Jajouka’s Master Musicians keep ancient tradition alive

In the small Moroccan village of Jajouka lives a caste of artists, mostly elderly men, who make music in a tradition that snakes back into the mists of time.

“What we play is about 2,000 years old—from well before the arrival of Islam,” says Bachir Attar, leader of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, reached at his home in the village. “Our music is dedicated to Allah, to the king [of Morocco], and to the love between man and woman. In the past we used to play for the king to wake him and put him to sleep, and also for formal events in court.”

The Master Musicians are Berbers, the pre-Arabic aboriginal people of northwest Africa. Their rich oral tradition remained virtually unknown to westerners until the 1950s, when author and composer Paul Bowles “discovered” them in the course of making field recordings. After that, expatriate beat-generation artists undertook regular trips to hear the Master Musicians of Jajouka. In the ’60s and ’70s the steady trickle of visiting celebrities included the Rolling Stones and Ornette Coleman.

The Master Musicians of Jajouka’s main instruments are the double-reed, oboe-like rhaita and the tebl, a double-headed hand drum. Seven or eight rhaitas are played together, producing a wailing sound that’s piercing and powerful. Despite the skills of the artists there are no solos. The music is ritualistic, and its intention is devotional—to trigger ecstatic release for both listener and player. Sometimes there are call-and-response chants.

Leadership of the group is hereditary, and Attar—who plays the rhaita and the gimbri, a lutelike stringed instrument—inherited the mantle from his father 26 years ago. “We still have the old songs from when Jajouka first start,” he maintains. “There are more than 500 songs. We can’t play all of them—but we try!”

In 1969, when Attar was just five years old and already a member of the group, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones came to his village. “He’s the strong key for us,” says Attar. “I remember his big yellow hair. I had never seen anyone look like this. He want to do many things with Jajouka. When he stay with us one night and record us, everybody feel he sit with them for one thousand years. He promised he will make us good future for the music of Jajouka.”

Jones proved as good as his word, though he didn’t live to see it happen. Shortly after returning to England he drowned in his swimming pool. But the recording he’d made and produced of the Master Musicians was released posthumously as Brian Jones Presents: The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka—and it put them on the musical map.

“Between us and Brian Jones, it’s only the memories, but the work we did with him is never going to die,” insists Attar. “I feel that this was the first world-music recording. It changed my life and gave me the inspiration to travel all over the world, bringing my fathers’ music everywhere—and not just in this village that we love.”