The Master Musicians Of Joujouka - Biography
By Nick Castro
Master Musicians of Jajouka are an ancient family of musicians from northern Morocco. Their tradition has been passed down orally for anywhere from 1,300 to 4,000 years. They are believed to have originally descended from migratory Phoenician settlers who made their homes in the Rif mountains of Morocco. They share their home with the sancutary of Saint Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, who is the patron saint of Morocco. Their music has caught the ear and piqued the interest of many figures on the counter culture throughout the years, including Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles and Brian Jones. Today their music is famous around the world and is led by Bachir Attar of the keepers of the Jajouka secrets, the Attar family. Attar is also an Arabic word which means "perfume maker" but older translations define it as "chemist" or even "druggist".
MMoJ keep alive a tradition which is losing its place in society in modern times: the oral tradition. The Attar family is ancient and has kept the music of their tribe, Ahl Sherif, in perpetuity by passing it down from father to son, generation after generation. Their unique music, a deeply spiritual and religious one, which is tied to the Sufi traditions of Islam, is unlike any other in the world and is comprised of extremely complex rhythms and melodies. The musicians who play it must begin an intensive training early in their lives and spend many years studying before they can become a Malim, or musical master. They are able to go into a trance-like state where they can endure long periods of playing, often in a frenzied manner, which is said to be able to heal through the power of their music. Often, they will play for days on end and musicians will take turns dropping out and coming back in, to keep the music going with no pauses. The MMoJ also served as a kind of royal court musicians for the kings on Morocco up until the time of the French and Spanish turned the country into a protectorate. To this day they are a unique caste of the village, which are exempt from doing farm work. Instead they spend their days in intense practice of their art. Up until the early 20th century the MMoJ were allowed to take a fee from the farmers in the area once a year to support themselves. This fee is given in exchange for the gifts of the musicians' baraka, or powers of healing.
Some of the instruments the MMoJ use are the Lira, which is a transverse flute unique to the area and one of the oldest instruments of Jajouka, the rhaita, which is a free reed horn similar to the Arabic zerna and somewhat related to the western oboe, and the drums, the Tarija and the Tebel.The two drums, played with wooden sticks, are made of goatskin and are of varying sizes. The Tebel drum is used for keeping and establishing a rhythmic base and the Tajira is used for soloing and ornamentation.