The Master Musicians
By Rosemary Woodruff Leary
Pan, Bou Jeloud, the Father of Skins, dances through the moonlight nights in his village., Joujouka to the wailing of his hundred Master Musicians. Down in the town, far away by the seaside, you can hear the wild whimper of his oboe-like raitas; a faint breath of panic borne on the wind.
Liner notes from the album Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka
Timothy and I spent September of 1969 in Tangier. One night Paul Bowles and Brion Gysin told us about the musicians of Joujouka who lived high in the Rif Mountains. The Master Musicians were priests of Pan, who celebrated the ancient rites of the goat god and the local goddess, Aisha, the beautiful, the blue-faced one. Brion told us that his friend, the Moroccan artist Hamri, could take us to the Master Musicians, the Ahl Serif, as they were the tribe of his mother.
We started from the sea, at Tangier, on a clear fall afternoon, in a succession of taxicabs, each more decrepit that the last, we headed toward the Rif Mountains. When one driver had gone as far as he would go, we’d find another. In villages, Hamri disappeared into crowded marketplaces and reappeared within a few minutes laden with oranges and packages, and trailed by the owner of the taxi that would take us to the next outpost.
We reached a checkpoint at a dusty fort on the barren plain where Hamri’s ‘cousin’, the local Commandante, allowed our passage. We were in the middle of nowhere, and our driver was reluctant to continue, but Hamri harangued and cajoled him until at last he agreed to take us into the foothills of the mountains. After miles of jouncing on a steep rutted road, the driver stopped and would not continue. We gathered our packages, paid the driver, and started on foot up the mountain path in the early evening light.
From across the slope of the mountain a shepherd boy watched us. He stood on one leg, the other leg bent and resting on his thigh, his arm crooked around his staff. Hamri called out to him. The boy leapt into the air, waved his staff, and took off running up the mountain. ‘A cousin’, Hamri told us. ‘He’ll tell the village and perhaps they’ll send the animals. We’ll rest here’. We waited, and soon a group of villagers descended to meet us. A woman offered golden apricots from a fold in her cloak. Hamri exchanged greeting with everyone, waving his arms to include us. The villagers insisted on carrying our bundles and packages up the mountain.
The sun lit the distant peaks. Soon we saw the village, the whitewashed walls of low houses turning blue in the darkening light. A few dim lamps glowed from the doorways. Hamri led us to a long and low white building with a porch. He said it was the schoolhouse, built with funds that he and Brion had given to the village.
We left our shoes on the porch as the men did and ducked our heads to enter the schoolhouse. Hamri introduced the men but it was impossible to keep up with their names. The last man stepped from behind a taller companion. ‘Berdu’, Hamri said with emphasis. Berdu, the smallest and surely the poorest among the village men, shambled down forward. He reached up and took off an imaginary plumed hat and made a sweeping, courtly bow to me. I curtsied, and everyone laughed. The village idiot, I presumed. I thought he looked simple.
We were invited to be seated in a corner of the room that was heaped with embroidered pillows. The kerosene stove hissed in the far corner, and shortly we were served sweet mint tea in small glasses. Hamri talked quietly with the men. Their clothing was simple: shirts and pants with a mix of European and handmade, always ragged cloak, and one could occasionally glimpse the embroidered bags the men wore beneath their cloaks.
Eggs and flat bread were served all around. After we’d eaten and the tin dished were collected and cigarettes exchanged, the men opened the embroidered bags and pulled out simple reed-stem pipes and, to our delight, packages of finely-cut kif. Hamri and Berdu shared their pipes with us. The kif was fresher and greener than any I’d had in Morocco.
A man took a violin back from England. The violinist smiled and began to pluck a reel. Penny whistles joined the violin and Berdu stepped into the aisle. He hitched up his cloak and held it with one arm. With the other arm behind his back he danced a sailor’s jig until the violinist turned the reel into Flamenco. Berdu became a self-important torero who, with a twitch of his cloak then became an imperious woman trailing flounces as the music became a Gypsy wail.
She opened her mouth to sing an impassioned lament, the violinist rose, swaying to accompany her; then the violinist interrupted the voiceless song to correct the glowering opera singer who stood before us. The violinist was now Paderewski, enraptured by his own music. Berdu snapped the baton in disgust and stalked away. He returned as an old woman carrying an invisible heavy bucket. With great effort, he lifted the bucket and dashed the contents onto the head of the violinist who continued to ignore him and finished the real and wonderful music. The violinist then wiped his brow and sat down to everyone’s laughter and applause.
Tim and I looked at one another. I reached into my own embroidered bag and discreetly took out two tabs of LSD. I placed one into his mouth as though I were placing a kissed fingertip onto his lips, and I put one into my own mouth. We swallowed the LSD with sweet green tea.
Berdu, with a surprisingly deep and resonant voice, began a prayer. ‘La Illah Allah Allah’. The men responded, ‘Mohamadu Akbar’.
In a conversational tone, the prayers continued, Berdu commenting, it seemed, on the village, the animals, and Hamri, who bowed his head to gentle laughter. Berdu directed us through prayer to laughter to a sense of closeness. There was a time of silence. We heard a few gentle coughs, a distant tinkle of bells. People stirred, shifting positions, and Berdu sat down among us. We could no longer see him.
‘Who is he?’ I asked Hamri.
‘Berdu, the Master’, Hamri replied.
The Master Musician of Joujouka’.
I needed to step outside. I found my boots on the porch lined up with the men’s backless leather slippers. I started to put on my boots, but a man I had not noticed before waved his hand dismissively and pointed to the men’s slippers. I nodded my thanks and put on the nearest pair of slippers. He motioned to my left and I followed a path out onto a gently sloping field. I was facing a star-filled sky. There were no electric lights to dim thye stars. Everything I saw was as it had always been, timeless.
I could hear the goats’ bells, and their strong smell told me they were nearby. I pulled a cluster of white wool that had been caught on a bush. As I walked back to the long house I rolled it between my fingers, effortlessly drawing the silky tuft of wool into a fine strand of thread. When I returned to the long house I was reluctant to go back inside to the room of men, to the air heavy with kif and tobacco smoke and kerosene. I wondered what the village women and children were doing.
Hamri stood in the doorway, backlit by the kerosene lamps inside. He beckoned to me to join him and the men. He led us out over a slight rise to a small clearing between the hills where brush was being piled onto a crackling fire. ‘Stand here’, Hamri said, placing us 10 or so feet from the fire. To our left, a row of hooded men took long wooden horns from patchwork bags. Behind them stood a group of men with drums, each drum aslant across the chest, held with thongs. They carried curved slender rods in their right hands, and in their left hands, heavier wooden sticks, the top ends carved in relief spirals like ram’s horns.
The night was still except for the fire which threw sparks into the darkness. The hooded men lifted their horns, and a thin piercing sound from the oboe-like instruments was sustained for an incredibly long time, maintained by the subtle joining of one horn to another, as no single breath could be that long. I travelled the brighter, larger, and then the horns went higher, taking me almost to the point of pain, then the music swirled into a skirling bagpipe sound whose rhythm the wind had torn away.
The drums, silent until then, boomed into being, a thudding heartbeat of rhythm. My breath was caught by the horns; my pulses by the drums. Was this music, or was it the thunder of mammoth hooves, screams of birds of prey? It seemed the very tempo of life in my body. Eardrums could be shattered. Hearts could burst from these sounds. The drums built a wall that contained the reed instruments. The reeds descended into a weaving ribbon of silver notes, playful to the drums’ assertive tempo, seductive, cajoling, demanding rhythms.
A creature leapt over the fire to confront the musicians. He was tall, powerful, barely covered by tattered clothing. His face was concealed by a deep straw basket adorned with antler-like branch-arches curved so high that his feet were hooves. Trailing branches in his hands, flailing the air, his pelvis thrusting, he was goaded by the music. He whirled around the fire, pausing once to glare at me with a goat’s horizontal eyes. The creature struck me with the branches. Struck me or anointed me, I don’t know which.
‘Bou Jeloud’, Hamri said.
Pan lives, I thought.
A slender figure in a blue-spangled dress came from the shadows. Arms curved, veils aswirl, her hips swaying with seduction, she turned before the Bou Jeloud. He followed her dancing form, leaping before her as she teased him with her veils. She played with him, turning him around and around, mocking him. Abruptly she was gone and the creature confronted the musicians, but they taunted him with their rhythms. He danced before them, controlled by them. The drums reverberated through the mountains. The horns’ high notes seemed to come from everywhere. Bou Jeloud bucked convulsively, howling in anguish that Aisha had left him. The drums slowed; the horns were one pure fading note. Bou Jeloud scattered the fire with his flails and disappeared into the black night.
Later, at the schoolhouse, Berdu brought former Bou Jelouds and Aishas to the center of the floor to demonstrate and mime their styles. He made fun of all of them, showing how one of them had grown too stout, another too clumsy. Hamri said they were chosen while very young for training, and that characteristics they showed as children determined which role they would play.
And then I danced for them. Not that I wanted to, or even thought that I could, but my usual inhibitions were lessened by LSD, and there seemed to be silken threads tied to my ankles and wrists that Berdu controlled ever so surely. And the music was irresistible. Penny whistles, violin, and softly tapped drums drew me to my feet. For a few moments I was Aisha to Berdu’s gently mocking Bou Jeloud. There were shouts of ‘Musicienne!’ and ‘Encore!’ when I sat down. I rose again, but the magic that had descended upon me was fading and I had become self-conscious. I pretended to stumble, and fell back into Tim’s lap, and we all laughed.
We left on muleback the next morning. All the way down the mountain I could still hear the drums in my head, and I could hear them at will for many years. The memory of the music that night reminds me that for a brief, magical time, I was a ‘musicienne’ among the Master Musicians of Joujouka.
Excerpted from The Magician’s Daughter, a work-in-progress.
From: Psychedelic Trips for the Mind, edited by Paul Krassner.