Syd Howells travels to Morocco and experinces the legendary Joujouka (The Place Where the Two Winds Meet) festival.
In the Ahl Srif Djebel, the southern foothills of Morocco’s Rif Mountains, a half hour taxi ride from Ksar El Kebir along a bad road lined with farmland, wells, beehives and Sufi sanctuaries lays the village of Joujouka. Isolated and until recent years without electricity, this is a village which features little in the way of western facilities. The two shops are but booths and there is one cafe which serves peerless cardamom-infused coffee and is owned by the astounding dancer and current Boujeloud, Mohamed el Hatmi of the Master Musicians of Joujouka.
Virtually unknown within their own country, you won't find their music in one of the roadside CD booths in Tangier or Marrakech. Their music is inspirational, beautiful, complex to the uninitiated, majestic, attractive to creative people, and depending upon their audience and its reaction, likely to morph into some of the finest music on the planet at any given performance. Timothy Leary and William S Burroughs are both credited with describing them as the world's only 4,000 year old rock band. To an extent this is faint praise – they are incomparable to anything as trivial as a rock band. I can see why Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones came to Joujouka in 1968 with the engineer George Chkiantz and an Uher portable tape machine to record their magic. You are judged by the company you keep.
Brian chose these friends well…
The musicians play an irresistible form of Sufi trance music traditional to the village; a music which it is said is healing, both physically and mentally. What can seem to the uninitiated to be a random noise, heavy on the ghaita pipes (pronounced rye-e-ta) and drums, is a well-rehearsed group of musicians – attuned to each other and their environment. These are real structured melodies of emotion and meaning. Many besides Brian Jones had heard the call and been summoned to Joujouka. Brion Gysin (originally brought to the village by Mohamed Hamri, the incredible Joujouka artist), William S Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Ornette Coleman – all gone now, we are here to go, but the sound impacted upon their lives and their art and its traces remain.
I first encountered the music through the album produced by Brian Jones, “Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka” album, released after his death on Rolling Stones Records in 1971. As a cosmic artefact it is without parallel, with their music being processed in keeping with more psychedelic times. At no stage over the years following my introduction to the sound did I ever envisage sitting next to the Master Musicians as they conjured their music in a live environment.
Myself and two friends similarly interested in the sound of Joujouka made the effort to attend their ninth annual festival.
The festival is limited to fifty guests. While this sounds impossibly small and even to some, elitist, there are practical considerations at work. Each attendee lives in a house in the village, is fed communally, and the compound of the Master Musicians with its tent and stage comfortably takes fifty travellers and researchers of sound, along with the musicians themselves and many villagers, family members and friends. The village infrastructure is unable to cope with a large festival. By pleasing coincidence we were allocated the house Brian Jones had stayed at. The small amount of tickets in turn leads to and encourages a sense of community amongst those attending. This is a place where lifelong friendships are forged in an atmosphere of inspiration and understanding.
The village itself is small and to an extent isolated, however the atmosphere is one of friendliness and you can wander around at will, safe and greeted by all you encounter. It is an extraordinary place – one of calm and contemplation. A spot close to the bottom of the village is known as ‘The Place Where the Two Winds Meet’ and offers great views over the valley and the fields of agriculture. Time stops here. As would be expected, breezes at this location appear to arrive from all directions. This may not be possible however it is a Joujouka reality.
This year’s festival experienced a heat wave but the organisers ensured all guests regularly drank water and were aware of the dangers of staying in the sun. Whilst breakfast was provided at the houses we stayed at, for lunch and dinner we ate local produce communally within the tent which witnessed the performances of the musicians. Following lunch at five pm they would bring out flutes, drums and a violin and perform relaxing music for around ninety minutes to two hours.
Dressed informally each day, they played as the setting sun wished us ‘au revoir’. Dinner would arrive at eleven pm, with midnight heralding a more intense performance. Now dressed in their ceremonial clothes and brandishing Ghaita pipes and larger drums, the music is increased in volume and urgency becomes the tone. Their music urges those present to dance and lose themselves in the sound and few can resist.
During these evening performances Boujeloud makes an appearance. Half man, half goat and linked it is thought to the rituals of Pan (hence the title of the Brian Jones album), tradition states it was Boujeloud who taught the ancestors of the musicians their music once he was discovered at the cave above the village. The ritual, where he dances to the music conjured by the musicians, occasionally stopping to run around hitting people with branches, is essentially a fertility rite. Through driving Boujeloud back to his cave with their music, the musicians ensure a successful harvest is guaranteed. Women who come into contact with the branches he flails are believed to bear healthy children. The music heals both mental and physical issues. Those who hear the Ghaita cannot fail to recognise its power.
Each evening session would last three or so hours without a break besides the occasional musician being replaced for a few moments while they consumed a bowl of their sebsi pipe. The concluding performance of the festival on the Sunday night lasted over four hours. It was physically and mentally intense. It was healing. My note book contains the following lines; “The best musical performance I’ve ever seen. Almost a religious experience – magical…” The Master Musicians of Joujouka are an organic machine. Better than a dream machine, they are a machine that reacts to its environment and, in due process creates rhythms and tunes that few can imitate and replicate. Whilst they lead the magic, they reflect off their audience and their enjoyment of the atmosphere. It is the perfect machine. Age may take some of its components yet they are replaced and it continues on – 4,000 years is not a long time. The Master Musicians of Joujouka are a treasure. These people are the heart of the village. The village is Joujouka. These people are Joujouka.
"The visitors left and Joujouka settled into its ancient rhythm" – Mohamed Hamri, Tales of Joujouka, 1975.
Word & Images by Syd Howells
Thanks to my travelling companions, Ian Pinhey and Alistair Kiley, Brian J Bowe, Frank Rynne, all those I met at the festival and of course, the Master Musicians of Joujouka – may your sound echo down throughout eternity.