Who are the real Master Musicians?

Headlining this year's Glastonbury Festival are U2, B. B. King, Coldplay, Paul Simon and the Master Musicians of Joujouka. The band from a remote village in Morocco's Rif mountains are playing on Glastonbury's iconic pyramid stage because the Master Musicians are the guardians of a 4000 year old musical tradition that has found expression in classic albums produced by Brian Jones and others. But some dispute their credentials and yesterday's article Discord among the Master Musicians told how a split in 1988 has resulted in two competing groups from the village of Jajouka performing on stages around the world. Which makes things very confusing, to the extent that until yesterday the link on the official Glastonbury Festival website pointed at the wrong Master Musicians.

Music journalist Stephen Davis, biographer of Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones, and ghost writer for Michael Jackson, spent time with the Master Musicians in Jajouka in the 1970s and 80s. Based on these experiences, his book Jajouka Rolling Stone, A Fable of Gods and Heroes was published by Random House in 1993. But despite appearing to be to all intents and purposes a chronicle of Stephen Davis' time in Morocco, Jajouka Rolling Stone was listed as a novel.

Because of this ambiguity and because its author was there in Jajouka with the Master Musicians, the provenance of the 300 page book 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 share with Overgrown Path readers the true story behind the book, in the hope that this might shed new light on the confusing story of the Master Musicians. To my delight Stephen agreed; so here is our email discussion which not only makes an important contribution to the colourful Jajouka story but also contains a tantalising suggestion of an unreleased mastertape of an iconic album.

Bob Shingleton ~ Stephen, let’s tackle the big question first. Jajouka Rolling Stone is subtitled A Fable of Gods and Heroes and it is categorised as fiction. Yet the book is a description of real events featuring real people, and a cross-check between the novel and factual accounts elsewhere shows it to be pretty accurate. Why was it published as a novel? Is the word on the street that the fiction label was a ruse to avoid litigation from some of those portrayed in it correct?

Stephen Davis ~ Jajouka Rolling Stone, as a text, is a compilation of journal notes written on my trips to the Ahl Serif tribal area of the Djebala hills of northwest Morocco between 1973 and 1989. Some of these journeys were professional assignments, while others were personal visits and musical tourism. Some of the writing originated with encounters in London and Paris as well.

In the early 1990s, I was working with the drummer Levon Helm on his memoir about The Band. We usually worked in late afternoon and evenings at his house in Woodstock, New York. I was staying in nearby Bearsville, and had the mornings free. I liked to write every day while I was researching another project, and so I started typing up my old Jajouka notebooks, just to have something productive going on, and also because I had been missing some of my old friends in the mountains, who were beginning to die off. Making the notes into sentences and paragraphs had the effect of running the movie of my Moroccan adventures through my mental projector.

I showed these pages to my agent, who thought they might sell. Only one editorial assistant, at Random House, thought the text had any merit. Fortunately, her boss ran the company, and allowed her to acquire the book. She made no editorial changes in the text. The graphics at the chapter heads were from prints in my collection. They were altered to look dreamy, and the indelible image of the praying chief of the tribe was stamped into the case, or cover, of the book. [BS - see image below] I thought it was a really cool production. We put Brian Jones and the old chief on the jacket.

But … my young editor went to Costa Rica, caught a microbe, and almost died. Then she left the company to study to be a teacher. So Jajouka Rolling Stone was published in 1993 as an “orphan” book, with no editor in the firm to advocate for promotion etc. Such was its fate. No one reviewed it, as far as I could tell. Who would even be qualified to review it? But it sold enough to go through three printings in hard cover. No soft cover has been issued to date, and the book is not currently in print.

Now, the memoir/novel question. I decided the text had to be portrayed as fiction for three reasons. First, there are time compressions and other techniques that require an acknowledgement that a few minor things didn’t quite happen exactly the way I say it did. The differences can be minute but still real. Plus the name of almost every “character” was changed. Second, Paul Bowles was touchy about visiting writers portraying him smoking kif, at his home in Tangier. Calling the text a “novel” gave me, and him, a certain deniability. Third, the text portrays a character called Mohamed Hamsa, and his wife, who are similar to people – at least one of them -- still living.

Also, I thought the text worked better as a fiction -- a story -- than as a memoir. Books about Morocco have a tiny audience, as Paul Bowles often said. I thought a novel might reach a wider readership, and it did.

BS ~ Now we understand why Jajouka Rolling Stone was published as fiction are you able tell us if and where it deviates from real events?

SD ~ Actually, Jajouka Rolling Stone is a memoir. Everything in it – everything and more – happened. I went to Morocco in 1973 on assignment from National Geographic magazine to write about the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Photographer Martin Rogers and I stayed until the late spring of 1974. Our work was never published, I heard, because of the references to kif smoking in my text. I returned to Jajouka in 1977, 1979, 1981, 1986, and 1989. The text of the book is basically a rewrite of my notebooks from those journeys.

BS ~ When Jajouka Rolling Stone was published reviews focussed on the fact versus fiction aspect. It is fair to say that the reception for the novel was less than rapturous and it seems to have been less successful commercially than your other books. Were you disappointed with the market reaction?

SD ~ You mention reviews. I never saw one that I can remember. I never saw Jajouka Rolling Stone in a bookstore. No one got the book, especially the publisher and the booksellers. I asked a clerk in a snooty, hipper-than-thou (and now defunct) bookstore on Madison Avenue in New York, and he said, “Oh, we’re not carrying that book.” I never understood it. It was like a fatwa. There was no British edition, no translation rights in any language. I thought I was going to be the next Bruce Chatwin. But then I remembered how small the market for fiction about modern Morocco must be. Morocco didn’t pass the who-cares test in the West. In the end, I was amazed the text was published at all, and proud of how great the book looked and felt. As you point out, it was less successful commercially than some of my other work. (I’ve never even seen a royalty statement.) I love it anyway.

BS ~ Jajouka Rolling Stone was published several years before Brian Jones’ seminal Jajouka album was licensed to Point Music and re-issued. That 1995 re-release caused considerable controversy because it did not include some of the original musicians in the royalty deal, and Brion Gysin’s original sleeve note was edited to remove references to Mohamed Hamri who played an important role in bringing Brian Jones to Jajouka. The Point Music CD sleeve notes also included an extract from Jajouka Rolling Stone. What was your take on the controversy surrounding that 1995 re-issue which resulted in protests at Bachir Attar and Philip Glass concerts?

SD ~ This is a hard question because the story of the Jajouka/Joujouka schism is so complex. I won’t go into it here. The recent history is retailed on competing websites and is still going on, the flames being fanned mostly by outsiders, but real enough in the village as well. My take is that I support the work of Bashir Attar, son of the late chief Abdeslam Ahmed Attar (“Jnuin”) and consider him the leader of “The Master Musicians of Jajouka,” legatee of the tribal rhaita band that played for, and were recorded by, Brian Jones in July 1968.

As for the re-release of that album by Point Music in 1995 – it was a gas. The extract from Jajouka Rolling Stone, recounting a conversation with Brian Gysin in his Paris apartment in 1979, was used without my permission. I never saw what the big deal was about editing Hamri out of the Gysin text. All he did was bring Brion Gysin up the mountain. Years later, Gysin brought Brian Jones. Hamri wasn’t a musician; he was like a crooked talent manager. He was an asshole. (I never bought into his self-proclaimed “Painter of Morocco” label either, but I would give a leg for one of his paintings.) The Point Music thing was amazing, and it was even more amazing to see a troupe from Jajouka, starring the legendary drummer Mohammed Berdouz, playing in New England and New York in 1995. I never thought I would see it happen, and it did.

A further note. The original master copy of the music Brian Jones recorded in Jajouka – before it was electronically phased and re-channeled for psychedelic effect – was no longer in the archives of Rolling Stones Records in London, so Philip Glass’s people were forced to digitize a vinyl copy of the original album in 1995. Three years later, I was in London working on my biography of the Rolling Stones. I interviewed George Chkiantz, the recording engineer who went to Jajouka with Jones and actually made the tapes. He didn’t know about the Point Music CD, but mentioned that he had kept a “slave” copy of the original “master,” and I realized that no one has ever heard this music except George and Brian Jones, and how intriguing this was (and is). George Chkiantz’s account of Brian Jones in Jajouka is in my book Old Gods Almost Dead (2001).

BS ~ One thing that struck me about Jajouka Rolling Stone was that you are fulsome in your praise of Apocalypse Across the Sky, but you do not credit Bill Laswell for producing an album that sonically stands head and shoulders above Brian Jones’ Jajouka recording. Was the omission of Laswell’s name an oversight, or was there another reason?

SD ~ Laswell/Shmazwel. It is true that Apocalypse sounds great, but the quality of the music is only … ok. The band that recorded this music in Jajouka was cobbled together by Bashir Attar, with a couple of his brothers, and – I was told – some outside wedding musicians from Ksar el Kebir, the nearest big town. Bashir did it for the money, which was good.

There are many recordings, made from 1968 to 2010, of ensembles calling themselves The Master Musicians [“Malimin"] of Jajouka. For me, only three stand out. First, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka (Rolling Stones Records, 1971). Second, The Master Musicians of Jajouka (Adelphi Records, 1975), recorded by Joel Rubiner, mostly in 1972, just before Ornette Coleman’s recording session in the village. Third (and perhaps most important) is Tribe Ahl Serif: Master Musicians of Jajouka (Musical Heritage Society, circa 1976). This is a two-record set made by Arnold Stahl around 1971, when a Danish film crew was working in the village. The second record in this set consists of about 25 minutes of the Boujeloudiya, or music for the goat god Bou Jeloud, which formerly danced in the village during the Aid el Kebir festival. The recording quality is excellent, and it features the large formation – 20 rhaitas and about 15 drummers – that Brian Jones recorded, and that I later chronicled beginning in 1973.

BS ~ In his sleeve note for Apocalypse Across the Sky William Burroughs tells how Brion Gysin was concerned about the diluting effects of contact with the modern world upon the ancient music. Since then the Master Musicians of Jajouka have embraced fusion and worked with Talvin Singh, Howard Shore, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and others. Do you think the ancient music of the Master Musicians has been diluted since you first heard them in 1974?

SD ~ Bill Burroughs’ notes on Apocalypse were not his best work. He gets Brian Jones’s dates wrong, and doesn’t give much sense of the village or the music before turning on the colored lights, the purple prose. And its not like the music has been diluted; its more like it has disappeared. Brion Gysin used to say that Bou Jeloud will dance in Jajouka until electricity comes up the mountain. That happened about ten years ago, and there is also now a mosque in the village. So, the old rituals – starkly pagan rituals involving wild music and animal sacrifice -- no longer really exist except as an occasional show for foreign visitors. The long, big-band anthems like “The 55,” which once accompanied the sultan to prayers and the army on the march, have obviously lost their ceremonial and authentic meanings, and are now performance pieces preserved by Bashir Attar and his troupe, which still puts on a great and stirring show, to their everlasting credit. And if you go to the village, they’ll still give you a cup of tea and a pipe and play some Jibli mountain music on gimbris, flutes and violins. So, in a “diluted” form, it is still there in some sense.

BS ~ Steve, you are a best selling music writer. Your books have portrayed, among others, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones, and you showed how highly you rated the Master Musicians of Jajouka by writing a book about them. Now, almost twenty years later, are you still listening to the Master Musicians or has your assessment of them as up there with the greats changed?

SD ~ Yes, I still listen, especially to the many cassette tapes I recorded in Jajouka over the years. And of course I buy Bashir’s recordings as they become available. He’s a soulful guy and a great musician. He was 12 when I met him, a dancing boy in a frilly pink dress.

BS ~ Over the years you have been very close to the action in the record industry. That industry has changed dramatically since Brian Jones produced his 1968 album, which you describe in the book as possibly ‘the original “World Music” album’. The Master Musicians of Jajouka, like many others, now have their own record label. But times are not getting any easier in the music business; so how do you see the prospects for niche acts like the Master Musicians and how do you see the future of the World Music segment?

SD ~ I still think the Brian Jones recording is the alpha recording of the World Music movement that probably peaked with the Ry Cooder / Ali Farka Toure Talking Timbuktu album back in the Nineties. I have no idea where recorded music is going now, except that in order to keep their families in food and drugs, musicians now actually have to go out and play to make money, which has to be a good thing in the end.

BS ~ You first visited Morocco almost thirty years ago. Have you been back recently and how do you think the country is changing?

SD ~ I first visited Morocco almost forty years ago. I was last there in 2008, and again typed up my notes, which were published in 2010 under the title To Marrakech By Aeroplane.

I’m looking forward to my next visit. And anyone interested in Jajouka should see the great documentary The Hand of Fatima (2009), a film by Augusta Palmer, the daughter of the late writer Robert Palmer, who first showed me how to find the yellow brick road that leads up Owl Mountain to Jajouka. And thanks for your interest in Jajouka Rolling Stone.

* Part one of the story of the Master Musician's can be read here. My sincere thanks go to Stephen Davis for making this feature possible. Other sources 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, and the sleeve notes of Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka and Apocalypse Across the Sky. The website of the Jajouka Master Musicians is here and that of their Joujouka counterparts is here.

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