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The Master Musicians of Jajouka (live at The Barbican)

Milton Court Theatre, London
29 September 2016

Master Musicians Of Jajouka live September 2016A crucial international fixture, and Team Freq is in utter disarray: star striker Rodham-Heaps out of action, midfield playmaker Nickells injured (his silky skills laid low after a night of drinking at Acid Mothers Temple), and others all unavailable for selection. And so, in a bold decision, the Freqmanager1 decides to bring yours truly off the subs bench and into the starting line-up. Taking my inspiration from Ole ‘Super-Sub’ Solskjaer, my aim is to come on and change the course of the game decisively.

I almost fall at the first hurdle, proving myself singularly unable to even find the gig, let alone review it. The Barbican is a veritable Crystal Maze at the best of times, but building work has rendered its multi-level profusion of signs, rooms and halls into a baffling rat run – I can find tonight’s junior community theatre performance, I can find the cloakroom, but I’m buggered if I can find the Master Musicians. I close my eyes and call on the spirit of Brian Jones to lead me, but I think he must be upstairs in the bar. Settling instead for someone more corporeal, one of the young ushers helps me out: “That’s the Sufi stuff, right?” she asks me. Yes indeed.

Turns out that I actually have make my way to the nearby Guildhall School of Music and Drama, whose Milton Court Theatre is playing host to tonight’s show, the opening event of the Barbican’s eighth annual Transcender season. The Transcender mission directive is to bring “spiritual, devotional and just plain trance-y” sounds from around the world into the (raised) consciousness of the capital’s cognoscenti. And they are surely starting this autumnal marathon at a sprint, tonight cueing up a collective of musicians who have pretty much defined the phrase “spiritual, devotional and trance-y” in the western mind since their first exposure in the Sixties via the Beat movement and the psychedelic generation.2

Master Musicians Of Jajouka live September 2016

Hailing from the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco, the antecedents of the Master Musicians were said to act as court musicians for the medieval sultans, travelling alongside them in their entourage in order to form a vanguard which announced the royal arrival in cities and villages. Yet there was also a more practical and medicinal element to their music – its mystic melodies were seen as having healing powers and, to that end, the performers were excused any manual, subsistence labour, being expected instead to concentrate on honing the skills needed for such luminous and transcendental music. It is from this ancient caste of musicians – memorably, if slightly fancifully, described by Billy Burroughs as “a four thousand year-old rock and roll band” – that the tradition of Jajouka descends, cascading down through the centuries until, almost unbelievably, we are still able to witness it today in the heart of our modern metropolises of concrete and glass.

Thankfully there is nothing concrete or glass about the Milton Court Theatre (I find myself thinking of it as the Milton Jones Theatre, but that would be a very different kind of venue), instead it is an intimate, tenebrous womb, holding around 230 people, a space both large enough for the sound to feel expansive, yet cocooned enough to allow you to feel physically and emotionally close to the performance.

Settled in at the front of the balcony, my eyes alight immediately on the instruments lying inertly on stage in the half-light: the guinbri (a form of long-necked lute), the tebel (a large goat skin drum played with sticks) and the tarija (a smaller, hourglass-shaped drum known for its fast-paced, popping sound). It is from such simple and unchanging instruments that Jajouka has been flowing since Richard the Lionheart was attempting to raise funds for his latest ill-advised Third Crusade in the Holy Land.3

Master Musicians Of Jajouka live September 2016The quiet ambience of background chatter subsides gently, and Simon Broughton – editor of Songlines magazine, the closest “World Music” has to a Bible – emerges to welcome the assembled faithful and give some context for the evening’s music. It’s a sensitive and succinct introduction, in which Broughton raises, and then questions, Burroughs’ famous epithet, concluding sensibly, “Nonetheless, you can see what he was getting at”.

Broughton withdraws into the shadows and the six Master Musicians then appear in elegant single file, dressed in matching green mantles and yellow slippers, Ahmed Bakhat being the sole exception in his pristine white djellaba. Seating themselves in a line, leader Bachir Attar greets the audience briefly, preparing them for what they are about to receive. And what that amounts to is five extended pieces which collapse time, geography and music.

The first piece features what might be regarded as the classic Jajouka sound, throbbing percussion over which dance three ghaita, the distinctive double-reed pipe whose insistent treble register sounds as though it is coming directly from your own nervous system. The three instrumental lines snake back and forth across each other with effortless ease until following any particular melody line is akin to trying to keep track of the ball as a skilled thimble rigger moves three cups around with ever more bewildering speed. Scarcely five minutes in and my eyes are closed, my head nodding, the music seeming to pass straight through me like an X-ray.

For the second piece, Attar switches to the guinbri, its bone-dry string sound resonating out across the hall, whilst Bakhat plays a truly exquisite violin solo, the instrument held upright and one-handed, balanced on the knee in the north African fashion. Moved along by the restless percussion, the piece darts along with skittering changes in rhythm, like a hummingbird moving around a flower head. The turns happen on a knife edge, with the musicians barely even opening their eyes. This is what centuries of training produce. This is music that comes from deep within.

Master Musicians Of Jajouka live September 2016

The third piece begins with an interplay of lira, the deep, resonant flute of Jajouka, set against a drone so ancient if feels as though it has been sounding since the world began. As I sink deep into the music, the phrase “Tat tvam asi” bubbles up unbidden into my mind. I learned it long ago from a meditation teacher, its Sanskrit wisdom encapsulating with astonishing brevity the view that there is no difference between what you think you are, and what you think you perceive. The boundaries between the self and the world are illusory, it is all one. It is the aim of Transcender is to promote the music of the spiritual, the devotional and the trance-y, and this is it, gloria in excelsis deo. With eyes closed, there are indeed no boundaries. The sultans knew it. Bryon Gysin knew it. Brian Jones knew it. And here in the heart of EC1, we can all know it too.

For the fourth piece, the three ghaita again pierce the brain like arrows. Broughton was right in his introduction –I can see what Burroughs was getting at, but saying it when he did, he was forced to relate Jajouka to a western musical genre that actually existed at the time, rather than being able to foresee one that was yet to come. For Jajouka is not like rock and roll – no matter how outré in form – it is more like organic, millennium-old techno. A thousand years before Aphex Twin, this music fused complex webs of melody against an irresistible beat, one which could either heal a broken bone or compel you to dance, like the “Red Shoes” of Hans Christian Andersen.

Master Musicians Of Jajouka live September 2016Worryingly, Attar has said that in the modern world young children are no longer learning Jajouka from the age of four in the traditional way: “So we no longer have youngsters learning to play as Masters. I am the last generation with my Master Musicians. The world has changed so the music will also change.” Change is indeed the only constant, but it would truly be a tragedy for the world to lose this music, like seeing the last tiger die or the final tree in the rainforest crash to the ground.

Before the final piece, Attar thanks the audience profusely, and mentions the Master Musicians’ “big connection with England”, forged through many decades of musical collaboration with a panoply of figures ranging from Peter Gabriel to Genesis P-Orridge. It could just be my imagination, but somehow the Master Musicians seem to be able even to control their own mix and EQ as they play, the ghaita parts receding one moment and rushing forward the next, like waves crashing against a beach. During the crescendo, the Master Musicians lock into their riff taking it as far out (or as far in, depending on your current head-space) as it’s possible to go, before slowly bringing the tempo back down, rising from their chairs and leaving the stage in an Arkestra-style procession, whilst still playing. Even after the room has actually fallen quiet, Jajouka seems to linger in the air like incense.

I walk home, dancing in the head.

-David Solomons-

1 The Telegraph attempted some entrapment through the offer of £500k from a far eastern betting syndicate, but he merely sent them packing with a flea in their ear and a copy of the new Controlled Bleeding album. Allegedly, obviously.

2 Tips o’ the cap to Messers Gysin and Jones.

3 To this end, the Lionheart was supposed to have said, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer”.

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