The Master Musicians of Jajouka came to London’s Commonwealth Institute in September 1980 and, over the course of five nights, practically blew the place apart through the force of their sound. That was the initial shock: the sheer volume and energy produced by eight men playing rhaitas — a double-reed instrument — and five others playing side drums. It was the first chance most of us had been given to see and hear these Sufi musicians from a village in the Rif mountains, and they more than lived up to their legend. The use of circular breathing and layered rhythms was a revelation, as was their casual mode of presentation. “The musicians did not treat their work with undue reverence,” I wrote in The Times. “They shared jokes and exchanged winks with members of the audience, who were encouraged to participate in displays of come-as-you-are dancing.”
The short season was part of a tour arranged to raise funds to ensure the preservation of their ancient culture and way of life. Three decades later the struggle seems to be continuing, to judge by the appearance of a new CD, The Road to Jajouka, in which recordings of their music are blended — by way of sampling, remixing and juxtaposition — with that of various western musicians. “One hundred per cent of the net profits will go to the Jajouka Foundation,” the sleeve informs us.
The album is produced by Billy Martin, the drummer with Martin, Medeski and Wood, whose entire membership appears on the opening track, together with the guitarist Marc Ribot. Others who turn up on subsequent pieces include the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, drummer Mickey Hart, the bass guitarists Bill Laswell and Flea, the guitarist Lee Ranaldo, the Sirius Quartet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Howard Shore, the Canadian composer who is credited as an executive producer of the album. Shore’s interest in this music probably has its origin in his collaboration with Coleman on the score for David Cronenberg’s 1991 film of William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, in which the Jajouka musicians were featured.
This is not the album to buy if you’re after a full-strength blast of the Boujeloud rite of the Jajouka musicians. In general, however, the mash-ups work well. I love the sound of Ribot’s squibbling guitar and the string quartet against the massed rhaitas on “Into the Rif”. Coleman’s alto improvisation against the layered rhaitas of Bachir Attar on “Jnuin” recalls the visit to Morocco that produced the track “Midnight Sunrise”, included on the album Dancing in Your Head, released in 1977, with a fragment repeated on the Naked Lunch soundtrack (if there ever was a western musician attuned to the vision of these Sufis, it’s surely Ornette).
Many of us know a great deal more about the sounds of the world than we did in 1968, when Brion Gysin took Brian Jones to Jajouka, or in 1980, when Jajouka came to London. Or, indeed, when Burroughs called them “the 4,000-year-old blues band” (we now know their music dates back a mere 1,300 years). The new CD is a reminder that increased familiarity hasn’t robbed this particular music of its power to astonish and mesmerise.
* The photograph of the Master Musicians of Jajouka is from the CD insert and was taken by Cherie Nutting. Jajoukafoundation.org is the relevant website for information and donations. There’s a fine chapter on Jajouka in Blues & Chaos, a collection of pieces by the late Robert Palmer, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and published by Scribner in 2009.