music that trades on a great deal of hypnotic repetition, both in terms of the relentless rolling of polyrhythmic drums, and vocals that escape tempered unison and create instead an otherworldly and ceaselessly shifting pattern that eludes the mind’s quest for comfortable predictability. The same can be said of the interlacing of flutes that feature on some of the Joujouka musicians’s songs. Distortion, melisma, sliding up and down microtonal intervals: these departures from what someone trained in Western classical music would consider acceptable, have always been identified – in traditions that value them – as openings or fault-lines through which the ear can enable the listener to let go of normal consciousness, and connect with a source that offers healing and transcendence.

There is a moment on the newly released recording of a 2016 concert in Paris, on the track entitled “Brian Jones Zahjouka Very Stoned” when the solo vocal by Abdeslam Boukhzar hits some flat notes, surely unintentionally, even in a musical universe that makes a virtue of sliding tones. The backing vocals, essential to the call and response characteristic of so much North African music, are pitch perfect with carefully calibrated melisma that touches the heart but the solo feels slack. This is disappointing in the context of otherwise such scintillating music. The new double album features a very ‘live’ capture of a concert that sparkles with the atmosphere that is no doubt very different from the freewheeling, kif-fuelled ambiance of the Rif mountain village the musicians hail from. And yet, as with much trance music – the intrinsic power is not altogether absent when out of context. The recording is available on vinyl, and digitally, from 23 April. The treat is a 58 minute slice of the Boujedoud ritual that provides a climax to the Joujouka ritual. This long piece features the wild dance of a man wearing a goat skin. In the village he strikes onlookers, men and women with a branch, chasing away evil spirits, not least the female ‘demon’ Aisha Qandisha, who is also a feature of other trance ceremonies among the Gnaoua and the Aissaoua, other sects that work their healing all over Morocco. Boujeloud also confers blessings and fertility, albeit in a wild and unruly manner.The ritual is older than anyone can remember, and its origins are very likely connected with Dionysiac rites and the cult of Pan. Both gods were associated with animal fury and disorder, but a chaos out of which healing comes, restructuring the listener’s emotional and physical being. The frenetic drumming on the tabl, and the piercing sound of the raitas feel like chaos made music – and yet held together by a discipline that these master musical healers have passed on through the generations. This is, to use the words of musician Justin Adams, who is exceptionally familiar with the trance music of North and West Africa, a ‘soul science’, the knowledge around making music that enhances the spiritual and physical well-being of those who hear it.

The second time I heard the Master Musicians of Joujouka was on Plymouth Hoe, on a cold and damp day. I had arrived with flu, and a temperature of 39°C.  I was feeling terrible. The raitas started up, along with the insistent clatter of the drums. I felt as if my heart, and indeed my whole body, were being assaulted: the high pitch, the endless stream of sound produced by circular breathing and the ear-splitting harmonics. I could feel as if my aches were melting away, and my body were being magically re-charged.

I became something of a groupie – the only time in my life – and followed the musicians for a few weeks, drawn so powerfully to the magic of their sound. They aren’t unique by any means, and the instruments they use to work wonders are found all over a trail that goes from the nadaswaram and thavil of South Indian temples to the zurna and davul of Roma bands that play at festivities in Turkey and throughout the Balkans. The sophistication of this simple yet effective ‘soul science’ is universal, and refined over many centuries. There are no side effects to this musical medicine – just a kind of bliss that makes the body and soul function at their highest potential.

The ritual is older than anyone can remember, and its origins are very likely connected with Dionysiac rites

Share this article

Comments

I still have the original cassette issued by Stein himself when the group first came to UK. You discreetly make no mention of the acrimonious split in the Jajouka musicians which is a long and complicated tale still burning today sadly (see the faction memoir by Steven Jones 'Jajouka Rolling Stone') I kept in touch with Bachir Attar and mainly his partner Cherie Nutting who was a close friend to Paul Bowles. I met up with him when they were here in UK a few years back playing at Milton Court. I wonder whether this new release will stoke the fires again.

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters