A Visit with the Master Musicians of Joujouka




A Visit with the Master Musicians of Joujouka by Piper Mavis

May 18th, 2014 reset - +

All photographs and video by Piper Mavis. All rights reserved.

 

I RETURNED TO MOROCCO in June 2012 to attend what was, essentially, a music festival. But this was not Glastonbury or Coachella. This was a music festival for those that found the Lake of Stars Arts Festival held in Lake Malawi too big and too broad. This was a festival for fans of Brian Jones, of sacred music, of the Beats in Tangier and of Morocco itself. The last time I had been to Morocco, it was 1999, when I was student studying abroad. Those 10-plus years were monumental for this North African nation. The former king passed away and his young pro-Western son succeeded him. Huge infrastructure projects were completed; seemingly every European fashion editor bought a vacation home in Marrakech. Perhaps the biggest change was the influx of tourists disgorged from European budget airlines into shiny new airports. Gone were the days of only two chaotic entry points: the Port of Tangier for the backpackers ferrying over from Gibraltar, and Mohammed V airport in Casablanca for everyone else. Now one could get on an EasyJet flight with a bunch of other Brits fleeing cold weather, touch down in multiple Moroccan cities, be whisked away to a pre-packaged resort without ever having to worry about a tout, a hustler, or whether one’s dress was modest enough.

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Our drive through the miles of new developments linking Tangier’s new airport to the city produced an ever-increasing sinking feeling in my stomach. In spite of all the new construction, I was relieved to discover that time stands relatively still in the medina of Tangier. Around each corner the ghosts of the Interzone still lurked gleefully in the shadows. You can still stay at El Muniria where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch, although the hotel has gotten quite a bit seedier since 1999 when elderly British ex-pat gentlemen held up the piano bar. You can relive fantasies at the current café occupying the site of Brion Gysin and Mohammed Hamri’s 1001 Nights. The owner will size you up while you give your tea order and kindly (and perhaps with an air of resignation) ask if you want to see the photo album in which — protected by well worn plastic sleeves — are photos of every artist, author, Beatnik and rock star that passed through Tangier. The Tangier American Legation (TALIM) now has a dedicated Paul Bowles room. You can easily spend a lovely few days traipsing from café to café, visiting the former haunts of the Beats, The Rolling Stones and other bohemian expats. I couldn’t help but notice along the way that every bookshelf seemed to hold a copy of The Process, The Sheltering Sky or Naked Lunch.

After a few days in Tangier, where we revisited my favorite places from my student days and dutifully made pilgrimages to every site connected to Paul Bowles, Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, Brian Jones, and The Rolling Stones, my partner and I left for Joujouka. 

The festival of the Master Musicians of Joujouka features just one band playing for over three days to a crowd no larger than 50 people. Attendees stay in the Musicians’ own homes, eat food prepared by their families and relax in the atmosphere of the village that has inspired and nurtured the musicians for over a thousand years.

 

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Above and below: Afternoon sun in the village of Joujouka 

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As we dragged our things up the dirt road to the house where we were staying, Yvonne, the wife of the festival organizer, Frank Rynne told us that it was the very same house where Brian Jones had once lodged. My partner could barely contain his excitement. He was there as a fan of psychedelia, I was there as a fan of Paul Bowles — both fan bases would not be disappointed by the next few days. After settling in, we wandered over to the “Musicians’ house” built by Mohamed Hamri, which now served as a practice and performance space. We then waited for something to happen. It took a while for me to realize that we were now on Joujouka time. There were no activities and, more importantly, no schedules. The point of the festival is to be in Joujouka and to hear the musicians free from the constraints of concert hall closing times or the distraction of daily stresses. Once you adapt to this rhythm, you can actually really listen.

We started our days just before noon with breakfast at home. This meant enough food for an army, served in a whitewashed courtyard. Eventually attendees began to appear at the Musicians’ house, and lazy afternoons slipped by wandering, talking, reading, and listening to music. My mother has a saying that if you talk to anyone long enough they are bound to tell you an interesting story eventually; amongst this group of attendees, everyone had an interesting story from the very start. The festival attracts a wide range of music journalists, writers, NGO workers, music fans, and travelers with encouragingly little pretension. Languid communal lunches and dinners were served on the floor of the tent off enormous brass platters. Just when you started to feel sleepy and considered slinking off to bed early, the evening performance would begin, usually around 11 p.m. and lasting as long as the energy did. Then the music would cease as abruptly as it had started, and Joujouka’s soundscape would, once again, be replaced by night insects. 

Each night as the music began, I found myself thinking that I would stay for just 45 minutes or so, and each night I found myself still there, entranced, at 2 a.m. Entranced is the word for it: at some point time ceases to play by its usual rules and one is truly only in the moment, a rarity and a gift in the modern world. That would be the goal, if there was one at all. To slow down. To enjoy the experience of something ancient and fundamental in a village in the Rif Mountains, out of the reach of internet, cell phones, plumbing, or paved roads. There, under the shade of an olive tree during the day or the stars at night, you can collapse into the primal vibrating forces of sound, a place that your purest self had forgotten. Rhythms so loud, so intense, and so unforgiving in length that you hear them in your vibrating chest, not just through your overwhelmed ears.

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Above and below: The Master Musicians evening performance.

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Long revered, the Musicians have played in the courts of Sultans; it is still widely believed that their music produces a trance that can heal the sick. According to legend, their ancestor was visited in a nearby cave by Bou Jeloud, a pan-like figure, who bestowed the gift of music upon them and brought fertility to the villagers. The conjuring of Bou Jeloud to insure fertility, as well as a good growing season and harvest, is still the centerpiece of Joujouka’s most important festival.

The Master Musicians trace their musical (and member) lineage back 1,200 years, leading William S. Burroughs to famously call them the “4,000-year-old rock-and- roll band." Paul Bowles and Brion Gysin first heard the Master Musicians at a Sufi music festival in the early 1950s and were transfixed. There are many impressive traditional music groups in Morocco of different genres, but the Master Musicians were a special source of influence and collaboration for Bowles, Gysin, the Beat writers, and Brian Jones and The Rolling Stones, among others. It all started with a chance encounter at a train station between 18 year-old Mohamed Hamri (who would go on to become one of Morocco’s most celebrated visual artists) and Bowles. Bowles was a great champion of Moroccan music, having famously recorded songs in various genres for The Smithsonian in the 1950s. Hamri took him and Gysin to his ancestral village of Joujouka, where his uncle was the leader of the Master Musicians. Gysin was surprised and thrilled to see that they were the same musicians that he and Bowles had seen and so admired at the festival. Gysin and Hamri went on to open the famous 1001 Nights in Tangier, where the Master Musicians performed regularly. Thus the Master Musicians’ music was introduced to Tangier’s expat community and the rest of the world.

In 1968, Hamri and Gysin would take Jones to Joujouka. While there Jones recorded the seminal album Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka. The music would go on to influence a generation of Western musicians. After a long period painting in Los Angeles, Hamri returned to Joujouka and built his home (where the Musicians still perform and practice). He would continue promoting the Musicians for the rest of his life. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Brian Jones’ Joujouka recording in 2008, the first of what became an annual festival was held organized by Frank Rynne, their current manager and friend of the late Mohammed Hamri.

 

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Above: Afternoon sun in the village of Joujouka.

Below: The next generation of musicians.

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After spending lazy afternoons lying in the grass sharing life stories with total strangers and taking long walks through the countryside, followed at every turn by a gaggle of children who will be the future musicians (like one boy with hypnotic eyes who wore the same Brion Gysin T-shirt the entire weekend) — after nights spent losing all track of time entranced by sound in a tent in the Rif Mountains — we realized it was the last day. As we watched the making of a momentous bonfire and passed the hide of a freshly skinned goat, hanging from a tree while drying in the sun, we began to suspect that the last night would be different from the others. It did not disappoint. As the flames licked the inky night sky and the music reached a feverish frenzy, Bou Jeloud himself, the North African Pan-like spirit, seemingly emerged from the fire. As we watched him dance and taunt the fire, the musicians, and the audience, I couldn’t help but believe that there is such a thing as sacred music.

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Piper Mavis is a visual artist and freelance writer.

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