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”.