The Master Musicians of Joujouka: Boujeloud

The Master Musicians of Joujouka
Sub Rosa

Joujouka is a village in the Ahl Srif mountains of er-Rif in northern Morocco. There’s a photograph of the mountains in the middle of this album’s liner notes, and they look like low, craggy waves stacked behind one another in a storm. The Boujeloud of the title is a mythical creature who belongs to the village. He’s half-man, half-goat, and it’s not surprising that the English artist Brion Gysin, upon hearing about him in 1951, decided that he must be a regional variation on Ancient Greece’s shaggy Pan. Gysin was so enamoured of the villagers’ music that he decided that he wanted to listen to it “every day, all day”, and invited them to become the resident musicians at the Tangiers café that he had co-founded with the Moroccan painter Mohamed Hamri.

The Boujeloud myth has elements in common with any number of folk tales from other parts of the world. Centuries ago, it says, a man met Boujeloud and made a bargain with him. Boujeloud taught the man how to make flutes, and in return the man promised that his village would give Boujeloud a woman to be his wife. The man reneged on the deal, and when Boujeloud arrived at Joujouka to collect his bride, the villagers fobbed him off with a madwoman. Despite this shabby treatment, the deity enjoyed himself at Joujouka so much that he started coming to the village every year. The crops and animals flourished in his wake. After some years, he vanished, putting an end to his beneficent visits, so the people of the village decided to re-enact the annual celebration themselves, dressing a man in goatskins to take the place of Boujeloud, and letting some boys roll on the ground to represent the lunatic bride.

Boujeloud documents some of the music played during the ritual week. There are four versions of the tune that accompanies Boujeloud’s dancing (“Boujeloud”, “Boujeloud”, “Boujeloud”, and “Boujeloud”, with a note attached to one of them to explain that it features the work of octogenarian Master Musician Mujehid Mujdoubi on the lira flute) and two versions of the music that plays after he goes away. All of the tunes sound cyclical and are dominated by drum percussion, the lira, and the oboe-ish rhaita with its bee-like double-reed buzz.

The drums make a hollow half-basso noise that sounds deeper on some tracks than others, while the flutes are everything that the drums are not — fiercely-pitched, harsh, verging on dissonance. If you haven’t come across them in a recording before, then think of the sharp, curling noises that snake-charmers make with their pipes in movies. (Actually, you probably have heard them and not realised it. Howard Shore included rhaita in the soundtrack of Lord of the Rings.) The drummers pound and pound and pound, while the musicians with the flutes alternate between circular runs of notes rolled out at a relaxed speed, and tightly screaming flourishes. The drumming is so penetrating that anyone with a low tolerance for repetitive percussion is going to come away from this album with a roaring headache. “I found if you focus on the bass drum, and keep listening to what he’s doing, you almost black out,” remarked Bill Laswell helpfully when he made a recording at the village in 1991. Thanks, Bill.

Outside commentators often refer to this music as acoustic trance, which is not a bad description. It should ring bells with anyone who has looked into other kinds of collective North African ritual music. The instrumentation changes from one region to another, with the people in Place 1 deciding that they like to chant, people in Place 2 clapping in unison, and so on, but the basic template is often the same: establish a motif and repeat, repeat, repeat.

The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones became a fan of the Master Musicians when he visited Gysin in the late ’60s. He recorded their music, added sitar and distortion to make it sound more psychedelic, then released it with the title Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka. The Joujoukans enjoyed a brief vogue as rural hippie exotics. William Burroughs and Craig Karpel travelled to the village and published an article about their trip in Oui magazine. “Perhaps one of you may tape the Joujouka story, run it backwards, and discover squirreled away therein the forbidden handshake of the Mystic Knights of the Sea, the Secret of the Watergate, the last words of Dorothy Kilgallen, the formula for Coca-Cola syrup, or the face on the Barroom Floor,” Burroughs suggested.

In the 1980s, the Jones album was re-released under more troubled circumstances. Like other bands and collective religious expressives before it, the Master Musicians had suffered a schism. Today, the group exists in two forms. One is led by Bachir Attar, the son of the man who was in charge when Jones visited, and this group is known as The Master Musicians of Jajouka. The other group is the one we’re listening to on Boujeloud. They pride themselves on their adherence to physical place. Bachir spends much of his time in New York, so the note at the bottom of the Joujoukans’ website — “This site represents the Master Musicians of Joujouka, the musicians who still live in the village and are keeping the tradition alive” — reads like a covert dig.

Boujeloud stands apart from some of the past Jajouka/Joujouka albums in that it is neither a collaboration with an outside musician, nor a reworking of the music. It’s a collection of straight field recordings. There are no sitars to smooth your path into the thumps and squawks; they hit like a brick. Laswell was right. The persistent thumping of the drums is so relentless that it seems to be trying to beat you down and drown you in a state of pre-consciousness. Listen to this music and you’ll be unable to concentrate on anything else at all. If you give it a little of your attention, then you’ve given it the lot. Either trance out or struggle: it’s you against the drums.

RATING 6 / 10