The Master Musicians of Jajouka are amazing. Players of double-headed drums and various traditional wind and string instruments are born into this ancient Moroccan troupe and exempt from all work other than making their music, which is considered magical. The individual phrases of their music are quite simple, but are intricately layered and repeated, with changes taking place gradually over time. Some performances go on for days. It is difficult to imagine anything that could sound more “other” to Western ears, and easy to understand why the spate of tours, new releases and reissues in recent years have been enthusiastically welcomed by many listeners.
Previous recordings of the Master Musicians have relegated the group to a mystical fetish object, subjecting their already brilliant sound to the addition of needless studio bells and whistles. For this reason, the alleged hook of Talvin Singh as producer is intensely problematic. Liner notes by Singh and Bachir Attar (bandleader of Jajouka) herald the collaboration as the entry of traditional and electronic music into a transformative dialogue. While the premise may be interesting, it is anything but new. The productivity found in the affinities and contrasts between electronic sound and non-Western musics are foundational to twentieth century experimentation, most notably in challenges to tonality and instrument exploration. Singh’s production does not yield any revelations; we all know that loops, phase interference and reverb did not just happen with the advent of recorded sound. They are sonic phenomena that the Master Musicians of Jajouka were putting to work centuries before Talvin Singh touched a console.
In seeming anticipation of this critique, there is an Arabic proverb printed on the back of the package, “To the pure, all things are pure.” The problem is not an absence of “purity,” but the unfortunate way that Singh’s techno treatments render the music of Jajouka as kitsch. This effect is most profound on “You Can Find the Feeling,” a track in which excessive fat bass and twinkly oscillations sound in contrast to the acoustic instruments as if this will help the listener to really hear some esoteric wisdom of the ancients. The predictable electronics posture like a hated college roommate on acid who won’t shut up about the wicked traces, or how they think that you might be melting into the wall. “The Magic of Peace” and its remix sound like a B-rate creation myth that tells the story of a spaceship landing in Morocco. Ironically, the most provocative and hypnotic moments are when the producer backs off, on “The Truth Forever” and “The House of Baraka.”
The Master Musicians of Jajouka are amazing, and their gorgeous sound shines through Singh’s trite production. Pass on this record and check out Apocalypse Across the Sky or Brian Jones Presents: The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka. While the Jones recording is not “pure,” his psychedelic treatments still indicate that he was a reflective listener and tasteful producer. In spite of his very public and intelligent politics concerning the cultural repercussions of music practices, Singh made a record that sonically reeks of imperialism.