Perfect Sound Forever

Bachir Attar interview by Jason Gross
(June 2000)

The hills of Morocco have held a magical secret for thousands of years that has only creased the Western consciousness in the last few decades.  A group of musicians have been passing down their unique music from generation to generation: the loud, piercing wail of their own traditional horn instruments atop the thunderous stomp of percussion.  These appropriately named Master Musicians began getting international recognition in 1950's when writers like Brion Grysin and William S. Burroughs journeyed out of their domain to experience the emotional pull of their music themselves.  This eventually led to Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to journey there in the late '60's to make the first recording of their music (which eventually came out after Jones' death).  A few years later, Ornette Coleman came there to be part of the magic himself, also recording with the Master Musicians.  In the late '80's, the Rolling Stones contacted them again to appear on Steel Wheels album.  Also, Bill Laswell had taken enough of an interest to also record them for his Axiom label and collaborator with band learder Bachir Attar.

What kind of group could fascinate and attract such an illustrious group of artists?  Even in the realm of 'world music,' the Master Musicians hold a unique place.  Their music provides not just plain entertainment but also spiritual out-reach that is common in their all-night, all-day sessions.  Their allegiance to their own Gods and their devotion to their music is something suggested in their live performances on their tours but ideally would be seen and experienced in their own environment where they have crafted and passed on their skills for millennium after millennium.  Since the sojourn to their native land is a bit much for most travelers, their recordings should suffice to give you a taste of this.

About three months after meeting him, I call the manager for the Master Musicians to find out about their upcoming release- Djinn- produced by Talvin Singh for Point Music. "Wow, you know that Bachir was just asking about you." For anyone else, I might have been surprised but not in this case. This is a man who says that he dreamt of Mick Jagger calling him days before it happened. I laughed at that as I'm sure you're doing now but not after I found out that he was looking for me at the same time I was looking for him.

The interview was done in October 1999 in the middle of the Master Musicians' tour of North America.

PSF: The Master Musicians is described as a 4000 year old band. Does the history of the group really go back that far?

It is very old music and nobody knows exactly. I think it's true because this music is very, very, very old. It was involved for seven kings in Morocco until the French and the Spanish moved there in the '30's. There is a document where Jajouka had been mentioned a thousand years ago. When they say '4000 year old rock and roll band,' that comes from William Burroughs.

PSF: He also described the Master Musicians as "a special caste exempt from farm work. The sons and grandsons of Master Musicians, they have done nothing else since birth and perhaps before." Is that accurate?

Yes, it comes from father to son for many years now. The music is a special gift from God, given to the family. This music can't be played by anyone but the family of Attar. It's very difficult. Now this planet is all one music and it's been going on for many, many years. Right now, no family on the world can do this also and that makes it different from all of this planet's music. Nobody can write it down and nobody can play it except for the family. We are the last generation because nobody else is learning this music. You have to learn this music when you are a child and you have to be from the family. That's the difference there.

PSF: Could you talk about your experience in learning the music of Jajouka?

My father was the greatest musician of this music. He was the leader of the band. I was learning this music when I was four years old. When you grow up, you can't get it. That's how I got it. When I was a child, I opened my eyes up and my ear and it went to my blood. I was indebted in this music. Now, my family is suffering a lot to keep this music from generation to generation. I was thinking, I want to learn this music because it's so beautiful for me. My father said to me "you can be a musician." I really didn't go to school to learn. That's how I started. Percussion, I had to learn about percussion and about flute, and about horn and then I jumped to the gimbri, the stringed instruments. That's how was it. Then I got it in my blood. It's different than to go to school for music. That's how I learned this music from my father.

PSF: So you feel as if you are part of a tradition?

Yes, I can say Jajouka is tradional, old. Maybe this is traditional, special for what is quoted as being "human music." This music I feel is good air, for people who know about music a lot. It can through to the people. When they hear world music bla-bla-bla, Jajouka is the part of many different directions, many different music. I can say yes, we have fans in world music but it's different. We have fans in rock and roll, punk rock, jazz tradition. I don't think Jajouka is just like world music with all of them.

PSF: Do you also feel as if you are passing along a tradition?

I don't know because we are the last generation. Our children don't learn this music because everybody grow up, go to school. They have to be teachers, do other work because it's difficult to get money from this. All (the people) my age, they go to look for another job before.

PSF: So it's going to be a problem to find new members for the band as older members leave or pass away?

Because no time for me to look, to start. Life is very difficult (in Morocco). You need to make living. To keep Jajouka going, it's difficult. We don't make money, to stay in a village and set up. But who knows? Maybe some people, they will show up to help us. I will be very happy to do it but I need a lot.

PSF: Jajouka music has been described as "Part theatre, part dance, part concert and part ritual." Do you see it that way?

Because Jajouka music, there is a lot of kind of music. We have Sufi music for Hilam crazy people. Totally, they are very crazy when we play for them but this is in Morocco in the village. Lot of people come to the village to listen to music. It's incredible, the music makes them become normal. They go to the doctor and can't get helped. But they bring the family to the village to listen to this music and they become normal. I see hundreds of them. But was many years ago like that. This is different. In other music forms, there is music for peace- to turn people to be peaceful, to have mercy. There is (also) music for dance, of course, ritual dance. We call him Pan, the one who dances inside of the (goat) skins.

PSF: What kind of religious beliefs feed into the Master Musicians' music? You were just starting to talk about that.

Muslim. Islam comes in the north of Morocco in that time that I think is more than a thousand years. And we have things come from religion, from Islam. Like they say Sufi music but we do it in different way. What I can say is Jajouka musicians, they are Muslim and we believe all the prophets from the beginning to the end. Yes, we are religion people and we don't go against any other religious people. It's mentioned in the holy Qu'arn. That's how we believe all the religions but we believe what comes from the beginning.

PSF: What about the legends of the goat-god Pan and the prophet Sidi Sherk? I've read that these are also important to Jajouka.

Sidi Sherk came from the Middle East to preserve Islam in Northern Morocco but then he stopped in the village because he heard the music and he connected with Attar. He came to live in the village. He give a lot of lessons to my family to play his songs in Sufi. They played them in a horn, which we still keep in that music. We kept it from generation to generation.

Pan is a long, long story. This man he show up in a mountain in a cave many, many years ago. Attar was with this goat in this cave. He playing the flute. This man show up from the cave, half-goat, half-man, maybe he's a devil but these sounds bring him. Attar got scared but he said "No, don't be scared. I am Bou Jeloud, the father of the skin. They love the sounds and they want you to play more and they want to dance but I want to give you some lessons. This music is called Bou Jeloudia. It's for people to dance, it's free dance." This was how was the connection for Bou Jeloud and Attar. He taught him this music we call Bou Jeloudia and he kept. And many, many pieces in here. You play one level and then you jump to another.

PSF: In the music of Jajouka, how do you see the reed instruments interacting with the drums?

Because we find this from the family and you learn this music. It goes with the drums and the music. How to be go together. How to be skilled. How to be right, in good connection. We are not just playing blu-blu-blu-blu! You have to be together. That's the thing that's difficult. I know, sometimes people don't understand. But really what I want to say because the people who get the taste of the music of Jajouka, they come to the festival of Jajouka where we do one week of music. This is how we get the feeling and the taste. Of course, we go deep with it. Like William Burroughs, like Brion Gysin, Timothy Leary. Ornette Coleman came to spend a week with us in '73 when I was a child. He was playing with the musicians. That is how these people they know what we are doing here. They think "Oh, this is world music, bla-bla-bla." But totally different! Nobody can do it. It's one. That's how make the difference. Everybody should listen to this music. I can think they can have the question and the answer. Jajouka is one music on this planet.

PSF: Since you're talking about audiences, when the Master Musicians play, what do you hope the listeners get out of it?

For us, it's different. We care about the audience to hopefully understand us, our playing. But we play. We don't care if people like it or not. This is far away that we're doing this. We're not looking to be stars, or to be pushy. We are taking this easy, we play it for the people. I know a lot of people, they get infected and they feel it. I know it because these things are like a certain way, it's magic to the people. Especially for certain people, it goes DEEP. I know that. When we play in New York, they love it and enjoy. That's how Jajouka is continuing. It makes this music live. They are friends who come to see our shows even though we don't meet them.

PSF: Could you talk about Master Musicians instruments? Tebel is one of them.

You have to play with two sticks, one in the right and one in the left. That's wood with goat skin to make perfect sounds with the double-reed horn, ghaita. It's the oldest instrument, it's the most of all the wind (instruments), like the flute. Maybe that's where the idea that people come with saxophone, with all the wind music. Because this is very, very old.

PSF: What about the gimbri?

Gimbri is old instrument too, a string instrument. I know a lot of people play it in Morroco. But at the same time, we do these things different. We translate the music from the horn, from the flute to the gimbri, which is very difficult. I compose some songs with this.

PSF: And the lira?

The flute lira is the mother of the wind music as I said before. It's very, very old. That was how the beginning of Jajouka music with the horn both.

PSF: And the tarija?

That's a drum. They make it from the dirt mat and goat skin. That came to be something to get in the percussion and make some... like a drum to have the roll, to get in the skill of the drums.

PSF: Brian Jones recorded Jajouka in the late '60's. What did the Master Musicians think of that LP he recorded with them?

They respect that record because that was the first one that was out. Brian he comes in '68, he was in certain problems in his life. Brion Grison invited him to the village. I think he played for him some old tapes which Brion recorded in the '50's. Brion he loved to come to record this music. And we don't know Brian Jones, we don't know who the Rolling Stones who they are. Brian came and recorded the music. One year later, we heard this guy who's dead, we don't know who he was. Some people bring the music of the Stones and they play it. This was the guy who was here. That's the first rock and roll that I heard in my life from outside of Morocco.

Later, they put it on their own label, this album. Then later, people who buy it and they would put it away. They don't understand! (laughs) Then later, they got it back. "Oh shit, what's that going on in this album?" Then they go out and they find something and they understand and the album becomes famous.

PSF: So the Master Musicians were happy with that recording?

Yes, yes. That's the memorial between Brian Jones and my father. The first album was the first world music to come out. Nobody knew about world music. They call it that now but they didn't know then. They say 'world music' but that's just music to us. It's funny to hear people say 'world music.' (laughs) Each one has his different music. A lot of people, they bring them from the streets and they say 'it's world music.' It's just 'music.'

PSF: You were talking about Brion Grison before. What kind of relationship did he have with the musicians?

He comes in the '50's. He was invited by Paul Bowles to Morroco and they were going to take a trip to South Morocco. They heard that the music of Jajouka was in a festival where this train stopped for a half hour. Brion Grison he heard this music and he said to Paul Bowles "this is the music I want to hear for the rest of my life." Then he says when they come back, they will meet with these people. They came back to Tangiers and Paul Bowles gave him some tapes to listen to music. There are some people here that play horns but it's different. But it was kept from Jajouka because the first musician playing this horn music was Jajouka but people in the history back then, they copy. But not the same music, they play it in a different way.

Anyway, Brion he was hearing musicians playing this kind of horn but it's not the same sounds that he heard. Then he got to the village and he heard the music, he said "This is the music that I heard before." Brion was just to visit just for a month or two, then he was living (there) for a long time in Morroco, living with the Musicians in the village. He would go to Tangiers and come back. Then one time, he talked with the Musicians and they said "Why don't we open a place in Tangiers?" It was called One Thousand And One Nights. "We can play and we can split the money," they said. So, Brion opened this bar/restaurant/club and Jajouka was playing there. That's how Brion connected them with other Beat generation people.

PSF: You mean like William Burroughs?

Uh huh. That's where he started to write the book The Naked Lunch. He heard the music and he loved it very much. He spent time in the village, that's how it was. We loved him. We miss William and Brion. Paul is very old now, he is lying down in a bed.

PSF: A number of years later, Ornette Coleman played with the Musicians...

We just played with him again last May in France at this jazz festival. It was beautiful, incredible. We played with him in Italy last year and in Munich in '89. It was like magic. People heard what we do with Ornette and they say "This is the music that we never hear before in our lives."

PSF: Why do you think he blended in well with the band?

Because Ornette is a great musician. (laughs) Because he understands the music. I know Ornette loves us very deeply. He spent one week with us in Morocco in the village. Ornette he understands what we are doing. This music can go deep to great artists. That's how Jajouka music goes.

PSF: Is it true that there was some uneasiness between different generations in Joujoka with the direction of the music in the '70's?

You heard this from the book called Jajouka Rolling Stone? We don't like that book. I hate it. It has too much things talking like bla-bla-bla. We don't respect that book because he go over his mind. We don't want that guy to come to the village anymore!

I talked with him and I told him a little bit but he put something in there that we hate. Because we are Muslim people, we are nothing to do with something different in our culture. He mentioned something that we are not. I had a very difficult time learning to speak English to tell people the truth from us, not from the journalists. Some journalists can write. I respect Paul Bowles, Brion Grison, William Burroughs, Robert Palmer. They write carefully and they understand a little bit about the culture.

PSF: Could you talk about the time when you recorded with the Rolling Stones for their song "Contentental Drift" (1989)?

That was a dream. I dream Mick Jagger walking in the village. The next day, I'm walking down Houston Street, was Ramadan, I was fasting. The wind moved this newspapers to my feet. It's Arabic so they're talking about that. Then I find Mick Jagger there. (laughs) I said "My God, I dreamed this about this guy last night." Now, I thought I have to connect to him, I have to write to him. I asked someone and they said "Oh, they'll never answer you." But anyway, I wrote to them to say we'd like to do one piece on your album with you, like a tribute to Brian Jones, and the relationship between Jajouka and the Rolling Stones. And before I write to them, they're thinking about how to connect with me. Incredible.

I know the story was that Keith and Mick, they're in the studio doing this "Continental Drift." Keith said "We need like Master Musicians of Jajouka in this piece." Then my letter arrived. I think for them, it was a surprise. (laughs) Then they connect with me right away. I talked with Mick, he called me. He said "yes, we could like you to do this track." So they sent me the tape of their ideas. I said I was very happy to do it. Mick said "We want to come to the village, we want to make big things there. I'm going to bring 50 artists to the village." I don't who they were, I think they were rock and roll. After they sent this guy who's a road manager, he took a video to film everything and said "Oh, it's so horrible in the village." He wanted to make it an easy way. So Mick Jagger called me and said "Let's do it in Tangiers" and I said OK. That's how we recorded it there. And they loved the song very much because it's different. It's a great, great song with that percussion. I think Jajouka was very good. They said it was the best song on the album.

PSF: How would you compare the earlier recordings of Jajouka to the more recent Apocolypse Across the Sky (done with Bill Laswell)?

We like it. It was very good. I was ready to do an album and then we connected with Bill Laswell. He was interested to do produce an album of Jajouka, which was good. I composed some things for that because each generation puts their own music. It's difficult for us because we're playing the older music. There are some pieces there, Bejoudia, that are very, very old. It's from a thousand years ago that some pieces are there from.

PSF: Since you've been with the Master Musicians, have you seen or felt any changes in the direction of the music?

No, there is no changing. People are always saying "you're changing the music" and I say no. We're composing new things, yes. I enjoy to play with Ornette Coleman, rock and roll people, only the best! I love to do that. That is composing new things. Can't be with Jajouka music but I describe these other things right away to do with these people. But there is nothing can change Jajouka music. We kept that forever, through our live. The way we play with other artists, it's fun and it's good for other people to understand how this bridge we can build for commuication with Western people and Arabic men can be done through Jajouka.

PSF: What do you see as the future of the Master Musicians?

We are hoping to go back on a big tour in Europe and America. A new album is coming out for 2000. A celebration of Jajouka crossing many, many years to head of 2000, which is great! (laughs) My producer is Talvin Singh. We did some tracks with me and him and my brother, which is very good. He is a traditional Indian and we did something very good. I know people will love it. It's for everybody.

PSF: If you were going to have someone join the Master Musicians, what would be the most important things for them to learn?

I don't use other people if they don't grow up with us in the music. I don't think it will happen though because nobody is for that. I think this the time, 2000, that is the last century for Jajouka on this planet. Because I know it's very, very difficult. There is no time. Life changed. The world becomes difficult. Who knows? Maybe some times, things changes. We will have children and we will teach them. I can't be for sure.

If I have children, they have to travel with the Musicians. They have to learn and they have to want it. They have that open brain for it, like me, my brother. "OK, we're going to give our live to our music. We don't want to do nothing (else)." That's how it should be for the child. He grow up with an interest for it. We can't push him. He has to push himself. Then he will learn it.

See some of Bachir's favorite music

Also see the official Jajouka website

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER