Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Discord among the Master Musicians

Brion Gysin died in Paris in 1986. I remember he always use to say that if the Master Musicians of Jajouka ever stopped playing, the legend that holds the world will end. He often worried about the chronic poverty of the musicians, and the diluting effect of contact with the modern world upon the ancient music. But the Pipes of Pan survive to this day. Listen to this music, the primordial sounds of a 4000 year old rock 'n roll band... listen with your whole body, let the music penetrate and move you, and you will connect with the oldest music on earth.
That is William Burroughs writing about the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Today the Master Musicians are known to a wide audience through the albums produced by Rolling Stone Brian Jones and record industry maverick Bill Laswell. Their 1971 LP Brian Jones Presents the Pan Pipes at Joujouka has been described as the original world music album and the executive producer for its 1995 re-release was none other than Philip Glass.

But depite this acclaim Brion Gysin's worries about the effect of the modern world on the ancient music proved to be well founded and the recent history of the Master Musicians has featured primordial music making and bitter internecine feuds in equal measures. These feuds prompted protests at Philip Glass concerts some years ago and still continue today. Which means the current Wikipedia entry for Brian Jones' iconic album carries the health warning "This article's factual accuracy is disputed" and two competing groups of musicians perform on stages around the world, each claiming to be the authentic 4000 year old rock 'n roll band.

The Master Musicians of Jajouka are an ecstatic brotherhood. They hold the hereditary position of guardians and performers at the tomb of the Sufi saint Sidi Hmed Shikh in the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco where they perform ritual dances at religious festivals celebrating the goat-man Bou Jeloud and the demoness Aisha Qandisha. In the past the Master Musicians have been the official Moroccan court musicians and the sound of their distinctive oboe-like double reed rhaitas accompanied the Sultan's progress to the Friday mosque. Their performance tradition may predate even Sufism and the eminent Finnish sociologist Edvard Westermarck (1862-1939) suggested that the Master Musicians' wild music has its roots in ancient Greek Dionysian rituals.


The transition from ancient to modern cultural icons came when Brion Gysin, whose circle included Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, hired the Master Musicians in 1954 to play in his legendary Tangier restaurant The 1001 Nights. Gysin's attention had been drawn to the Jajouka musicians by his friend the Moroccan artist Mohamed Hamri and when the Rolling Stones visited Tangier in 1967 Gysin took Brian Jones to Jajouka. The result was the album that started the world music bandwagon rolling and which also set the Master Musicians on a collision course with the modern world.

Brian Jones and recording engineer George Chkiantz taped the musicians in Jajouka in July 1968 and Jones mixed and edited the album in London. But he died in 1969 and Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka (that original spelling of the village has an importance that will emerge later) did not finally reach the stores until 1971 when it appeared as the first release on the new Rolling Stones Records label. With its insistent rhythms, beat generation connections and aroma of kif, the album quickly attracted a cult following and a song with the refrain 'Ah Brahim Jones, Jajouka really stoned!' soon appeared in the Master Musicians' sets.


Despite being a field recording Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka was never intended to be a work of ethnomusicology and the liberal use of stereo phasing and panning in Jones' remix is typical of studio rock productions of the time. But the album succeeded in bringing the Master Musicians to the attention of the music cognoscenti and in 1991 the pioneer of 'collision music' Bill Laswell and engineer Oz Fritz travelled to Jajouka to record them using 12 track digital equipment. Laswell eschewed the post-production studio trickery of the Brian Jones album and instead presented the Master Musicians in startlingly lifelike sound on Apocalypse Across the Sky. William Burroughs supplied the title and sleeve notes, and the album is a sonic triumph although it does lack the atmospheric hashish haze that makes the Brian Jones production so special. The CD was issued on Laswell's own Axiom record label, it is still available as an MP3 download and copies of the deleted and sonically superior CD can still be found - either should be snapped up if it is not already in your collection.

After a period out of the catalogue Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka was reissued in 1995 under license to Point Music, a label which was a joint venture between Philip Glass, Michael Riesman and Philips Classics. This re-release, which is still in the catalogue, changed the title of the album to Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka. The retitled and repackaged disc created considerable controversy because some of the original musicians were denied royalties from the reissued disc and Brion Gysin’s original sleeve note was edited to remove references to Mohamed Hamri, who is generally credited with playing an important role in bringing Brian Jones to Jajouka. In addition Hamri's artwork for the original sleeve seen at the head of this post was replaced by the design seen below.


These controversial changes, which sparked protests at concerts by Philip Glass and the Master Musicians' leader Bachir Attar, were just one manifestation of a long-running feud that had split the musicians into two factions. This dated from 1988 when a progressive younger group led by Bachir Attar broke away from the more traditional Master Musicians. Triggering the split was a disputed double-booking involving a folklore festval in Marrakech and a TV film in Jajouka. All of which makes Brion Gysin's worries about "the diluting effect of contact with the modern world upon the ancient music" seem remarkably prescient.

Despite attempts at reconciliation the split escalated and continues today with two competing groups claiming to carry on the ancient Moroccan musical tradition. In one corner are the Master Musicians of Joujouka led by Ahmed Attar who are opening the prestigous 2011 Glastonbury Festival. In the other corner are the Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar (practically everyone in the village of Jajouka is an Attar) who recently played a Brion Gysin tribute concert in Tangier. The acrimonious split among the Master Musicians can be sampled in this post on the Joujouka group's blog.


All of which rather overshadows the music that the Master Musicians have produced in their various groupings. Following their acclaimed collaboration with Brian Jones the Jajouka band appeared on Ornette Coleman's 1977 album Dancing in Your Head and the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels in 1989. In recent years the musicians from the Jajouka and Joujouka groups have worked independently with a wide range of musicians including Talvin Singh, Marianne Faithfull, the Klezmatics, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with who they recorded the soundtrack of the 2001 film The Cell. In 2009 the Jajouka group released the first disc on their own label Jajouka Records and even more recently have ventured into dubstep with their Jajouka Soundsystem project.

As I researched this article three things particularly struck me. First, the acrimony among the Masters and their followers is remarkable even for an industry that is famous for its dog eats dog culture. Secondly, almost all the published accounts of Jajouka and its music are written by transparently partisan supporters of either the Jajouka or Joujouka factions. And thirdly, what could be one of the richest available sources on the career of the Master Musicians before the 1988 split is usually discredited or ignored.


In early 1973 music journalist Stephen Davis, producer Joel Rubiner and photographer David Silver spent several weeks in Jajouka on assignment for National Geographic. Stephen Davis went on to write best selling biographies of Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones, and to ghost write Michael Jackson's autobiography Moonwalk. In between building his writing career Davis returned to Jajouka a number of times over two decades and in 1993 published Jajouka Rolling Stone, A Fable of Gods and Heroes. The dust jacket describes the book as "a magical debut novel", yet Jajouka Rolling Stone reads like a chronicle of Stephen Davis' time with the Master Musicians. The cast of characters includes Brion Gysin, Paul Bowles, William Burroughs and Brian Jones, the events and dates correspond almost exactly with other factual accounts, and there are extensive quotations from Gysin, Bowles, Burroughs and others. Yet the book was published as fiction.

If you are confused, so was the public when Jajouka Rolling Stone was published by Random House in 1993. Although the book survived three hardback editions it eventually went out of print and is almost forgotten today. Which is something of a puzzle as Stephen Davis is one of the few people who was actually there with the Master Musicians in Jajouka. The provenance of the 300 page "novel" has always intrigued me, so after re-reading Jajouka Rolling Stone during my recent trip to Morocco I contacted Stephen Davis in the States and asked if he would finally tell the true story of the book. To my delight he agreed and our exclusive email discussion, which is an important addition to the story of the Master Musicians and also suggests there may be an unreleased mastertape of an iconic Jajouka album in the vaults, can be read here.


* Sources for this article include Nothing is True but Everything is Permitted - The Life of Brion Gysin by John Geiger, Paul Bowles' Travels - Collected Writings 1950-1993, The Shambala Guide to Sufism by Carl Ernst, Jajouka Rolling Stone - A Fable of Gods and Heroes by Stephen Davis and the sleeve notes of Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka and Apocalypse Across the Sky and the header quote is from William Burroughs' note for the latter album. The website of the Master Musicisns of Jajouka is here and that of their Joujouka counterparts is here.

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