The Master Musicians of Jajouka
The Master Musicians of Jajouka Jajouka is an ancient village perched above a long valley in the blue Djebala foothills of the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco. The village is home to the Master Musicians of Jajouka as well as the sanctuary of Saint Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, who came from the East around 800 AD to spread Islam to North Morocco. As founding members of the village of Jajouka, the Attar family maintains one of the oldest and most unique surviving musical traditions known on the planet. The music and secrets of Jajouka have been passed down through generations from father to son, by some accounts for as long as 1,300 years.

Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, Steven Davis and other writers have connected elements of Jajouka’s musical traditions to Ancient Greek and Phoenician ceremonies. Burroughs famously dubbed the Master Musicians of Jajouka “A 4000 year old rock band.” However, he was likely connecting the unique rites of Boujeloudia, performed in Jajouka during the Aïd el–Kebir, to Lupercalia, the ancient Roman celebration, rather than precisely dating the origins of the music itself. Bachir Attar, leader of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, whose father, El Hadj Abdesalam el Attar led the group until his death in 1981, says the family’s most sacred compositions originated more than 1000 years ago.

Although no one can say for certain exactly when the village was founded, all agree that Jajouka derives its baraka, or spiritual power, from the learned Saint Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, whose tomb is both the spiritual and geographic center of Jajouka. Most people who live in Jajouka are members of the Ahl Sherif tribe, which means “the saintly”. The musicians of Jajouka are taught from early childhood a complex music that is unique to Jajouka. After many years of dedicated training, the musicians may finally become Malimin or Masters. In the past, the Jajouka musicians numbered as many as fifty or more players at a time. However, not all musicians reach the level of Malim. Usually only a few great masters arise each generation to pass along the secrets to their sons and nephews.

Before the arrival of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, legend assigns the origins of the music to a cave in the hills of Jajouka. When the first Attar arrived in the region, he fell asleep in the cave of Boujeloud where the “father of skins” appeared to him in a dream playing the most beautiful music he had ever heard. Boujeloud, for whom Boujeloudia is played, returned to teach the villagers a special form of music they could pass down through the generations. Although villagers tend not to assign a specific date to the historic meeting of Boujeloud and Attar, most attribute the birth of the music to this legendary encounter, while ascribing its healing power to Sidi Ahmed Sheikh’s baraka. Boujeloud is believed by some to be a survival of Pan or of an ancient Phoenician deity, but as devout muslims, the musicians adamantly reject the connection of Boujeloud to any pagan deities.

Some writers in the past have coupled the arrivals of the Attars in Jajouka with that of Farid ad-Din Attar, the Persian poet who may have traveled across North Africa and may have spent time in Morocco. However, little evidence exists to support this connection, as the timing of Farid ad-Din Attar’s possible visit would have been roughly 500 years later than the arrival of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh. Bachir Attar suggests, however, that the first mention of Jajouka in historical writings comes in the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, published in 1377. In this early Muslim view of universal history, Khaldun places a young Prince of Morocco in Jajouka where he built a fortified castle. That may have been the time when the Jajouka musicians became the Imperial Pipers of the Sultan, a right they held until the beginning of the European Protectorate Period in 1912. For centuries, a rotating troupe of Jajouka Masters would stay in the palace playing sacred music like Hamza oua Hamzine (55) for the Sultan and his visitors and in battle for the Moroccan army. It was also this time when some jealousy of the royal musicians began to surface amongst others outside the family in Jajouka and throughout the surrounding villages.

For centuries, the Attar family sustained themselves and preserved their traditions with the patronage of the Sultans and donations received from pilgrims who came to the village seeking the healing power and blessings of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh. For many years the Rtobi clan, another early family in Jajouka, maintained the sanctuary of the saint. The responsibilities eventually fell upon the musicians, a duty they still carry out to this day. Local farmers also donated an annual percentage of their crops to the musicians, allowing the latter to dedicate all their time to practicing the complex music of Jajouka and taking care of the sanctuary.

In 1912 when Jajouka was cut off from the Moroccan Sultan, the Imperial Pipers returned to the village with a dahir, or special decree, which was said to have been stamped by seven Sultans of Morocco and indicated how the Jajouka musicians are the original Royal Pipers and should always be respected and protected. It was this time that many outsiders moved to the village and tried to force the Attars off their lands. These people resented the loyalty the Attars’ maintained toward the Moroccan court and they eventually forced them to give up their dahir. They also took lands from the Mosque in Jajouka, which the Attar family built, as well as holy lands of the Saint. Some writers and historians have also suggested that the influx of radio in the 1930s, the fact that sanctuary of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh may not have generated as much income as some other saints in the region, and the sad reality that many Master Musicians were forced into the Spanish army also contributed to the struggle the Jajouka musicians faced to preserve their traditions in the 20th century.

In 1950, near the end of the French and Spanish occupation of Morocco, two of the great influences on the Beat Generation, Brion Gysin, the painter and inventor, and Paul Bowles, the writer and composer, heard the wild music of Jajouka at a moussem (or festival) near Sidi Kacem, Morocco. Gysin was spellbound and determined to hear this Sufi trance-like music for the rest of his life. A year later, by coincidence, Gysin’s lover, Mohamed Hamri, brought Gysin to Jajouka, his mother’s village. After meeting the musicians in their village, Brion Gysin opened the now-legendary 1001 Nights restaurant to showcase their talents to expatriate Tangier in 1954, when the city was still an International Zone rather than a part of Morocco. The fifties were the heyday of the international city, which attracted not only the jet set, but also beat writers. Paul Bowles first formally introduced Brion Gysin to William Burroughs in 1957, and Burroughs also visited the tiny village.

In 1968, Brion Gysin brought Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, to Jajouka. Tragically, Brian Jones drowned in 1969, a month after returning from Morocco, and the album he recorded there, Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka*, was not released until 1971 (*misspelling the name “Jajouka” for “Joujouka”; the only release by Master Musicians from Jajouka to use this spelling). The Rolling Stones reissued this album in 1995 with the correct spelling of the village – Jajouka. The original LP was very influential and led to scores of people visiting the village in the following years, including rock critic Robert Palmer, who wrote about the band and the album for Rolling Stone magazine. Palmer, in turn, invited the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Together with the Master Musicians, they recorded the track “Midnight Sunrise” in Jajouka, which eventually appeared on Coleman’s 1976 album Dancing In Your Head. In the early 1970s, Joel Rubiner, Stephen Davis, and David Silver spent several weeks in Jajouka on assignment for National Geographic. A collection of Rubiner’s recordings were eventually made into the group’s second LP, The Master Musicians of Jajouka, released in 1974 through Adelphi Records.

Despite their exposure to Western audiences and collaborations with Western artists, the musicians continued to struggle for subsistence, as income from their records was minimal. However, the musical traditions of Jajouka endured through this period of change and uncertainty due largely to the steadfastness of leader who also led the band on trips to perform at moussems, weddings, circumcisions and other local gatherings. In 1980, “El Hadj” led the group outside of Morocco for the first time on a tour of Europe, organized by Rikki Stein, who took over management for a time after Mohamed Hamri was fired by the musicians in the 1973.

Shortly after the tour, El Hadj Abdesalam el Attar passed away, leaving the legacy of the music with his six sons, Mohamed, Amin, Abdellah, Bachir, Mustapha, and Ahmed el Attar. All but Ahmed became Master Musicians while Ahmed, who was never a student of the music but managed the group for a short time; helped Rikki Stein organize the 1980 tour of Europe. Bachir was staying in Paris with Brion Gysin and Tony and Natalie Kent looking for work for the band when his father died. Although he’s not the eldest son, “El Hadj” told the brothers that “Bachir is the one to take care of the music” and take over as leader. Though still a teenager at the time, Bachir’s father knew his young son could remember with skilled precision every note and nuance of his family’s music and had the passion in his heart to preserve it. Bachir went on to lead the band on two more successful European tours in the mid 1980s.

Still, the 1980s were a turbulent time for the band as a few elder musicians initially resisted the leadership of young Bachir and were influenced, by local hostile forces, to form a splinter group. However, the tide began to turn in 1988 when Bachir met American photographer Cherie Nutting at the apartment of Paul Bowles. They fell in love, got married and Bachir began to divide his time between New York and Jajouka from 1988 until 1996, a prosperous period for the group during which Cherie managed the band and facilitated several tours and records. In the late 1980s, Bachir met Elliot Sharp through Rodrigo Rey Rosa and together Elliot and Bachir made Bachir Attar in New York, released by Enemy Records in 1988. The pair played at The Knitting Factory in New York and toured throughout Europe with Elliot’s ensemble “Carbon.”

In 1989 in Tangier, Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka recorded with Mick Jagger, Ron Wood and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones on the song “Continental Drift” for the Stone’s album Steel Wheels. Cherie Nutting secured the Palais Ben Abbou in Tangier’s Kasbah, where the 1989 recording event was held, an event well documented by BBC Television and also featured in Pal Bowles’ Days: A Tangier Journal. Mick Jagger has described the Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar as “one of the most musically inspiring groups still left on the planet.” Following the collaboration with the Stones, producer Bill Laswell came to the village with engineer Oz Fritz and recorded the critically acclaimed Apocalypse Across the Sky, released under Axiom Records in 1992. A few months later, Bachir traveled back to New York to record his first solo record, The Next Dream, also produced by Bill Laswell.

Soon after the recording of Apocalypse Across the Sky, all the old members, such as the Master drummer Berdouz, whom had broken away from the band, humbly asked to return to the group under the leadership of Bachir Attar. At this point, the “Master Musicians of Jajouka” were reunited and followed up their recent recording efforts with successful tours throughout the 1990s. Highlights include performances with Ornette Coleman in the early 1990s, appearances by Bachir and Mustapha Attar at Woodstock 1994, full-scale tours of Europe and The United States through WOMAD and Eric Sanzen at the International Music Network, and a seminal performance at New York’s “Summer Stage” in 1996. While on tour in England, the band recorded their fourth full length LP, Jajouka Between the Mountains, during a live session at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. This record featured the united group and was released by Real World Records in 1995 shortly after the re-release of Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka.

Although the Master Musicians of Jajouka experienced a period of growth throughout the 1990s, it was also an age of uncertainty as outsiders teamed with jealousy driven people in and around the village in attempt to rewrite the history of Jajouka, cause confusion and take advantage of the internal spit that occurred between a few elders and the rest of the group years back. In 1992, after the band was reunited and all internal conflicts were settled within the brotherhood, a Dublin, Ireland event was organized that falsely advertised Bachir Attar and The Master Musicians of Jajouka as performers. A Cherie Nutting photo of the group was used without permission and a reference to Jajouka’s recent collaboration with Bill Laswell was included in the advertisement for the show. However, Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka were never invited, contacted, nor did they appear at the event. Instead, an imposter group from the region was passed off as the real thing. Additionally, when two peripheral drummers were unanimously let go from the group a few years later, covetous outsiders and a few from the region sought to use the incident to confuse people into thinking the band was split. In fact, they have remained united since the return of Berdouz Sr. and the few others in 1991. Though the band continued to perform in Europe and North America throughout the 1990s, the separation of Bachir Attar and manager Cherie Nutting in 1996 led into a period of doubt in the mid to late nineties.

Due to the tenacity and dedication of Bachir Attar leading the united group, contributions of new management by David Meinert, and booking efforts by Eric Sanzen, the group continued to record and tour throughout the world leading into the new millennium. In 2000, Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka released a fusion record, simply entitled Bachir Attar and The Master Musicians of Jajouka, produced by Talvin Singh and released through Universal Classics. Soon after, Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka collaborated with Howard Shore and The London Philharmonic for the soundtrack of the 2001 film The Cell. The effort opened up the group to a whole new generation of eager listeners and helped create momentum which led to many memorable performances which included several more shows with Ornette Coleman, Bachir and his brother Mustapha touring the US with the eclectic Critters Buggin’ ensemble in 2001, and the Master Musicians first visit to Asia, where they performed in Hong Kong in 2003.

In 2004, Cherie Nutting resumed a close relationship with Bachir Attar as well as her position as manager. Augusta Palmer, daughter of the late Robert Palmer, came to Jajouka in 2005 with a small film crew and shot a documentary, The Hand of Fatima, which explores her father’s friendship with Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Additionally, French filmmakers Mark and Eric Hurtado came to Jajouka in late 2006 to shoot a narrative film called Boujeloud, which features the Master Musicians and tells the story of the mystical origins of their music. Throughout the 2000s, the group has continued to perform regularly in Spain and Portugal. In the Spring of 2007, Bachir Attar and The Master Musicians of Jajouka had the honor of performing as the headlining act of a week long tribute to the late Paul Bowles held at the Centro Cultural de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal. Highlights from this live recording turned into the group’s latest LP, Jajouka Live Vol. 1, the first release on their own label, Jajouka Records, founded in 2008 by Bachir Attar, Cherie Nutting and a new friend Michael Gassert aka “MikeSound,” a young engineer/producer who was first brought to Jajouka as part of Augusta Palmer’s film crew for The Hand of Fatima.

With their own record label and their first record in nearly a decade, Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka are finally in full control of their future. Bachir sees this new phase as “the beginning of Jajouka into the 21st century.” The group looks forward to the of future release of traditional, live and experimental records under their new label and have recently come off a highly acclaimed Summer 2008 tour of Canada, where they were honored with the “Prix Miroir” award for World Music. Bachir Attar and The Master Musicians of Jajouka look forward to returning to the United States to tour in early 2009 in support of their new record, Jajouka Live Vol. 1, which is currently available exclusively at jajoukarecords.com, and is set for international release through major digital and physical markets on January 27, 2009.