Sixty-two miles south of Tangier, Morocco, lies Jajouka, a tiny village in the foothills of the jagged Rif mountains -- an arid, spiritual haven where the Master Musicians of Jajouka have kept sixteenth-century traditions vibrantly alive. Given the blessing of Allah by the Moslem saint Sidi Ahmed Sheik ages ago, this all-male collective represents a long dynasty of mystics endowed with the magical power to heal through music.
"From generation to generation, people go crazy out of their minds, have too much problems," says Bachir Attar, tribal bandleader and son of the late Hadj Abdesalam Attar. (During the '60s, Hadj opened up musical collaborations with the West, most notably through Ornette Coleman and Brian Jones.) "They come to the village and hear our music and they get healed. I don't know why, but music of Jajouka can make them become normal people."
The music is composed of several fairly simple parts that become more complex when layered together as polyrhythms; it can be extended indefinitely, and many performances last for days at a time, with some musicians taking breaks and others stepping in. The primal, shamanistic energy of Jajouka's sound borrows from the circular rhythms of Sufi music, as well as the wailing prayers of the veiled Berbers -- mountain dwellers whose original languages are unwritten and unintelligible. Jajouka's customary drone of several double-reeded rhaita -- a type of Arabic oboe -- can rival an entire army of skirling bagpipers.
As part of a duo, Attar guarantees less-shrill proceedings. A virtuoso of the gimbri, a three-stringed lute, he joins his younger brother Mustapha, a percussionist, for a rare performance this week. "In the '50s Jajouka was, like, 55 musicians," he says. "Only ten now.
"I'm trying to make words, a book, by the music," Attar says. "I love to play with people where they are. Improvisation? I love to play with others because I can find my place right away."
Like tourmates Critters Buggin (see "Bumpa Crop," page 88), Attar has composed music for a soundtrack or two, including the screen adaptation of Paul Bowle's novel The Sheltering Sky. It's an odd notion, considering he hails from a village without roads or electricity, let alone a cineplex. "My favorite thing that I put in the movie was music for The Cell. Was acting by Jennifer Lopez. That's my music, man!"
With so much recent notoriety, you might imagine Attar (who issued his first solo album, The Next Dream, in 1993) to have an ego the size of the Sahara. "We are not stars and don't want to be stars," he insists. "There is Arabic [saying]: 'If the moon loves you, don't worry about the stars.'"
Rather, Attar casts an eye toward the future. After all, in addition to their bloodline to the past, the Master Musicians are the founding fathers of today's trance music.
"God give you more and more technology to do something with. When I did this new album [Master Musicians of Jajouka in 2000], I put new sounds: electronics. It can clean the sounds. I was hoping from my next album I can get some good musicians from rock and roll. I love David Gilmore and Keith Richards, because my music can go with that sound."
Attar has yet to sire his own brood of Master Musicians. And until he actually goes forth and multiplies, his devotion to his ancestors remains unparalleled.
"That's my dream: to play every city in America," Attar says. "I want to explain Jajouka in many different ways. To keep tradition alive. That's always what I love."