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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 French travel guide at the hotel lists the distance from Tangier to Fez as 171 kilometers, then lists the distance from Fez to Tangier--along the exact same route--as 211 kms. Distance, like a rug salesman, can be bargained with, and only a fool or a tourist pays full price.

Everyone, however, pays in hours. Allah, it seems, is in charge of time, and we are all on His schedule; to try and make plans ignoring the whims of God and the exigencies of fate, is foolish to the point of sacrilege. We had hoped to have all our transport documents sorted out by Thursday and leave early Friday morning; this would get us to Jajouka by mid-afternoon, giving us time to set up equipment and settle in for a night of recording. As we have to leave for Casablanca first thing Monday morning, we don't have any margin for error, though none of this seems to ruffle Laswell.

"If it takes more than three days, we're in the wrong village," he shrugged.

Still, we first had to get there, and as of Friday afternoon we were still trying to get our equipment through customs, still trying to negotiate the maze of incompetence, red tape, greed and diplomacy that block official transactions in Morocco. If you have papers, they will turn out to be the wrong papers; if you have the right papers, they will turn out to contain the wrong signature from the no-longer-active Secretary of Lard and Fenugreek; if, by some mistake, you have the right papers AND the right signature, then the appropriate Vizier of Infidel Distraction, needed to verify the approval, will turn out to have gone to lunch in Agadir and will most certainly be back "within the hour or early next week, do you have any cigarettes, thank you very much." In a country where the national pastime is waiting, there is great pleasure in inducing Americans to join in their favored sport.

All of the recording equipment has been shipped separately from us, by cargo, a plan which was supposed to prevent any confusion or delay, though this hasn't proved as effective as hoped. Each succeeding customs official or trade minister who looks at the various customs forms, receipts, letters of approval and of support from the Moroccan government proceeds to click their tongue and shake their head with the sad resignation of a doleful father whose child has just produced another bad report card.

"Power generators. Microphones. Digital recording equipment. Electric cables. Magnetic recording tape. Dat machines." They hand the papers back dismissively.

We were sent to our room without supper. We were sent from office to office, from one airport hangar to another, from government building to government building, down long corridors and cheerless halls, smelling of ammonia and cigarettes, all filled with sad, patient men in their brother's suits who line the benches, who sit and smoke and exude the dark scent of waiting, the musky reek of gravity pushing them down. The offices they wait by are empty, the officials gone or dead, the tiny fichus trees at the end of each corridor withered and wilted, now ex-trees, trees without proper certification or credentials. In due time, they too will be dealt with.

"It's so typical,” Laswell groaned. "I saw (Moroccan writer Mohammed) Mrabet at Bowles' apartment earlier, and he said that when his books were first published in America, his publisher sent a big package of them over. He already had one copy someone had brought to him, and he had it with him when he went over to the post office. The package was there, but they simply wouldn't give it to him.

"'It's my book inside,' he told them, holding up his copy. 'Give me my book!'

"'Why?' They asked him. 'You can read that one.' He finally had to give up and leave the package there. He never got it.”

The walls of the many hallways we straggle through are covered with photos of King Hassan, and in all of the photos show him in Western dress, he is carefully wearing Moroccan sandals beneath his finely cut Armani slacks; and in all of the photos showing him in Moroccan clothing, he is sporting beautiful Italian shoes under his embroidered white djellabah. A man with a foot in both worlds.

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My Very Good Friend Mick Jagger

"The king can help us," Bachir announced. "We must call Princess Lalla Fatimah and get her to talk to him."

The leader of the Master Musicians has come to Tangier to meet us and bring us up into the mountains, and he has insisted on coming with us to the various customs offices to plead our case. Though he means to help, he is not the perfect emissary. As leader of the musicians, in Jajouka he is used to being treated like a prince or young pasha, and his manner with government officials is haughty and imperious. Easily exasperated by red tape, he simply tries to impress his own importance on all of these under-secretaries.

"I have played with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones!" The way he pronounces it, it sounds like "Mek." "They are my friends.”

It was the wrong card to play. To government officials, the Rolling Stones meant only three things: money, drugs and trouble. Mainly money. The officials raised their eyebrows slightly and mentally added a few zeros to the bribe they planned to exact. Mek Jagger. They smiled quietly. The bill had just gone up.

Beyond that, Jajouka represented the side of Morocco the government would just as soon forget, the side that attracts hippies and junkies, the curious and the disaffected: drugs and magic, trance and orgy and men in animal skins roaring and leaping and beating their genitals. Not the side of the country they chose to put in annual reports or business prospectuses to draw corporate investors.

The officials handed us back our documents and waved us on to yet another office.

"Come," Bachir muttered darkly. "Let's call Princess Lalla Fatimah. She will help."

A dark, waif-like man in the second blush of youth, Bachir seemed to be made up of equal parts enthusiasm, opportunism and innocence. In white t-shirt and blue jeans, he looked like any of the hundreds of young Moroccan hustlers wandering through the Zocco Chico looking for a tourist who wants a rug or a blond French girl with French breasts in search of adventure. But though his face can seem set and hardened beyond his years, his eyes betray a softness, a mooniness, as if he were looking straight at his dreams instead of what's in front of him. It's this quality, this separateness that makes him seem haunted, and that gives him a sense of power and authority.

When he was belligerent, difficult or demanding, there was almost always a sense that he was acting out of more than self interest, that he was not being a prima donna, but operating in a slightly different realm: for better or worse he has had a vision, has danced with ghosts or the sisters of ghosts, and, in the midst of day-to-day life, in the midst of cars that break down, shoes that don't fit, tea that's not hot and identity papers that must be filed and filed again, he was somehow still dealing with demons and gods.

With one foot in the mountains of the Rif and, thanks to Cherie Nutting, his American-born wife, one foot firmly planted in New York's East Village, Bachir was actively trying to bring Jajouka into the world. To that end, he has, as he never lets anyone forget, gotten the Master Musicians work recording with the Rolling Stones and performing in Bertolucci's adaptation of THE SHELTERING SKY. And, on his own in New York, he has recorded with an odd assortment of hipsters and scenemakers, from Blondie chanteuse Debbie Harry to downtown New York noise guitarist Elliot Sharp. While none of these ventures have been particularly satisfying, each has provided a tiny spark or glimmer of Jajouka's raw magic.

It was Bachir's burning need to travel, to intersect and perform with Western musicians and to bring Jajouka's music into view that initially set him on a collision course with the former leader of the Musicians, the more conservative Berdouz.

Bachir's contention--hard to dispute, hard to ignore--is that without help from the outside world, without interest and attention and most of all money, the music will disappear, will be blown away by the winds of poverty, attrition, hopelessness and despair; by the cold and hostile workings of a government that seems content to bury the traditions of the past under highways, shopping malls, discos and Club Meds; and, most insidious of all, by the hot breath of the modern age, by all those Western electrons bouncing around in the atmosphere. For though Jajouka may still exist in a calm and blessed void, as out of time and as isolate as it was still possible to be, the fact remains that it is only a few miles and a few hours away from the junkyard of popular Western culture. Jajouka's younger generation, its hope for the music's future, was more likely to know about Jay-Z than about Boujeloud.

The argument, for all its flaws, was that maybe, maybe if they hear the music of Jajouka on records of The Rolling Stones and Ornette Coleman and in films by the likes of Bertolucci, maybe they will take it seriously, treat it with respect and admiration and help continue the long and sacred tradition. Maybe.

It's an argument you hear repeated over and over again throughout Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and on and on, all these cultures with traditions so rich and powerful that their artists can make the moon and the stars fall from the heavens, weeping, all these lands of promise and genius and passion, all humbly looking to the West with their hats in their hands, saying, "Please, Sir, can you tell us, is it any good?"

Opposed to Bachir's populism, expansionism and, to some, growing Westernization, Berdouz was an adamant traditionalist and (though he'd be unlikely to use the term himself) a fierce isolationist. Why had Jajouka existed as a world apart, a separate reality, if not to maintain its sacred traditions, to keep them pure and distinct and holy, untainted by commerce or fashion or the whims and vagaries of a world led by illusion and bent on destruction? For twelve hundred years now, Jajouka had gone its own way, followed its own path and somehow survived, somehow passed the energy and the teachings and the music on to its children. Surely it could continue, somehow, to find its own way, to stay the course.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Bachir’s youth, vitality, and, especially, Western contacts, with all their attendant money and glamour, seemed to temporarily win the day, and most of Berdouz's followers slowly, begrudgingly, came to see Bachir as the future and to acknowledge him as leader of the Master Musicians.

Bachir's fiercest supporter, protector and defender is Cherie, a professional photographer and tireless booster of Jajouka. Small and tanned, with close-cropped hair and a pixillated look, she met Bachir at Paul Bowles' apartment and married him soon after.

"I came to Morocco in '86," she explained at our first meeting. "I kept having dreams that a bird was flying into my head. I wrote that in a letter to Paul (Bowles) and he wrote for me to come visit."


Cherie's whirlwind romance with Bachir was chronicled in Bowles's book DAYS: TANGIER JOURNAL 1987-1989 as is the sad story of Cherie's house in Mraierh, the one she commissioned Bowles' friend Mohammed Mrabet to build for her, entrusting him with over eighty thousand dirhams, and which he decided to keep for himself once it was finished. If the story is typically Moroccan (pride, greed, treachery, deceit and spite being the five fingers of whichever hand you're shaking), it also seems like the kind of mess Cherie could as easily have wound up in in Akron, Ohio or Woodstock, New York. There was something trusting and open and unwary about her that made her fair game to the ones with big teeth.

Yet if there was something vague and vulnerable about her as a free spirit, on her own, as Bachir's wife and manager and as one of the keepers of the keys to the kingdom of Jajouka, she had the raging, single-minded devotion and all-claws-out dedication of the fiercest keeper of the faith, and woe to the petty functionary or government lackey that got in her way.

Slowly, slowly the wheels started to turn. Whether through the intervention of the King or the Princess, of Cherie, of Laswell's backroom boys, or through nothing more and nothing less than fate nodding in our direction, by late afternoon, the equipment was released, and with light still in the sky, we loaded up the van and prepared to head for the Rif Mountains and Jajouka.

Nothing, however, is ever simple. Having waited for us since early morning, our driver was now upset by all the soot and dust on his van and, three miles outside Tangier, he pulled into a carwash. An hour and a half later, when the van was ready, it was hard to tell how clean it might be; the only light was the mild twinkling of stars from high above in the sheltering sky.

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The Possibility of Motion

After several hours on the highway, we drove the last few miles on dirt roads, until even these roads end and the mountains begin. Here in the silence and chill of night, we waited, while up above, somewhere on the mountain, there was a faint flicker of light. Far in the distance, dogs began to bark, and the night began to pulse with the glow and the hum of the moon.

Slowly, down the side of the mountain, a procession of men in dark-hooded robes, all carrying torches and looking like the home team of the Mystic Knights of the See, wound their way down to welcome us and to load our equipment onto the back of a low flatbed truck, where it was strapped down and ferried up the back of the cliffs. Meanwhile, they'd brought four mules with thick wool rugs piled on their backs, and, having no choice, we mounted and began to ride through a thick, animal darkness, punctuated only by the stars and the sound of our breath.

Our guides walked with us for a few moments, then returned to look after the equipment. "Go, go," they said, in some language or another. "The horses know the way. They will take you there."

The mountains, the moon, the sad swaybacked mules who neither look up nor down, who pay no attention to moon or mountain but who trudge up the sides of these cliffs with a slow and uncomplaining gait, who know nothing about destination, only journey; the smell of kif, sweat and cardamon; the air so thick you could eat it with a spoon if you only had a spoon, that balance of nothing and everything that hangs just beyond the horizon if you could only see it.

At Judgment Day, whenever that is, I have no doubt Saint Peter will stare at my files and shake his head and finally ask,”What the fuck were you doing on that mule?”

Eventually, after a time beyond any sense of time I've known, we arrived in Jajouka and were met with the sweet smells of mint and sugar and hashish. Dark men in long white djellabas smiled and took our hands and led us through the darkness to a large compound, a series of small, simple rooms stretched around an open courtyard where we'd be recording.

While the engineer set up the power generator, we drifted over to a smaller compound a few hundred yards away. The musicians were gathered there, sitting on couches and slumped against the wall, as musicians everywhere are wont to do, all tilted in the same direction by means of some musical gravity. They drank hot, sugary mint tea and smoked endless pipes or sebsis of kif, these men with wild, beautiful eyes and clear, unhaunted faces, all sons of sons of musicians, and it's not hard to imagine them periodically coming back from the dead to tune their instruments and fill their sebsis.

Well after midnight, the musicians gathered in the courtyard, sixteen, seventeen of them, and after the usual setting of microphones, in the cold and the thick of the night, they started playing.

Alright then, how do you describe this music? You’ve come along with me all this way, and you probably want to know.

It’s like the world's best horn section jamming with an ambulance, like chaos sitting in with darkness, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse auditioning for a gig as eternity’s house band.

There's a childhood game from Halloween where you stand in front of a mirror in a dark room, hold a candle in front of you, and close your eyes; and, when you open them, all the different possibilities and ages of your face will be there reflected in the mirror. Here, the music shows itself in much the same way, you can hear where the melodies come from, where they're going and all the various stops along the way that they could make, all captured in the interweaving of a few notes.

A set of six or seven parade drums beat out what begins as a dark military tattoo, shifting, over time, to an incomplete Bo Diddley beat. The rhaitas (double-reeded horns) bleat in a droned unison, what could almost be the sound of bagpipes, changing to a more Oriental call, shifting again as Bachir leads the horns and plays filigrees around the melody. The music evolves into a deep, swirling sound, a Dixieland band gone mad with the moon, a soundtrack to the first and last movie ever made, and there in the rhythm and the power and the notes, you can hear hints of every melody in the world, each raising its face to the stars and laughing and wailing and disappearing in turn.

Ornette Coleman came here in the early 1970s, hoping to record with the musicians, and though their collaboration never jelled, never added up to much more than a polite two-step of cultural and musical confusions, still the experience and the sounds he heard wound up inspiring one of his best and richest albums, DANCING IN YOUR HEAD. That title nearly says it all, for as physical and direct as this music is, it is, at heart, a strange and interior dance music, not simply about motion, but the possibility of motion and the fear of what happens when all motion ceases.

Almost anyone can learn the right steps, however well, however badly; but that's not necessarily dancing any more than simply hitting the right notes at the right time is a pre-condition for singing. Dancing is what happens to a dancer when he dances; it's about molecules colliding, spilling over into each other and re-combining, re-connecting; about lightning and danger and safety and instant illumination and the flash of understanding that leaves as quickly as it comes, giving no answers but deepening the questions, turning gravity, momentarily, on its head. This is music for the dead to dance to in their graves and out, music for the trees, for the rocks, for the wind to dance to. In their own way.

This is a place where the sacred energy of the earth collects and recharges itself. Whether the music collects here because of the energy or the energy collects here because of the music is hard to know, but they fuel each other, feed each other, and long after the musicians have stopped playing and put their instruments away for the night, the air is still shaking with power.

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"It was happening last night," Laswell enthused over the first coffee of the day. "Just from one night's work we've already got eight great tracks, maybe ten, eleven that we can use. There are moments when you can actually hear the sounds and the instruments changing into MUSIC. It's right there on tape, you can hear it---it's a different energy. Also, I found that if you focus on the bass drum and keep listening to what he's doing you'll almost black out. He's the one holding it together, with time moving all around. He's the central point."

It was rare to find Laswell that enthusiastic and that earnest. With all but his inner circle, his team, he is guarded and dismissive, treating most efforts at simple conversation with a hipster's cool contempt. Forestalling the possibility of dialog, Laswell slips back into character.

"We'll put out the Jajouka record in February, maybe, but just in Georgia. The Bahia record (BAHIA BLACK) we'll be putting out before, in January maybe, but just in Hartford. That's all. It's too much to try to release things all over the world. Especially when there are SO many states. Fifty or something. And that's just in America. So many. So I think we'll just release the Jajouka record in Georgia."

This sort of jive, so appropriate to the tiny, dark boîtes of the East Village, felt markedly out of place in the hard and jagged landscape of the Rif where magic and madness are commonplace, and sarcasm and irony are nonexistent. Blood and rain and food and stone. Night and wind and death and sky. In a world where the only toilet is a hole in the ground and a bucket of water to wash yourself with, it's hard not to be overly acquainted with your own shit; and also hard to deal with anyone else's. But no matter. Just to be here is enough. Just to arrive is to be well met.

I wandered off toward the musicians' compound and came across Baccri, a gimbri player in his mid-fifties, sitting on a rock cleaning his sebsi. At the sight of me, he smiled and walked over and, taking me by the hand, led me to where he was sitting. I noticed that his fingers are stained the dark color of kif, almost as if he'd stuck his hands in newly poured tar, and he laughs at me noticing.

"Jajouka," he finally coughed, as if concluding a long and silent argument with himself. I nodded agreement, and he pointed to me and tilted his head, ""

It's a question I'd been asking myself for a long time.

"Baccri," I explain, "a long, long time ago, a bird flew into my head, and I've been trying to get it out ever since."

He nodded sympathetically, and we lapsed back into silence.

My head was still buzzing from the kif, the music, the mountain air. Above me, high above, there was a ringing, almost like a telephone. Only a fool, I thought, would answer that. Only a fool.

The Knife Between Us

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Despite good intentions for starting the recording early, time had a way of stretching out, and the sun was down before the musicians assembled. In the midst of the set-up, Bachir wandered around collecting our passport numbers, shifting between his role as leader of the Musicians and his position as mediator between the village of Jajouka and the local government officials.

"I had to let the authorities know you were all coming," he sighed. "Last time, I got into trouble. The caid (the mayor of the province) put me in jail overnight because Mick Jagger came to Jajouka to make a video, and I didn't tell him."

Would they have jailed Mick Jagger too?

"No, no. He just wanted to meet him. He was very angry." Bachir handed me a well-thumbed notebook and points to a blank space in the middle of a page of smudges and scribbles. "This is for the government. Just put down your name and where you are staying, an address where they can find you."

"An address here or in the States?"

"Just write it!" he snapped.

Bachir was not used to being questioned.

Before the music begins, one of the players fetched a large framed portrait of Morocco's King Hassan and hung it on one of the posts, behind where they'd be playing. It was a handsome photo of Hassan in an Italian suit leaning jauntily against an armchair, one hand in his pocket, and he looked remarkably like Charles Boyer, a gentleman of the world, suave and in control.

In the early 70s, there was an attempt on the king's life: the private plane he was in was attacked, the pilot shot and killed. An experienced pilot and a fast thinker, Hassan took over the controls and, pretending to be the pilot, radioed in that the king had been killed. He was thus able to quietly land the plane, gather his forces, and have the leaders of the attempted coup exterminated. It's a good story, and people seem to love telling it. They point to the portrait and smile: Could your president do that? Could he?

The music started, and again the musicians were tireless, playing for five, six hours without a break, catching the music by its tail and following wherever it takes them. It's a sound that can cut the universe in two and toast and butter it like a muffin, and it makes people babble and stutter, trying beyond hope to catch the roar and the spark and the light, to catch it in words, even if it's just for a second, and make sense of this raw, unbridled power and energy.

The muezzin's call from the mosque at 5:00 a.m. interrupted the recording, and the musicians took a moment to refill their sebsis, matter-of-factly ignoring the call to prayer, lost in their own devotions. The call stopped, a cock began to crow, and the music continued.

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Abdullah, an enormous genie of a man in a gold cap and billowing white robe, woke me the next morning and led me to a tree in front of the musicians' compound where a number of sheep were tethered. He gentled them, coaxed them, pet them, and then, one by one, he cut their throats, and blood streamed out onto the warm grass. While their legs were still kicking, he severed the heads. Just over to the side, someone with a morbid sense of humor had spread out a colorful tablecloth on the low utility table, a picture of Jesus holding a young lamb.

Two children, little more than toddlers, saw me watching the spectacle and ran over to the wall where I was sitting, pressing flowers into my hands, feeling my shirt and touching my hair. One went over to smear his fingers in the nearby blood and examine the death throes of the sheep. There was no cruelty in his eyes, just a calm and detached curiosity, as if he were seeing a family friend or relative off at a train station. He squatted down and patted the grass again, the blood warm on his hands.

Bye bye, he waved. Bye bye.

The other one scrambled up onto my lap and showed me a stone he'd pulled from his pocket.

"Mokha," he explained. At least it sounded like "mokha."

"Mokha," I repeated dutifully, and he beamed. He pointed to the last remaining sheep, shivering by the tree.

"Baaah," he said, pointing to the sheep. "Baaah."

"Baaah," I repeated.

He passed a finger across his throat, dropped his head, closed his eyes and let his tongue loll out of his mouth. And then he looked up smiling.

"Baaah," he laughed.



As the last sheep was being led to the knife, it locked me in its sight and something---a fear, a consciousness, a moment of recognition---passed between us.

"Listen," it said with its eyes. "I'm a stranger here. You're a stranger here. I don't speak the language. You don't speak the language. They feed me. They feed you. I depend on them for hospitality. You depend on them for hospitality. Think about it."

And then the knife came between us.

While Abdullah was skinning the sheep and a helper was stoking the fire, Bachir and I walked up into the hills, stopping to sit by an old well that had gone dry. The day was warm, almost hot, in contrast to the chill of the nights, and there was no breeze, no breath of air to disturb the stillness of the day. A small white dog ambled over, and I absent-mindedly petted him, scratched him behind the ears; Bachir shook his head in disappointment and disgust. Clearly, I'd let him down.

"We keep dogs here," he admitted, "but not like in the West. We leave the dogs outside, we won't let them in the house. We believe that if you let a dog come into a room where you sleep, you lose your secret power. It's gone, and you don't ever get it back."

We walked on in silence for a few minutes, and then he resigned himself to talking to someone who has clearly lost his secret power, a dog-petter, a man without qualities.

"My father was the leader of the Jajouka musicians, and he passed it on to me," he begins. "He gave me the power to play this music--not just the knowledge, but the power, the energy. We call that energy BARAKA, and every family in Morocco has their own special baraka. Not everyone can play this music, you know, not even other musicians in Morocco; it's ours, our energy, our own way of breathing. It's a special gift.

"For us, this gift comes from Boujeloud, the father of skins, the keeper of music. Tonight you will see Boujeloud, Insh'allah, and you will understand some of what I've been talking about.

"For the festival, someone in the village is chosen to be Boujeloud just for the night; he gets to wear skins, and that makes him change. When people go under these skins, something happens, they go into the darkness. They have a different planet all for themselves.

"Me, I put on skins three times, and I changed. I felt a spirit enter into me, and I had to obey that spirit, I had no choice. My father was playing rhaita, leading the musicians, and I challenged him, I fought him. My own father! Unthinkable, but I had no choice, I was under skins, under the power.

"I know of two people who died in skins; one a long time ago during a festival after Ramadan. He danced for a whole week, and after he finished, he went to his house and drank five liters of water, and then he fell down and died. Someone else, when I was playing, danced until he couldn't feel his feet anymore, and when he came home he was dead. He didn’t know it right away. But he was dead.

"Up there," he points, "is the cave of Boujeloud. You can just see the mouth of it if you tilt your head this way and hold your hand to block the sun. Like this. When my fathers were first here, hundreds of years ago, Boujeloud appeared to one of them in that cave, way up there. He was a wild-looking man, covered in what looked like fur or animal skin, and he said,'Do not be afraid--I am Boujeloud, the master of flocks, the father of skins. I will be your dancer; I will make the music play. The music will make me dance harder, and my dance will make your music stronger.'

"You see, he makes us crazy. He makes a competition between the music and the dance. The music always wins because Boujeloud eventually gets tired. But on the way everyone gets crazy."

Bachir's version of the Boujeloud legend leaves out a few of the key points of the story. According to tradition, one of the first Attars, settled in the Rif mountains from his original home in Persia, was a shepherd who was entranced by strange and mysterious flute music coming from inside a cave. Though people of the region were terrified of caverns and caves, believing them to be the home of djinn or genies and to be passageways to the underworld, the original Attar ventured inside the cave and was met by a wild creature, half-man, half-animal, who lived a strange and solitary existence there and who called himself Boujeloud.

Attar returned to the cave everyday to listen to Boujeloud play and to try and learn the secret of his music, for the sound seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, as if the rain and the wind and the very breath of life were there in his flute. Attar begged to learn this music and pleaded with Boujeloud to give him his flute, in return for which he would find him the most beautiful dark-eyed girl in Jajouka and give her to him as his bride.

Boujeloud agreed, and Attar returned to Jajouka with the flute, soon getting the other villagers to copy its design and teaching them to play the music he had learned in the cave. But the rest of the bargain he soon forgot, and Boujeloud grew more and more enraged, living alone in his cave and hearing his own music blasting from the tiny village below.

At last, one night, he surged into Jajouka, terrifying the women and panicking the dogs and the animals with his wild hair and rank, dark smell of goat and sweat and loneliness, and demanding his bride, his mate, his dark-eyed beauty. Attar somehow convinced him that the music he'd been hearing was being played in celebration of his impending wedding and, setting the music going again, found a toothless hag called Aisha Hamoka (or Crazy Aisha) to pretend to be Boujeloud's intended and to lead him a merry chase, dancing near him as the music swelled, teasing him, flirting with him, but always staying just out of his reach (and, presumably, just out of his sight, letting him see nothing more than the toss of a veil or the glimmer of gold on a still-sprightly ankle).

Finally, exhausted, demoralized and bride-less, Boujeloud retreated back to the solitude of his cave, vowing to return some day to bring his bride back home. For centuries since, at the festival of Aid El Kebir and at rituals and gatherings, a villager is chosen to go under skins and play Boujeloud, still driven mad by the music, still searching for his bride, raging through the village with sad and desperate fury.

In some versions of the legend, before returning alone to his dark and primal cave, Boujeloud gives the village his baraka, his blessing, and names them the caretakers of his special music….a not entirely convincing coda, given that this creature has just been cheated and defrauded. When I mention this aspect of the story to Bachir, he seems singularly unmoved.

"On some levels, isn't this a story of bad faith, of broken promises?" I pressed. "And on some levels, isn't this story being repeated over and over again in the lives of the musicians and the villagers here, from all the problems with recordings and films over the years to Cherie's house being stolen out from under her?"

"What do you know?" he snapped. “What makes you think you know Morocco, much less Jajouka? Don't be so smart with your psychology and all your meanings. We are not lawyers here. Our contract is with the mountains. If we have taken anything from Boujeloud, we have paid him back many times over."

"With what?"

"With music. We have paid him back with music."

We walked on a few minutes and stopped to sit on a stone wall, the stones still warm from the heat of the setting sun. In the heat and the stillness of the day, you could just hear the echoes of the previous night's music in the sounds of the wind and the birds and the animals in the valleys below, the rhythmic braying of the mules mirroring the stop-time "beep-beep-beep" of the rhaitas as they changed the pulse of a song, the fluttering of the evening birds and the constant hum of cicadas mirroring the tight interplay of flutes when the musicians started to tease Boujeloud.

Sitting on the wall, legs dangling, Bachir looked younger, more vulnerable than before, and his eyes had lost some of their wariness.

"Now I am the leader of the musicians, but the knowledge, the power isn't being passed on the way it was when I was little. This might be the end of the music, the last notes of it, I don't know. I want to bring Jajouka to the world, so I end up traveling a lot, but it's a hard life. There is no money, and people are leaving the village; there are no young players following after us. Look at the musicians you see with me; most are fifty, sixty years old. Then there's me and my brothers, all young men, in our thirties now. But where are the ones who will follow, learn from us the way we learned from our fathers?

"They leave to make money, to find an easier life. Fine, I understand, but what do we do about the music? It has to continue, it's our blood, our spirit. It's our destiny.

"Some of our best musicians go into the army. You think the army is one year, two years? Here, when you sign up, you sign for twenty years! No one has to go, but what is there for us but farming or the army? There are not a lot of good choices.

"So some of our musicians, our best players, like Abdullah, they went off into the army, but they kept playing music the whole time, saxophone or whatever, and after 5 or 6 years they grew unhappy with the life and asked if they could come back to join the musicians again. I had to ask, 'Have you forgotten the music? Do you just know saxophone now?' And they'd say, 'No, no, no...we always play it. We keep it with us always.' And so some of them are back. But for how long? They say they keep the music with them always. But how long is always?"

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Burning a Hole in the Night

That night, we recorded the women of the village, most of whom had been hidden, unseen presences up till then. Strong and proud, with fierce eyes and powerful voices, they were shy in front of us, one of them holding a drum up over her face so that we couldn't see her mouth when she sang. They laughed and giggled with each other, but when they turned to us their faces were still, impassive, and the eyes gave nothing back.

After the recording, there was a feast outside of the musicians' compound around a low table; the sheep Abdullah killed earlier had been roasting over a fire, and enormous trays of whole lambs appear alongside piles of couscous, roast chickens stuffed with almonds and olives, hard boiled eggs, and flat round loaves of hot bread. In the distance, past a stone wall in a gently sloping field, they were building a fire for a celebration.

The musicians gathered, and as the flames rose in the cool night air, the music grew stranger and wilder than when the tapes were rolling, and it felt like the pounding of the drums and the shrieks of horns were feeding the fire, burning a hole in the night. There was a change in the light; rather, a change in the quality of the darkness, and people, trees, stones, even shadows all looked like they were lit from within, glowing. At that moment you could tell that the musicians were no longer playing the music, it was playing them, raging through them like a fever, and in the violence of the sound, you could hear the very beginnings of music, beyond reason, beyond language, the howl and prayer of pure passion and terror, the YARRGH at the back of every life.

That sound, that wail, obliterates logic and connects to something older than thought and deeper than language. Even though words can express complex ideas, language almost always doubles back on itself, and the words themselves become about language. Be careful when you're given a watch; you’re actually being strapped onto time's wrist, and you yourself are the watch's birthday present. So it is with words.

Language has its own agenda, and it never quite lets you look down into the abyss. Words refuse to let us in on our own impermanence, and though language can embrace the CONCEPT of finality, the reality of it, the incontrovertible fact of death yawning at the end of every life, is more than language can hold, and it changes the channel, distracts us with the possibility of a pun or a punchline, taps us on the shoulder and whistles in our ear: "Hey buddy, got a match? Heard the one about the three-legged dog? What's for dinner?"

If language is a way of organizing ideas, music is a way of organizing emotions, of breaking out of the train of thought into pure ache and love and reach, a way out of no way out, a shout in the dark whose echoes reach infinity. In the roar and the shake of this music, there's a connection to the time when man first discovered clatter and crash and hurled the sounds into the sky, praising the gods and reminding them that we're here, lest they forget. Praising and blaming, blaming and praising.

With enough time and charts and proper notation, a musicologist could dissect the beats and subdivide the harmonics, study the way this music makes time stand still while the earth spins faster and faster, talk about the Mevlevi dervishes in the tekkes of Konia, whirling their mad circles, or the Bauls of Bengal, drunk with the love and the fear of God, all the different angels of the earth, desperate for the wings that can fly them to the light, to a home on the other side, but it still wouldn't get you any closer to this slap in the face of the digital night.

Every other culture that embraces trance, from Tibet to Bali to Brazil, seems to aim at a merging of forces: body and spirit, heart and mind, earth and heaven, a breaking down of the Berlin wall of the human condition. The music from Jajouka is also about transcendence, but with a dark and terrifying undertow, an impulse toward destruction almost nuclear in its intensity. Here, it says: let's resolve all the polarities between men and women, darkness and light, being and not being, good and evil, let's wrap them up in a great big ball and blow it up and start all over again. Got a match? Let's get on with it.

Lost in the mountains of the Rif, deep in the dark, at the edge of the flames, a tribe of musicians continues, blind raging insane, clattering and honking, till the night tastes of fire and blood, and the stars grow as loud as the drums and the horns.

The Beating of Wings

Then it was morning, and the air was filled with the beating of wings and the sweet smell of mint. Time to go home.

Cynics, poets, musicians and mystics alike get swept away by the power, the beauty and the sheer vulnerability of Jajouka. The fact that it exist at all in the midst of the modern world is a small miracle, but it's a miracle in constant need of renewal.

Some people believe that when the music stops, when it disappears from the Rif, that the world will crawl into a big hole and curl up and die. Just as it may take hundreds of years to learn that a star has died, given the distance and the way light travels through space, so it may take a while for the fading of the music--if it fades--to be assimilated into this sad age, here as we skitter toward the edge of oblivion. Because if it dies, something strong and wild and free will die with it and be lost forever. And, it is as Paul Bowles said, a very long night.

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More than twenty five years later, Bachir still leads the musicians of Jajouka.

He has played concerts with them all around the world.

The village is still there, still in danger, but still continuing.

The music has never stopped.

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Brian Cullman is Journal of the Plague Years's West Village Editor. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Antaeus, Rolling Stone, Details, Spin and The Village Voice. As a musician and producer he has worked with artists as varied as Youssou N'Dour, Ollabelle, and Lucinda Williams and is an active member of the Lisbon-based group RUA DAS PRETAS. He is finishing a book about music and time.

All photographs except those of Brian Jones by Cherie Nutting. Her memoir is Yesterday's Perfume: An Intimate Portrait of Paul Bowles.

Black Eyes ::: Master Musicians of Jajouka

Brian Jones ::: Master Musician of Jajouka

The Middle of the Night ::: Master Musicians of Jajouka

Midnight Sunrise ::: Ornette Coleman & The Musicians of Jajouka

Full Moon At The Window ::: Bachir Attar

Jajouka Black Eyes ::: Master Musicians of Jajouka

Alallila ::: Master Musicians of Jajouka

El Meddahy ::: Master Musicians of Jajouka

Waving ::: Master Musicians of Jajouka

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