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Jajouka: Burning a Hole in the Night

Brian Cullman

“Oh, I went to Jajouka a long, long time ago," Ornette said. "Why?”

I was with Ornette Coleman at a loft on 19th Street, and he was changing into a cream-colored suit. Shirley Clarke was filming a scene of Ornette swimming through space, and I was helping cinematographer Ed Lachman tape a large blue screen onto the floor. I wasn’t doing a very good job, but no one seemed to mind.

“Jajouka’s been a dream of mine for a long, long time,” I explained.

Ornette thought that over for a minute. “It’s only a dream if you wake up," he said, finally. He buttoned, then unbuttoned his jacket, and then smoothed the lapels.

“And you know…you don’t have to."

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Ornette Coleman, one of the inventors of the free jazz genre, playing with the Master Musicians of Jajouka

The Dreamer

After Rolling Stones founder and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones visited in 1968, brought by hipster friend Brion Gysin (the man who gave Alice Toklas the recipe for her famous hash brownies and who, with William Burroughs, developed the idea of cutting up and re-shuffling texts), Jones lost all interest in the Rolling Stones and became obsessed with the power of the music he'd heard.

Like most Westerners, I'd first heard of Jajouka through Jones. taken by the story of how he traipsed up the Rif Mountains in the mid-sixties, came back raving about a music so fierce that it made the roar of the strongest, most psychedelic rock n'roll sound pale and undernourished.

"When Brian came back from Morocco, all he could talk about was this wild trance music," David Montgomery, an Australian musician who settled in London in the mid-sixties, told me. "He said that every time he closed his eyes, he could hear it again, just pulsing through him like a fever.

"He set about putting a band together to try to capture that spirit and play something like what he'd heard; I was the drummer, there were a number of percussionists, and a lot of different players, a lot of unusual instruments. A circus of energy, that’s what he called it. No lead guitarists. And no lead singer in a tutu. We were all pretty excited about this.

“I remember going over to his house for our first rehearsal, and there were police cars on the block and barricades everywhere. They'd just found him dead in the swimming pool."

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Though Jones has been carefully written out of The Rolling Stones’ history, he named them, he shaped them and gave them their attitude. Prettier than Mick, on a first name basis with more drugs than Keith, he was a golden boy, a wild card and a catalyst, unpredictable, dangerous and oblivious. He brought a sense of reckless abandon and playfulness to their best recordings, playing sitar on “Paint It Black,” marimba on “Under My Thumb,” recorder on “Ruby Tuesday,” dulcimer on “Lady Jane.” He wasn’t afraid to look outside the box of rhythm & blues, and for better or worse, he followed the energy wherever it took him. And it took him to some very dark places. When politicians asked WOULD YOU WANT YOUR DAUGHTER TO MARRY A ROLLING STONE?, he was the one they were worried about.

While still in school, I'd found a record that Jones had recorded in Jajouka, BRIAN JONES PRESENTS THE PIPES OF PAN, and for years I’d kept it in my room as a talisman, the doorway to some impossible freedom. Not that I actually played it all that often. There was a chaos about it that made my head spin, and Jones's annoying production touches---phasing the sounds, speeding up and slowing down bits of the tape—made much of it unlistenable. Yet just knowing that this music existed made the world a more habitable place, just as hearing the Beatles or Smokey & The Miracles had enriched my childhood with the dark promise of sex and night and cool romantic breezes, made the very notion of growing up and being part of the world a little more possible.

Later, I found I'd left the radio behind and beamed into this strange and haunted music of Jajouka, not needing to play the only record I knew of it since, once having heard it, the music was already deep inside my blood. I knew I'd stumbled onto a sound and a power unlike any on earth, and a part of me just needed to be near it, to breathe the same air, eat the same food as these musicians.

Other Voices, Other Worlds

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Bachir Attar of the Master Musicians and producer Bill Laswell.

When the quarantine and isolation imposed by Covid left me with time to revisit travels that had changed me and opened me to other ways of moving through life, I found myself looking through notes I’d made with new eyes and a new sort of longing for a time when other worlds seemed right outside my window, there for the taking. I found myself reliving the time I'd spent with the musicians of Jajouka.

It’s not nostalgia.

It’s simply revisiting a dream, one that hasn’t ended.

No Music Without Silence

In the mid-1990s, producer/musician Bill Laswell had invited me to tag along when he went to Morocco to record the Master Musicians. Laswell arrived in Tangier with a twelve-track digital recorder, a power generator, enormous cases of outboard gear and microphones, and, most importantly, a good plan. Where Brian Jones and other enthusiasts recorded the music of Jajouka on the fly, Laswell sought the active participation and collaboration of Bachir Attar, the young and ambitious leader of the Master Musicians, a position held by his father, Maalem Abdeslam Attar, until his death in the late 1980s.

Shortly after Maalem Attar's death, during a period of crisis and confusion amongst the musicians, Bachir assumed control, wresting the leadership away from Berdouz, an older man and chief of Jajouka's drummers, in the equivalent of a palace coup. Because of a mix of jealousy, intrigue and infighting, The Master Musicians divided into two warring factions, one headed by the young and outward-looking Bachir, the other by the older, more tradition-bound Berdouz. But Laswell's presence and the money he was paying the musicians (roughly a thousand dollars each---a fortune by Jajoukan standards) effected the beginnings of a reconciliation.

Laswell is an odd, gifted, and not very likable character, a reputation that seems to bother him not at all. A heavyset man wearing an oversize black leather coat, long, partially dreaded brown hair streaming out behind an everpresent beret, Laswell sported the same freestanding Ali Baba beard favored by Charles Mingus and Big Daddy Roth, making him look like a highly paid assassin or a hip Rob Reiner. In a world of pseudo-eccentrics, Laswell was not only genuinely peculiar, but there is more than a slight hint of his peculiarities being a bit of a cover, a way of hiding traits or habits far stranger than a few fashion quirks. If you were to discover that he spent his spare time hypnotizing tree frogs or dancing with dead Filipina nurses, it wouldn't come as a big surprise.

For all of his quirks, Laswell knew how to get things done. As a producer, Laswell has always been good at finding the pulse, the inner hum of the music he's recording, and there is an odd, almost physical space created in the actual sound of his recordings, as if something, some piece of musical furniture, had been pulled out of the room to make way for the listener. The sheer sound and texture of his better productions have an almost mystical pull, an otherworldly current running through them. And so it's not hard to understand his interest in Jajouka, in the sheer mineral fact of the music and energy.

My own fascination with Jajouka had never waned, but over time it shifted and, if anything, had grown deeper, if further from view. New bits of information constantly contradicted what I'd heard or learned before, but the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was the precarious financial state of the Master Musicians, the thinness of the net that just barely held them up. No one seemed sure if the age-old grant from the king remained in effect and whether it had become little more than a pittance, a pat on the head and a reminder of days gone by. But it clearly wasn't enough to support a village, even one whose needs could be satisfied with a couple of sheep and a pipe full of kif.

Since medieval times, the Master Musicians of Jajouka have enjoyed the protection and patronage of whatever king sat on the throne in Morocco, an honor that supposedly included a tiny stipend that would allow them to sit untroubled out in the mountains of Jajouka, smoking kif, the resinous crystals that protect marijuana plants from damage and that are lovingly filtered and refined into thick slabs of ecstasy, and playing themselves into trance states. Their only obligation was occasionally coming to court and playing the king to bed and up in the morning and to the mosque on Fridays.

According to tradition, as musicians to the king and technicians of the sacred, they were allowed to tithe neighboring towns and villages, a custom that worked better in theory than in practice, as physically collecting grain, sheep or money from impoverished and resentful farmers in the rocky hill towns of the Rif was a challenge to the resourcefulness of even the most resourceful Jajoukans.

In earlier times, the musicians of Jajouka played a part in the lives of nearby villages. Their music was thought to cure illness and madness, and they were often brought to play in local hospitals or to lay their instruments on the chests of those in pain or in crisis. And they would be thanked and gifted with money or sheep. Since the late eighties, those calls have been less frequent, and requests for tithes or "tribute" were more frequently met with silence, jeers or hurled rocks, nearby villagers viewing them with a mixture of anger, resentment and mistrust, as much for the magic and rituals they practice as for the sorts of visitors they attract: William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Ornette Coleman, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, et al, a ragged collection of junkies, mystics, and pop stars that’s been making the pilgrimage to Jajouka for the past fifty years, looking to re-connect with the energy of the cosmos and to lose themselves in this wild and sacred music.

And, to be honest, if I'd grown a little circumspect about Jajouka, it may be because there's a dark and destructive energy associated with the village and with the music, a runaway magic that's at odds with the rest of the world, like a sun that burns too bright.

The Eminence Gris

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The first night in Morocco, we met Paul Bowles for dinner at the Restaurante Osso Buco. Then in his early 80s, Bowles was the eminence gris of Tangier, the most celebrated of the many expatriates to have washed up on Morocco's shores. Despite Bertolucci's mangling of his best-known book, THE SHELTERING SKY, Bowles saw his reputation grow stronger in his later years, his work from the late forties through the mid-sixties having come to seem eminently post-modern, his clear-eyed pessimism and seeming detachment startlingly fresh now as we slouched toward the close of the century.

When I had stumbled across his work in the early 70's, Bowles was still a secret that friends shared with each other; his books, constantly in and out of print, were talismans that the hip and the lost carried with them through the world. When I met him, books firmly back in print, himself the subject of a handful of marginally reliable biographies, Bowles had become America's foremost rediscovered writer, his position made more glamorous and more mysterious by his absence, as he hadn't set foot in the States in many years.

I traveled to Morocco carrying a letter of introduction to Bowles, hoping I'd get to meet him. The letter proved unnecessary, as he was eminently accessible, as clear a stop on any visitor's Baedeker as the Cafe de Paris or the medina. He lived, as he had for many years, in a small, thoroughly Western flat near the American embassy. After all this time, he still hadn't given in to technology, and as he had no phone, friends and visitors alike had to wend their way up the dark, narrow stairs and knock on the unmarked door, hoping they've gotten the right address, hoping they're on the right floor, hoping they'll be received.

They are. They always are.

Small and frail, blessed with a clear, melodic voice and a remarkable memory, Bowles had a quiet graciousness and charm and the sort of modesty and self-deprecation that only begins to make sense when you realize that for all his acclaim as a writer of brutally dark and harrowing fictions, he considered himself a failed composer.

In conversation, he was offhand about his writing, not unmindful of his own talent or falsely modest, yet all too clearly aware that it's the second prize, the thanks-and-a-tip-of-the-hat silver ring he's holding aloft, and all the success, attention and remuneration he's received won't change that. In the course of an evening's conversation, the names evoked in stories or reminiscences aren't those of writers but of musicians and composers: Aaron Copland, John Cage, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, Lou Harrison.

On that first visit, and on subsequent ones, Bowles was gracious and courteous, with the formal kindness and good manners of a prim but welcoming New England auntie (the preponderance of kif and kif cigarettes notwithstanding), and he seemed so eager to accommodate and so unwilling to disappoint that he was constantly lending his name, time and energy to projects and proposals that barely qualify as third rate. It would be fair to say that while he enjoyed company and doted on attention, he didn't actually like people all that much, but warmed himself against them, like a fire he was drawn to but wouldn't get too near.

In all events, he was a not unwilling captive to his own prominence and enjoyed playing host to the young, the curious and the starry-eyed, his time, energy and privacy being partially saved by the practical nature of his apartment complex. There was no downstairs buzzer, and through an automatic timing device, the front door locked shut at 9:30 every night. Residents with keys can obviously come and go, but visitors who showed up too late were out of luck. He had no phone.

After the third or fourth time I'd visited, I mentioned that I was concerned I might be taking him away from his work. "I get up in the early afternoon and usually go out to shop for food or have someone come to help me with shopping," he told me. "Around 6:00 or 6:30 I'll cook dinner, pasta or something; and from about 7:30 on I wait to see if I'll have company. If no one shows up by 9:30, then I know I'm on my own, I know I'll have to write. And it is," he added quietly, "a very long night.”


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Despite the fact that he was Tangier's best-known resident, despite most of his books and stories being set in and around here, and despite his having encouraged and translated a fair number of Moroccan authors, there was still a vague sense that he didn't so much intend to be HERE, as much as he made an early and conscious effort not to be THERE, in America, Tangier being a safe and comfortable port from which to sit and watch the deterioration of the Western world.

If Bowles was the lens through which many of us have started to see and appreciate North Africa, the fact remains that his version of North Africa was in good part very well-informed and well-imagined fantasy. If Bowles lived anywhere consistently it was in his head, in his imagination.

"It doesn't seem to matter how long I've been here," he had told me. "Moroccans are still very much of a mystery to me. You can live amongst them and become accustomed to their habits and their tendencies, but you'll never really know them. The only difference is that after a time, you start to be aware of the parameters of the mystery."

More than a decade later, when I saw him coming into the Osso Buco, he seemed fragile but healthy, a shock of white hair falling over his forehead, a light brown topcoat jauntily draped around his shoulders. Western pop music blared from the radio on the wall, but he cheerfully ignored it and sat down near the head of the table, his back to the kitchen.

"This is the best restaurant in Tangier, though it's all European food," he shrugged. "You can't get good Moroccan food in a restaurant in Tangier. In Rabat, in Marrakech, yes, but not here, not since Brion Gysin's place closed. He had a place he started with his friend Hamri, The 1001 Nights, with remarkable food and a huge fireplace you could walk right into, and he had a sword swallower, a man who would eat fire and rub fire all over his chest, and wonderful music.

"He brought down the Master Musicians to play in the restaurant, and those that didn't play he'd put to work in the kitchen. But he was surreptitiously trying to compile a book of local magic and spells, not by asking but by eavesdropping, nosing around. If he'd offered to pay them or had talked to them, something could have been worked out, but they found out what he was up to and got very upset.

"He found a spell they'd cast on him, found it behind the ventilator. It had seven pieces of broken mirror and seven seeds and a crumpled piece of paper on which was written in Arabic: 'May Brahim'--his name was Brion, like yours, but they called him Brahim--'May Brahim disappear from this place the way smoke disappears from a chimney, blow away and never return.' Two weeks after he found the spell, a woman who had given him money to open the place asked for it back. And when he couldn't pay, she foreclosed."


"If it takes more than 3 days, we're in the wrong village"

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The morning after I saw Bowles, Laswell staggered down to breakfast in the courtyard of the Minzah Hotel and slumped over his coffee.

"We went out last night looking for some trouble," he offers by way of explanation. "We wound up at some club where they kept changing the music. Finally there were eight fat girls on the stage who couldn't sing at all and just waved their arms about. It was great."

Standing in front of the Minzah, Laswell exuded a quiet, complacent menace from beneath his beret, giving the hustlers and drug dealers pause. "Hashish," they whisper. "Hashish." Then louder, in case he hadn't heard them the first hundred and fifty times: "Hashish. Hashish." Laswell stood, hands behind his broad back, regarding them through half-closed eyes with the air of a man trying to decide what part of an insect he'd like to eat first.

But we are not on a quest for hashish, which, in any case, requires little detective work to locate.

Getting information in Morocco is a tricky business, partly because no facts are immutable. A tattered