Off-Ramp

Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Tribe Ahl Sherif's Master Musicians of Jajouka

This week: a story of a record release that should have made major waves in the world music community, but didn't even get an entry in the otherwise excellent Rough Guide to World Music.

The rock and roll community was perhaps slow to embrace Brian Jones' final gift to the world.  The Rolling Stone who died tragically young, Jones managed a remarkable working in 1969.  He produced an album of music by a little-known hereditary band of musicians.  Tribe Ahl Serif, also known as the Master Musicians of Jajouka (or Joujouka), preside over a "small, high place in the western portion of Morocco's Rif mountains."  In 1972, I found Jones' LP in England and immediately fell in love with the repetitive trancelike nature of the music.  Unlike most trance music, this music incorporates extremely odd time signatures.  A product of his era, Brian Jones decided to add some subtle psychedelic effects to the otherwise pure ethnographic document.  Not only did he reportedly play along with the drummers, he used technology to present a swirling sound, what I understand to be "rotating heads," wherein the record or playback heads on the tape machine create a dreamy quality by use of phase variation.

The two-record Musical Heritage Society set we feature this week presents Tribe Ahl Serif's music -- and much more of it -- without gimmickry.  Considering the large fan base behind Jones' album, this recording by Arnold Stahl of the same musicians should have been welcomed by musicologists everywhere.  Unfortunately, Musical Heritage Society records could only be ordered by mail, and its membership was peopled near exclusively by fans of obscure Western classical music (Anyone for Senfl?).  In other words, except for eclectic music freaks like me, very few listeners would even know about it.  This sad tale is only heightened by the unfinished drawing garishly decorating the inside of the sleeve.  I am certain there is a story here.  Production schedule run out of time?  Cost over-runs?  A staunch disagreement between Mr. Stahl and the MHS gatekeepers?  Who knows?

While the survival of these musicians and their tradition was in doubt, I'm happy to report they seem to have become a globetrotting success at concert venues.  I saw them at UCLA's Royce Hall, and the audience seemed giddily appreciative and intelligent to the deep nuances of the compositions.

I'm going to comment on the two links I'm providing.  I've really only tipped the iceberg slightly here.  More reading will allow you to see how writers Brion Gysin, Paul Bowles, and William Burroughs figure in the story:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Jones_Presents_the_Pipes_of_Pan_at_Joujouka

But Arnold Stahl's effort is mentioned in passing in a separate Wikipedia page.  The release date is said to be the early 60s, though my copy was from the mid-70s, since it makes reference to both Brian Jones and Ornette Coleman, who recorded with the musicians in 1973:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_Musicians_of_Joujouka

A re-issue CD of the Brian Jones LP (with cool remixes) was issued a few years back, and the musicians themselves have recorded subsequent CDs.  If you so desire, seek these out.  By the way, a decade ago I sent the Rough Guide a note about Stahl's album, and they assured me they'd update their guide.

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