A musical mecca
GO MOROCCO: A small festival in the foothills of Morocco’s Rif mountains has become a place of sonic pilgrimage for artists, thrill-seekers and rock stars, writes KEVIN BARRINGTON
ARRIVING IN THE village of Joujouka in the foothills of Morocco’s Rif mountains, it’s easy to see that electricity and mobile phones are relatively recent arrivals while running water has yet to make an appearance. Far less discernible, however, is the fact that the village is a musical Mecca, a place of pilgrimage for artists, oddballs, thrill-seekers and sonic subversives.
Although it is only a couple of hours drive south of Tangiers, Joujouka is well off the tourist track and home to only a few hundred people. Yet the village’s visitor list reads like a counter-culture’s Who’s Who, featuring a host of such iconic figures as William Burroughs, Brian Jones and Timothy Leary. One of the latest in a long list of those seduced by Joujouka’s charm is Frank Rynne, the former frontman of Irish group The Baby Snakes, who is now a doctoral student of history at Trinity College Dublin.
Rynne became involved with the village’s Sufi trance musicians when the Moroccan painter Hamri introduced him to the place about 20 years ago. He now manages the Master Musicians of Joujouka and for the past five years has been hosting a small annual festival in the village showcasing the group’s talents.
Rynne tries to maintain a balance between providing the musicians with a living and protecting traditional village life from an invasion of hordes of Western hipsters. This year’s festival attracted about 50 guests. “That’s the most people we feel we can have without creating too much chaos and jettisoning the unique intimate charm that brings people back year after year,” he says.
Although there’s stunning scenery, great hospitality and excellent food, Rynne says he is not comfortable with the term “boutique festival”.
“Joujouka is a farming village. It’s pretty basic. We’re certainly not talking chichi here,” he says. If the festival had a programme, it would run like this: a sheep is slaughtered, bread is broken, talk is had and then the musicians kick off until dawn looms and the first cry of the muezzin signals time for bed.
The wild Byzantine sound of the Master Musicians has led to collaborations with the Rolling Stones, jazz experimentalist Ornette Coleman and, more recently, Jane’s Addiction. Rynne brought Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins to the village to see the group in action. Beat writer and artist Brion Gysin was perhaps the main person responsible for taking the group to a wider audience. “I want to hear that music every day of my life,” Gysin said after he had first heard the Masters in the 1950s. In his book The Process, Gysin paints a vivid picture of the life and sounds of Joujouka at that time. He brought his friend and colleague William Burroughs to listen to the group and he too was enraptured.Burroughs later told Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page that the feeling of energy and exhilaration he experienced at one of Zeppelin’s gigs was similar to what he had felt in Morocco listening to the Masters. Acid guru Timothy Leary shared Burroughs’ enthusiasm for the group’s sound and labelled the Masters a “4,000 year old rock ’n’ roll band”.
Joujouka looks like just a small, poor but idyllic, mountain village. Its true allure, its wild spectral nature, comes alive and makes sense only when the first notes of music ring out. When the Masters start with their pipes and drums — ghiata and tibel — and merge with the braying of donkeys and the chorus of crickets, they form the perfect soundtrack to complement the vast, surprisingly lush vista of the rolling foothills of the Rif Mountains.
When the Masters get into their groove, pumping out astonishing volume with their acoustic instruments, you understand instantly why this is a place of sonic pilgrimage. Like sean nós on the Aran Islands or blues in the Mississippi Delta, this is local history and culture brilliantly captured and conveyed in sound and rhythm.
The pipes scream North Africa with its serpentine souks and bewildering mosaics, while underneath, the drums beat out a hypnotising African rhythm. This is the sound of the Maghreb, underpinned by pure primordial rhythm.
The keen ear catches snatches of all the very best of world music. A little Irish here. A touch of Miles Davis there. A flash of gypsy Balkan. Then the Velvet Underground. And somewhere in a white noise finale there’s a flicker of Radiohead. Anita Pallenberg, a guest at the first year’s festival and former partner of both Brian Jones and Keith Richards, said she particularly loved the group’s “Zeppelin riffs”. When it comes to taking a throbbing circular rhythm and upping the adrenalin-drenched tempo, there isn’t a superstar DJ from Chicago to the Balearics who has anything new to teach the Masters.
At the end of the first night, I complimented musician Ahmed Attar, telling him that he was Islam’s Elvis. The master of the Masters looked quizzically at me and replied: “Shkun Elvis?” Who is Elvis?
The Masters are no strangers to five-hour sets and they tend to kick off where most of the best Western rock ’n’ roll winds up. They take what we know as a few frenzied minutes of encore and carry it on for an hour or more. Finally the audience, assaulted by bass and bewildered by treble, loses itself in ecstatic trance.
The music’s religious origins lie in this saintly sonic bliss. This is Sufi religious transcendence fuelled by pagan passion. According to Gysin, the musicians hold a secret, hidden even from themselves: they practise “the Rites of Pan under the ragged cloak of Islam”. The musicians weave arabesque soundscapes, the intensity building. When the Muezzin’s cry sent the revellers to bed, one guest shook his head in bewilderment: “If the Yanks had any cop on, they would close Gitmo and send the Jihadis to Joujouka and subject them, not to torture, but to this sublime sound.”
Sunday night saw a primordial panoply of fire, magic, dance, beauty, lust and fertility. Forging the most intricate of aural jewellery, the Masters brought the night to a crystalline climax.
Rynne explained that the spiritual power of the music originates with Sidi (saint) Ahmed Sheikh, a learned Persian scholar who brought Islam to northern Morocco around 800AD. The Sufi saint is buried in the village shrine and legend has it that he blessed the music of the Master Musicians giving them the power to heal the sick and the crazy.
To this day, the ill chain themselves to a fig tree in the courtyard of the shrine seeking solace. The Masters then come, play to the infirm and blow their madness away. “Electric shock treatment? Give me this cure any day,” Rynne said.
The group, whose current line-up ranges in age of 40-80 years, has been going for centuries and the skills are passed down from father to son. Their sublime Sufi sound strikes quite a contrast to the popular perception of Islam, which is dominated by the dour Wahhabi sect promoted by Saudi Arabia.
Shattering stereotypes, the Masters opened the Glastonbury festival on the main Pyramid stage last summer with an Islamic blessing before delivering a rousing set of ancient rock ’n’ roll. They then left the stage to younger and less experienced musicians such as U2 who have also cited the Masters as an influence.
The 2013 Master Musicians of Joujouka Festival takes place June 7th-9th with tickets costing €350. Booking is available on joujouka.netThe three-night ticket includes the pick up and return to the train station in the nearby town of Ksar El Kebir, music, food, accommodation, soft drinks, bottled water, tea and coffee. Guests stay in the homes of the musicians.
There are no direct flights from Ireland to the north of Morocco. Ryanair fly to Tangier from Paris (Beauvais) and Brussels (Charleroi). Easyjet fly to Tangier from Paris (Charles de Gaulle).
While there are direct flights from Dublin to Agadir, it is some 700km from Ksar El Kebir and there is no direct train service. Scheduled services with Royal Air Maroc operate from Heathrow and
Paris Orly. royalairmaroc.com