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September 26th, 2001 JEFF ROSENBERG | Music Stories
 

THE MASTERMINDS

Bachir and Mustapha Attar launch the ancient traditions of Morocco's mountains into the 21st century.

     
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The touring calendar these days is full of 20- and 30-year-old bands claiming to carry on a musical tradition. But Bachir Attar and his family are the real deal.

The Master Musicians of Jajouka have performed their mighty music together for over a thousand years, generation upon generation. Hailing from a village in the Rif Mountains to the south of Tangier, Morocco, Bachir inherited the mantle of Jajouka music from his father, the late Hadj Abdessalam Attar. The elder Attar led the group in 1969, when Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones recorded perhaps the first "world music" album, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka.

Jones may have been the first member of rock "royalty" to patronize the group, but seven generations of Moroccan kings had long before adopted the Master Musicians as their official court players.

"The king loved it," says Attar of his family's craft. "Before he would sleep, he would have to hear it...when he wanted to travel, they would have to go with him." The music's trance-inducing qualities also aided the monarchs in their spiritual exploration. The patronage of the royal family meant that the musicians enjoyed special dispensation to immerse themselves in music without having to support themselves by menial labor.

Bachir took over the group in the early '90s, following his father's death. He's continued the tradition of collaborating with forward- (and way-back-) looking Western musicians. Ornette Coleman, Bill Laswell, Maceo Parker, Debbie Harry and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo are only some of the players who have found something compelling in the music and felt the need to share its magic. Attar and Talvin Singh co-produced an album last year which attempted to mesh Jajouka with 21st-century electronic sounds.

But rather than tour the States with a DJ, Bachir and Mustapha Attar chose to stretch in another direction, uniting with Seattle's Critters Buggin for a no-holds-barred improvisational rumble. That band's pathbreaking sax man, Skerik, has nurtured a decade-long fascination with Jajouka music. During this show, Critters' explosive jazz funk collides with such Jajouka exotica as the rhaita (a double-reeded, oboe-like instrument made from apricot wood) and lira (a bamboo flute some say sounds like a swarm of bees) and the signature polyrhythms of Attar tradition.

Asked what he's learned about music through the collaboration, Skerik points first to the "totally unique rhythmic phrasing," but says the true lesson goes deeper: "It's really been about getting into the music as it's happening, paying attention to how we're focused--that's the priority, that and not being afraid of being yourself. Usually with other players, we think we should 'respect the guest' and play around them, but these guys just want you to be you."

After the events of Sept. 11, Skerik admits he and the band had misgivings about an American tour headlining Islamic musicians.

"We were supposed to play in New York the next day. We had three gigs cancelled: D.C., Northampton and N.Y.C. Our first show back was in Asheville, N.C., and we're thinking, 'Oh, great--the open-minded South,' hearing reports about vigilante shit, thinking about just sending them home or back to Seattle, just canceling right there. But lots of people came to the show and were totally positive and into the music. They've used this music for centuries as healing music. I know it sounds like hippie New Age bullshit, but it really works. If it was anything else, with lyrics or some political statement, it wouldn't have worked, but instrumental music can be interpreted any way. There's no righteousness, no trivial ideology, no politics... just art and life. It's about peace."

Daniel Flessas of KBOO's "The Outside World" contributed to this article.


Bachir and Mustapha Attar & the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Critters Buggin
Crystal Ballroom,
1332 W Burnside St., 225-5555
ext. 8811. 9 pm Thursday, Sept. 27. $15 advance, $18 door. All ages.




Bachir Attar fears his generation may be the last to live out his family's traditions. The family is no longer exempt from other economic obligations.




"We were raised to think of only music," says Bachir. "Now, we are thinking of what to do to make a living, too." He says the youngest Jajouka musician is 34.
 
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