“This music is human music, music that preserves life.”
The village of Jajouka (sometimes Joujouka or Zahjouka) is nestled in the Djebala foothills of the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco. The Master Musicians of Jajouka are the village’s venerated collective of virtuosos descended from the royal musicians of the ancient sultans of Morocco. It is said that the musicians are blessed and that their music has the power to heal. It is also said that Jajouka’s founding clan—the Attars—has passed ancient mystical secrets and musical talents from father to son, down through the generations for more than 4,000 years.
The world at large, however, only discovered the Master Musicians of Jajouka relatively recently. First recordings were made in the early 1960s, and, since Bachir Attar took the helm of this group in 1982, there have been two distinct bands of Master Musicians. Expansion and exposure outside of Morocco came about mainly because the Master Musicians have been championed in the last half-century by a long list of taste-making western pop stars, filmmakers, jazz musicians, journalists, artists, and literary luminaries such as Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Donovan, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Augusta Palmer, Mark and Erik Hertado, Ornette Coleman, rock critic Robert Palmer, Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, and Paul Bowles.
The performance heard on Jajouka Live Vol. 1 was, in fact, part of a tribute to Paul Bowles. Recorded in 2007 at the Centro Cultural de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal on the final night of a week long series of concerts, Live Vol. 1 is also the debut release on Jajouka Records, which is owned and operated by Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians. Produced by Bachir Attar & Michael Gassert, this album is the first Bachir Attar-led Master Musicians’ release since 2000’s electronica-inflected Master Musicians of Jajouka Featuring Bachir Attar, and is a collection of new and never before released songs in the more traditional and timeless Sufi trance sound specific to Jajouka.
Having personally witnessed the Master Musicians of Jajouka with Bachir Attar several times in recent years, and having had the extreme pleasure to attend pre-performance “seminars” explaining the history and mystery of the musicians and their instruments, I can confidently state that there is no experience as moving, as magical, or, well, as musical as the Master Musicians live. That said, Jajouka Live Vol. 1 doesn’t quite capture the magic of which the Master Musicians are clearly capable.
Don’t get me wrong, the magic definitely is present in places, such as in the insistent rhythms of the tebel and the tarija drums on “Joal Fibladijoal” and the hypnotic melody of the lira (an ancient flute) floating over the double-reed drone of the ghiata on “Double Medahey”. The magnificent, mesmerizing “Allah Allah Habibi Galouja” with nearly twenty minutes of trance-inducing fervor, including vocals and violin in addition to the ghiata, lira, and percussion, is a prime example of the spellbinding power and the extreme expression of peace inherent in this music. Unfortunately, that energy isn’t elevating and it just doesn’t sustain across the entire album.
Perhaps it is something in the order of the tracks, or the fact that the performance is split into tracks, complete with truncated applause, that makes this album merely laudable instead of life-altering. Or possibly, Jajouka Live Vol. 1 is simply incomplete. After all, its title implies that there is more to come, so maybe this part must be combined with companion volumes to achieve its transcendent promise.