by Phil Freeman
Photo by Cherie Nutting
The Master Musicians of Jajouka come from northern Morocco. They perform trance music arising out of Sufi Muslim traditions; it lays high-pitched, crying reed and pipe melodies atop intensely repetitive hand percussion and drum patterns. They’ve been a cult phenomenon among Western artists of a questing spirit for decades. Brion Gysin and William Burroughs were introduced to their music by Moroccan painter Mohamed Hamri in the 1950s; when Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones visited Morocco in 1968, Gysin and Hamri exposed him to their music, and he recorded an album, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka, which was released in 1971. This caught the ear of Ornette Coleman, who recorded with the Master Musicians for 1973’s Dancing in Your Head. In 1991, bassist/producer Bill Laswell recorded the group again, for the album Apocalypse Across the Sky (get it on Bandcamp).
In the 1960s, when Jones made his recordings, the group was led by Jnuin Abdesalam el Attar (see comment from Bachir Attar below), but his son, Bachir Attar, has been leading the Master Musicians for quite a while. On the new recording Apocalypse Live, the ensemble is credited as the Master Musicians of Jajouka Led By Bachir Attar. He plays ghaita, lira, and guinbri (the lira is a flute, the ghaita a double reed instrument, and the guinbri a three-stringed bass lute); Mustapha Attar plays ghaita, lira, and drums; Ahmed Bakhat plays drums and violin; and Abdellah Bohkzar and Mohamed el Attar play drums. They are heard in collaboration with a version of Material, which on this occasion consisted of Graham Haynes on cornet, Peter Apfelbaum on saxophone and flute, Bill Laswell on bass, Aiyb Dieng on percussion, and Hamid Drake on drums. The performance was recorded in July 2015 at the Gent Jazz Festival.
The album consists of three long tracks and one shorter coda. The first two pieces, “Dancing from the Heart” and “The Birds’ Prayer,” run just under 19 minutes each; “The New and the Ancient” stretches past the 23-minute mark; and the closing “HLallia” lasts a comparatively brief seven minutes. They all flow into each other, creating a seamless 70-minute experience.
The performance begins with the Master Musicians alone onstage, setting the mood with a rumbling, wailing desert wind of flutes, reeds, and drums. After a few minutes, Material join in, Laswell’s bass and Drake’s drums adding a dubby throb and an almost hard-rock drive. Then there are stretches where the Western musicians (and Dieng, who’s from Senegal) take over entirely; the music they make together has elements of jazz and funk, but never jazz-funk; Apfelbaum’s solos are fierce and rooted in hard bop, and Haynes’ cornet is clear and forceful, dancing atop the trance grooves. When the horns play in unison, there’s no looseness or hesitation; they’re as sharp as they’d be if they were onstage with Earth, Wind & Fire. But when the two groups fully mesh, and create an entirely new music—part North African ritual, part North American groove, with Attar’s piercing reeds floating atop Laswell’s monstrously loud bass, and the cornet and saxophone, fed through echo and reverb, interjecting commentary, as the drums thunder and pound and the percussion clatters and pings—this performance becomes something unique and genuinely special. Bill Laswell has been taking players from widely divergent musical traditions and throwing them together, in studios and on concert stages, for decades. Sometimes the results are bland and aimless, but other times something like this—something wild, unpredictable and utterly captivating—comes along and you understand exactly why he does what he does.
Stream and purchase Apocalypse Live on Bandcamp:
CORRECTION: The leader of The Master Musicians of Jajouka when Brion Gysin, Brian Jones, Ornette Coleman and William Burroughs came to the village was Bachir Attar’s father. His name was not “Ahmed Attar” but Jnuin Hadj Abdesalam Attar.