The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Jajouka Or Joujouka? The Conflicted Legacy Of The Master Musicians
Richie Troughton , February 10th, 2012 04:04

For decades, the music from one small village in Morocco has rung out internationally. But a long-running dispute between two separate factions of the Master Musicians of Jajouka/Joujouka has threatened to overshadow the success of both. Richie Troughton explores the legacy of the two groups and their current projects

'Telephone Man' was a gimbri player who used to play in the village of Joujouka (just as often spelled Jajouka), decades before mobile phones finally connected the hilltop base to the outside world around ten years ago. He would visit the village from his home in nearby Tatoft, hold his ear and tell the Joujouki he was receiving a message from someone who was planning to visit. To the amazement of the other residents, more often than not, his predictions came true.

His story is one of many charming tales in the mythical folklore of Moroccan Sufi brotherhood The Master Musicians of Joujouka/Jajouka, who were described by William S. Burroughs as the "4,000-year-old rock 'n' roll band". The tiny village in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco has attracted and enchanted many visitors over the years, including Tangier-based artist Brion Gysin and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, both of whom had been introduced to the Master Musicians by Tangier-based artist, Mohamed 'The Painter Of Morocco' Hamri, who hailed from the village. How many of these influential guests were foreseen by Telephone Man remains unclear, but the group's exposure to the wider world continued to grow as LSD guru Timothy Leary followed, writing of his experience in Jail Notes, and Ornette Coleman visited to make recordings with the group in 1973.

However, their recent history has been overshadowed by a row between two separate groups who both claim to represent the rich musical heritage of the village. The wealth of misinformation and conflicting reports elsewhere means there is much to discourage potential fans from their ancient, transcendental music. 

In times gone by it was not uncommon for a group of fifty-plus Musicians to line up and wail their holy truth out and over the hills from their mountaintop home. However, today two smaller groups exist to keep the music alive: the Master Musicians of Joujouka, whose leader is Ahmed El Attar, and the Master Musicians of Jajouka Led By Bachir Attar. Whereas the Joujouka Musicians continue to live in the village and do not speak English, Bachir Attar has lived in New York and was taught English as a youth by American writer Paul Bowles. Bachir's ability to speak English has enabled him to make connections in the West and he has lived in New York at various times since the 1980s, making his name as a star of the music and breaking his ties with Ahmed El Attar's group back home.

Although the two leaders are cousins, for the last two decades both groups have released their own records and played their own concerts, working independently of each other. As a result, both have been needlessly undermined by an internationally reported dispute over authenticity and royalties. 

In the last few years the internet has provided the row with a new forum, visible for all to see - the website of the Jajouka group is littered with documents that attempt to validate their own authenticity, often questioning the credibility of the Joujouka group. In a statement on the Jajouka website dated May 12, 2009, Bachir Attar dismissed the "unauthorised" Master Musicians of Joujouka festival due to be held in the village that summer. "This is a direct attempt to hurt the music of Jajouka…," it said. "By supporting and attending the events presented by these imposters under the 'Joujouka' guise you are undermining the true music and the real musicians of Jajouka." He warned fans that the Master Musicians of Jajouka would not be performing, as they would be in London with Ornette Coleman at this time. 

To address this, Joujouka group leader Ahmed El Attar explained the difference between the two groups. "He has no connection with us, the Mallimin/Masters who live in Joujouka/Jajouka," he said of Bachir in an interview on the Joujouka blog. "... Whoever wants to know more can come to Joujouka/Jajouka to see Bachir's house and where the others musicians live. We are poor and he became rich because he takes our money. In Joujouka/Jajouka no one talks with Bachir. He is alone. Who can lead people when the people are boycotting them?" 

One of the main contributing factors for the split in the early 1980s can be traced to the question of band leadership, following the death of former leader Hadj Abdeslam Attar in 1982. Bachir, his son, claimed that he was next in line to the "hereditary" role of leader of the Master Musicians of Jajouka/Joujouka.

The idea that leadership is hereditary has been upheld in the Western media thanks to endless press releases from the international major labels who signed Bachir's Jajouka group in the 1990s. However, there is no historical basis or precedent for his claim: historically, leadership of the Masters went not just from father to son, but from family to family. And leaders in the past sixty years have been uncles and cousins of Bachir Attar, indicating that primogeniture is not the natural method for selecting a leader. Since the 1950s, several branches of the Attar family have claimed leadership. They include village painter Mohamed Hamri's uncle Sherkin, both Ahmed El Attar and Bachir Attar's respective fathers, Mallim Ali El Attar (now aged 102, the last surviving Musician who played for Brian Jones), Mallim Fudal and Mohamed Attar (known as Berdouz). In the village, the medieval guild-like tradition observed by the Joujouka group is that the role of leader is decided by the Master Musicians, and they may change their leader at anytime by consensus. Following the leadership of Ali Abdeslam Attar (1983-90) and Mohamed Attar (1990-99), current leader Ahmed El Attar was elected in 1999. 

The rift between the two groups was traced back further still, to the 1970s, by Frank Rynne, the Joujouka group's manager and producer of 20 years. During that time the leadership of the Master Musicians of Joujouka/Jajouka changed, and Bachir's father Hadj Abedeslam El Attar was replaced by popular vote by Mallim Fudal. 

The row over the Joujouka or Jajouka name gets even more confusing when taking into account that both are effectively inaccurate Westernised variations of the name. The "official" Latinisation of the village name in Moroccan - Zahjoukah - although not associated with the music, is more likely to be used on a map. It seems Jajouka is more accurate phonetically, but before the split the "Joujouka" spelling was used on the first widely available recording of their music - the Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka LP [Rolling Stones Records, 1971]. In the early 1970s the "Jajouka" spelling was also used by the group: on double LP Tribe Ahl Serif [Musical Heritage Society, 1975], The Primal Energy That Is The Music And Ritual Of Jajouka, Morocco [Adelphi, 1974], and the Ornette Coleman collaboration on his Dancing In Your Head album [1975].

The Primal Energy… LP, having been long out of print, was recently reissued on Sol Re Sol Records. Another intriguing development is also in the pipeline, as an unseen 16mm colour film was recently unearthed of the Master Musicians performing in the village around the June 1972 recordings which made up Tribe Ahl Serif. This important historical document is currently being restored and is planned for release, along with the reissue of the much sought-after Tribe Ahl Serif recordings.

Post-split records released from the 1990s onwards featured the respective Joujouka or Jajouka monikers - the former troupe affiliated with village painter Mohamed Hamri. In 1995 Philip Glass' Point label released a reissue of the Brian Jones album, but changed the spelling to 'Jajouka' and replaced Mohamed Hamri's original cover painting with a contemporary photo of Bachir Attar. Interestingly, Bachir Attar's group were listed as Groupe Jahjouka at a recent festival in Morocco, while another variation has appeared on an Arabic Facebook page dedicated to (what translates as) Group Zahjouka, promoting the Joujouka band. 

Mohamed Attar, aka Berdouz, dancing while the massed rhaitas of Joujouka play, June 1972 [Still from 1972 film Tribe Ahl Serif, copyright John Antony/Master Musicians of Joujouka]

Having read reports of the dispute, I entered the village with some trepidation when I visited the following year. I had seen the Master Musicians of Jajouka Led By Bachir Attar in 2009, supporting Ornette Coleman at his Meltdown festival in London, and for one of their daily matinee shows on the South Bank terrace outside the Royal Festival Hall. Since then I have spent two weekends in the village in the company of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, staying with their families at their annual festival in the village. While talk of the dispute between the two groups may be discouraging for some fans, nothing could have prepared me for the warm greetings and goodwill I encountered throughout my stay and subsequent visit in the tranquil environs of the village. I was reassured to find there is little sign of the bitter feud. 

If you go to the village, it is the children of Joujouka Musicians who you will see playing in the village square, their wives cooking together in the communal kitchen, and it is among their homes that guests stay during the annual Joujouka festival. This is the tight-knit community that you meet, and you are free to wander around the village and out into the surrounding countryside. Brion Gysin once said that as long as the music continued to play in the "little blue hills" of Joujouka, the world would keep turning.  

According to legend the Musicians' music was gifted to a village shepherd in a nearby cave by half-man half-goat flute player called Boujeloud. Brion Gysin likened Boujeloud to the ancient god Pan, associated with pipe music and fertility in both ancient Rome (in 'the panic of Lupercalia') and ancient Greece. If Attar, the shepherd, revealed the secret of his music to the villagers he would owe him a bride. And so when Boujeloud heard music in the village from his cave lair, Magara, he soon arrived to claim his woman. The ritual is still performed in the village as part of religious festivals to bring fertility and yield crops. Boujeloud is played by a man in goat skins, his bride-to-be, the mad 'Crazy' Aisha, by a dancing boy in drag. The dancers incite the Musicians as they play along.

A large crowd of young men turned out to see the band when we were in the village last summer. They proved there is still interest in the music as they whooped and yelled in revere at the Boujeloud spectacle. Many of them lost themselves in the music, shaking all over as they danced ecstatically, and we saw one young boy getting a lira tutorial from a Musician.  

The village's only extravagant building is the large walled compound containing the Musicians' house, built for the band with help from Brion Gysin and Mohamed Hamri, which Bachir Attar has taken ownership of. A new wall crowned with distinctly unwelcoming shards of broken wine bottle glass was built around the house in 2008. The Joujouka group has a new base about 100m away.

In recent years the Jajouka group have enjoyed more tours and high profile releases overseas, but when the Master Musicians of Joujouka were asked to perform at Glastonbury 2011, it was an opportunity for Musicians from the village to play to their largest audience to date. Prior to Glastonbury, the Joujouka group had not visited England since 1980 when the then 35-strong pre-split group visited Europe for three months on their first major tour, including a gig at Worthy Farm. Glastonbury marked a return of sorts for group leader Ahmed El Attar, who had played on that 1980 tour as a young drummer. Several other current Musicians followed in the footsteps of their relatives who had been present on that trip.

Opening the main Pyramid stage on the Friday of Glastonbury, the Master Musicians of Joujouka played a head swirling trance set, managing to do their huge repertoire justice within their allotted 40 minutes. The oldest Musician, rhaita player Mohamed Mokchan, 78, weaved up the line, teasing his bandmates with colourful notes from his pipe. Ahmed El Attar, meanwhile, stepped out to the front, banging his tebel/drum in the air, enjoying his moment of rock stardom, proselytising the group's message to a spellbound audience. A chaos call halfway through the set signalled the entrance of the dancing dervish, the goat God character himself, Boujeloud. Wrapped in goat skins (not a gorilla outfit as some commentators saw it), wearing a floppy hat and brandishing olive branches, he would rush over to onlookers at the side of the stage, swiping at them with his branches. The Musicians closed their set with a traditional Joujouka sufi Islamic prayer, wishing peace and blessings on festival organisers and everybody watching. Afterwards they led a post-gig celebration, with BB King drummer Tony 'TC' Crawford joining them for an all-drumming, all-dancing dressing room jam, followed by eating lunch backstage next to the Wu Tang Clan. Surreal scenes.

Together the Joujouka group are tight, a true brotherhood, who would do anything for each other. At Glastonbury they adjusted one another's uniform orange turbans, helped each other shave and even tucked each other in at night, huddled away side by side in their tipi. This touching intimacy was extended to the crew, as we sat in for breakfast, and shared lazy lira performances in the mornings with one or two lucky passers-by. Somehow the Musicians even found room to dance in the tiny space among the huddled bodies. As at home, the Musicians play and play, all day long.

Master Musicians of Joujouka onstage at Glastonbury 2011. Photo by Jill Furmanovsky.

In the build up to the Master Musicians of Joujouka's appearance at this year's Glastonbury festival, Frank Rynne described the group as the loudest folk band in the world. His statement is supported by the fact that there are few, if any, acoustic instruments louder than the rhaita double-reed woodwind pipes used by the Masters in their sufi trance mantras. Glastonbury provided the perfect opportunity to see just how voluble this music could be, in an experiment that would surely have delighted early champion of the group Brion Gysin.

As well as opening the Pyramid Stage, the group were to perform a series of impromptu sets over the course of the weekend in an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the annual festival held in Joujouka. They played one particularly iconic set at the highest vantage point overlooking the whole site, lined up in front of Hollywood-style 'Glastonbury' lettering and faced with a panoramic patchwork of tents stretching as far as the eye could see. Captured by the group's exquisite harmolodic 'sonic jewellery', bystanders who had been enjoying a peaceful retreat away from the mayhem elsewhere were given no choice but to pay attention, many joining in to dance alongside the Musicians as they walked through the scattering of bodies, like the last gang in town, spreading their 'baraka' (spiritual blessings). 

"The music flows in streams to nourish and fructify the terraced fields below," wrote Gysin in his liner notes for the Brian Jones LP. High above the rest of the festival site, the Musicians did indeed fill the air with the drone tones of their sacred music, subliminally infiltrating the mass consciousness across the site. The view from up there was reminiscent of the rolling hills surrounding Joujouka, but with a temporary city of tents in place of the green valleys. When the sound travelled out and over, the effect was akin to Gysin's description: "The great wind drops out of your head and you hear the heavenly music again."

For a mesmerising half hour the group could be heard across the entire site from hill to hill, until they were abruptly stopped - for drowning out the band on the Park Stage down the hill (where Radiohead and Pulp played their 'secret' sets). Grudgingly the Musicians had to down their instruments. Or was that triumphantly? Either way, around 200,000 people had been exposed to the power of Joujouka music.

Photo by Richie Troughton

It was indicative of a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Joujouka group, who have not had a major label record deal since the release of the Brian Jones LP. Nor have they ever had tour support, and apart from organising the festival in the village for the last four years and this year's Glastonbury, their exposure to the outside world had been relatively low key. By way of contrast, Bachir Attar's Jajouka group toured extensively in the 1990s and have been involved in several high profile collaborations. 

Back in Morocco, aside from the odd bootleg you will rarely find the extraordinary and complex music of Joujouka/Jajouka at cassette stands, though there are other groups that play similar melodies and dress in similar djellaba outfits. At home the group play weddings and religious festivals, and the village is still a destination for those who wish to receive healing through the sacred power of the music. That said, their beat and counterculture connections are not forgotten outside of Morocco, The Master Musicians of Joujouka are set to appear on the forthcoming The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco compilation and and the Joujouka and Jajouka groups have both recently collaborated with Western acts.

The Joujouka group appeared on last year's Jane's Addiction album The Great Escape Artist, on which they play a blast of rhaita drone, adding traditional reed tones to the track 'End To The Lies'. The Master Musicians of Joujouka also debuted their Joujouka Interzone project, in collaboration with Frank Rynne and French sound/visual artist Joachim Montessuis, at an international digital arts festival in Casablanca in October. The show, dedicated to the trio of Brian Jones, Brion Gysin and Mohamed Hamri, found the Musicians performing their traditional trance music live in front of a backdrop of archive and specially commissioned visuals, edited live in the style of Gysin's fast 'cut-up' technique. Flickering dreamachines overlap with timeless clips that cover the documented history of the group. It is a project the Musicians hope to perform elsewhere in the future and should not be missed.

While the Joujouka group have stated a desire to conserve the purity of the ancient music in its traditional form, Bachir Attar and the Jajouka group have moved the music into new directions, experimenting with electronic instrumentation. In Germany last year, Bachir created a mind boggling new direction for the music by moving into dubstep in collaboration with Brooklyn producer Dub Gabriel, under the name Jajouka Soundsystem.

For those interested in the music, it makes sense to support both groups, and claims of authenticity - or lack thereof - ought to be taken with a pinch of salt, as the chance to see either group has been rare. In January the Master Musicians of Jajouka Led By Bachir Attar toured Europe with dates in Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Aarhus, Hamburg and Prague, sating curious appetites to see this ritual music closer to home than North Africa. The seven-man touring lineup included Bachir Attar and his brother Mustapha, plus Musicians originally from the village, but who now live in the nearby town of Ksar El Kebir, and guests from a neighbouring tribe. Following a five-night run in Germany last summer, the Jajouka group's first German appearances in 20 years, Bachir said in an interview with English language Berlin magazine Exberliner that a full ten-piece lineup could not attend, as the concert promoters could not pay high enough fees to cover the larger ensemble's flight costs. Logistical difficulties mobilising so many Master Musicians ensures that any chance to see either band perform this sacred music ought to be welcomed.

At Glastonbury the Master Musicians of Joujouka lined up 11 Musicians and the village's main dancer (Boujeloud). The appearance signalled their arrival on the world stage and quashed any question over their legitimacy. In Joujouka Interzone they have a technicolour time capsule trip that unfolds, as hundreds of years of history pass before your eyes.

The Joujouka festival in the village is set for its fifth installment this June. The money it brings in provides a welcome boost to the local economy, where people have so little, but share so much more. If one wants to see the Master Musicians perform the sacred music as experienced by Gysin, Burroughs, Jones, Coleman and more, then the Joujouka festival in the village provides a perfect opportunity. For now there is no better place to hear the unmistakable tonality, voracity and intuition of the Joujouka/Jajouka players than ringing out over the Rif mountains. Inshallah, there may soon be more opportunities for a wider audience to experience the ecstatic healing music of the Master Musicians.

Header photo copyright: 2011 Hermann