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- Posted on Feb 10th 2009 11:30AM by Steve Hochman
Bachir Attar gave a puzzled look when those words were uttered backstage at UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles after he'd led a bracing performance by the Master Musicians of Jajouka, the mystique-laden troupe from a village in Morocco's Rif Mountains. It was more a matter of language than concept, as though he speaks English, it's his third-at-best tongue, after Arabic and French. But it underscored what had just been heard from the stage. This is music that, while adhering to generations of traditions, is by nature rather unruly.
Two days later, across town at the Zipper Concert Hall of the Colburn School of Music, those same words posed to Mohammed Otmani drew an unhesitant, unqualified "Yes." The music he and his ensemble, the Orchestra Otmani of Fes, performed would be highly structured and strictly disciplined.
It was coincidence that these two groups were in L.A. the same weekend (and in fact originally had been scheduled to perform on the same day), but it was an exceedingly rare chance to engage in some compare-and-contrast exercises. The Jajouka musicians have not come to the States often, and organizers of the second show said that this was only the second performance of an Andalusian music group from Morocco ever in the city. The case could be made that the only true relationship between the two is geographical, but it nonetheless made for an interesting study.
The eight Jajouka musicians sauntered onstage in their green djellabas with white turbans (except for Attar's, which is black), took their seats and the four on the right started blasting away on their ghaitas -- reed instruments that produce a sharp-toned bray and buzz that bores right into the head. After a few minutes, the other four picked up the beat on pounded drums, the sounds intertwining in shifting, shimmering patterns that unfolded over the course of maybe 10 minutes, completely living up to the group's reputation for trance music.
The seven members of the Otmani group (including three of the leader's brothers) entered in their white robes and crimson fezzes, Mohammed coming after to separate applause in the manner of a classical performance. After a little tuning, they launched into a piece of spirited precision, with oud, rebab, darbouka drum and tar mixing with violin and viola and later vocals both solo and ensemble, in the virtuosic ways of Andalusian chamber music.
Both approaches go back more than a thousand years, handed down from generation to generation. Attar took over this group from his father, a string said to go back to the middle ages, and the Otmani brothers studied with both their grandfather and father, respected members of top Fes orchestras. But the Jajouka music is a sound developed in isolation, high in the hills where there was little if any contact with outsiders for centuries. The Andalusian music is rooted in cultural mixing, traced to the year 822 in Grenada, the art-rich Islamic capital of what is now southern Spain, and developed over time in the relatively cosmopolitan cities on both sides of the Gibraltar Straights.
There are some similarities in the complex rhythms, at least. Maybe there are some common roots way back. But if so, it's Darwinian process in action, with one having evolved in isolation, the other shaped by many interactions.
"This is our music," Attar stressed. "We don't copy anyone else. Our music is different in all the music world, even in Morocco. It's Jajouka music alone."
The Otmani approach is deeply tied to ways common across the Andalusian form, the members all conservatory trained, deeply schooled in the particulars of the nawbats -- the surviving 11 modal and structural blueprints for the music, drawn from what was once a roster of 24.
"The music, there is nothing different," acknowledged Abdelmalek Otmani, the leader's younger brother and the violist of the group. "Every orchestra has the same music."
But Attar has been fiercely fighting to keep his sounds unique as, he says, imitators have encroached since the group was made an international sensation, first in the '60s after being "discovered" by Beat artists Brion Gyson and William Burroughs, and perhaps most famously by Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who made a recording that became a psychedelic-trance legend.
The Otmanis, on the other hand, is working hard to give his group unique, distinctive qualities within the formalized Andalusian settings.
Jajouka has been open to a lot of collaborations and experiments, from Jones' sonic manipulations meant to re-create the impact he felt from the music to various teamings with jazz musicians (Ornette Coleman) and electronica figures and cultural hybridists (Talvin Singh). But he has remained committed to "authentic" Jajouka sound and, as this show made clear, that is what makes the group most distinct. Others might imitate, but no one can approach the hypnotic power of what was heard even in the Royce Hall setting, a much more staid presentation than what one would experience in the music's mountain home. It's also the approach showcased on a new 'Live Volume 1' CD, the debut of the group's own Jajouka Records label.
The Otmanis offer distinction by having "the best vocalist," So interjected Marouane Hajji -- the group's, well, vocalist. He was joking, but he is terrific, a young prodigy barely in his 20s with a wonderfully expressive, soaring voice. But the vocals as a whole have been a focus of this orchestra, with the ensemble singing veering away from the standard unison approach into some rich and involving harmonies. It's not like they've made techno moves or anything, but such subtle elements are, they said, tied to the fact that this is a young group -- where most Andalusian orchestras are made of seasoned veterans, this group has no one older than his mid-30s. They're also, unlike some others, open to both secular and sacred music. The current short tour (which continues with upcoming New York dates and then East Coast appearances by other Andalusian ensembles presented by the same organization, MENA Music) focuses on the standard secular material, drawn from flowery love poems. But plans are being made for a U.S. tour next year that will spotlight Sufi music traditions.
Given all this, it was a little surprising that the audience at the second show seemed a bit more engaged than the one at the first. Perhaps it's because the musical language of the Orchestra Otmani is well known to Moroccan music aficionados, any performance easy to place in terms of quality and approach next to the other practitioners. Many in the audience were quite knowledgeable of the material, clapping in complex rhythm, remarking appreciatively at the execution of certain emotional poetry lines, and such.
Jojouka is in a world of its own and, being trance music, listeners can enter worlds of their own through it. It was hard not to get lost in the swirls of sounds, whether the most forceful ghaita blasts or the other pieces involving airier wooden lira flutes or scratchy gimbri and fiddle and call-and-response chants. But then there was the humorous, mock-sexy dancing of drummer Mokhtar Jaghdal to keep it all grounded and spur a little dancing in the audience as well.
"The explanation is by itself," Attar said, shrugging. "Different language. Some people understand. Some people don't."