It’s two in the morning in the little village of Joujouka in the Ahl Srif mountains of Morocco, and surely the oldest and loudest acoustic band on the planet are celebrating the god Pan – who still holds sway here, in an uneasy alliance with Islam – while also warming up for Glastonbury, where they will open the Pyramid stage this weekend.
There’s a full moon over the olive grove where the Master Musicians have cut out a flat area as a stage, and tonight it is covered in carpets beneath a green and red patterned awning. The musicians are dressed in turbans and black embroidered djellaba robes, and all are seated apart from their elected leader, Ahmed El Attar, a drummer who parades in before them, driving on an intricate, improvised and trance-inducing dance music that continues without stop for hour after hour. This ancient artistry, stretching back over a thousand years, is powerful and complex; the musicians say it is spiritual, bringing a blessing, baraka, to those who listen.
There are four percussionists, beating out constantly changing polyrhythms on their goatskin drums, the small zowak and larger farad, and alongside them are eight woodwind players, blowing into their reed ghaitas. The lead player and two companions establish a riff, others respond or embellish the melody or use circular breathing to add drone effects to music that is constantly developing, creating phasing effects as it builds from crescendo to crescendo.
Suddenly, the lights go out, a bonfire is blazing in the field by the stage, and Boujeloud, the Pan god appears, dancing around the flames, quivering from head to foot, brandishing olive branches as he chases village children before leaping on stage with the band. By day, Mohamed El Hatmi is a 71-year-old cafe owner but once he puts on his costume, made from the skins of four black goats, he is a man possessed. It’s a role he has played for more than 50 years.
This is the finale of the world’s smallest annual music festival. Only 50 people, including organisers and guests, can attend, so as not to disrupt village life, and Joujouka fans have come here from all over the world. A third are from Japan, where the band have toured and played a reportedly frenzied five-hour set at an EDM festival, while others have flown in from Los Angeles, France and the UK. After three days and nights of this intense music, with lengthy sessions always starting after midnight, everyone has got to know each other.
There is still no running water in the village, and alcohol is not allowed. We all stay in the houses of the musicians, whose wives provide breakfast, and the musicians themselves help cook and serve lunch and dinner, served on the stage where they will later be playing. In the afternoons there are sessions with oud or violin players.
Joujouka is a farming community perched on a ridge with a patchwork of fields and olive orchards below. There are more donkeys and chickens on the one street than there are cars. It may look like a typical north African village, but it has an extraordinary musical history. El Hatmi takes visitors across a valley to the mountain cave where Boujeloud, a creature who was half-man and half-goat, was said to have first taught flute playing to a shepherd, in the hope of getting a wife in return. He failed, but the villagers became such great musicians that Boujeloud was pacified, bringing health, fertility and good crops to the village. That ancient myth lives on.
The festival is organised by Frank Rynne, once a musician in Dublin, where he first met members of the Joujouka band, and now a Paris-based academic historian. He has studied the Boujeloud story and argues “he is absolutely derived from Pan. Look at the depictions of Pan in Pompeii with his pan pipes – and the Romans were here. This is a pre-Islamic belief that has kept going. The villagers believe that the huge fire that destroyed olive groves here last year happened because there had been no Boujeloud festivals – they had been stopped by Covid.”
Islam also influenced the music. In the early 15th century, Sufi saint Sidi Ahmed Sheich came here, realised the power of the music and taught the musicians to play a style that Rynne says “would act like a surgical instrument on the brain to help heal people from depression”. Joujouka flourished. Some musicians travelled to Fez to play for the Sultan (a lucrative gig that ended with the colonial era: the French were in Fez, the Spanish in Joujouka, and the musicians weren’t able to cross the new colonial borders). Others stayed in the village to play to the sick who flocked here to be cured. When I first came here in 1973, musical healing ceremonies were still being held in the ancient shrine to the saint in the centre of the village.
The shrine remains, still dominated by an old fig tree, but it’s now deserted. With Rynne translating from the Arabic, I ask El Attar what had gone wrong. There has been a clash between the old Sufi tradition and modern Islam, and they have been banned from playing there: “The authorities say it shouldn’t happen because there is a mosque across the road.” But he says the music still has the same power and they still treat the sick in private: “Five weeks ago we played for someone who came to us with a djinn [a malicious African spirit] in his brain”. He and other musicians break into a furious burst of hand clapping as they demonstrate the difference between “the Boujeloud rhythms, for dancing” and the healing music written by the saint.
There’s another, more recent figure in the village mythology – Rolling Stone Brian Jones, who recorded here in 1968, a year before his death, and was said to be obsessed by the music. After Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka was released in 1971 the village attracted more celebrities. When I was first invited here there was still no electricity, the musicians were playing on the mud square, but the guests included William Burroughs and Ornette Coleman. Rikki Stein – later Fela Kuti’s manager – had been living here for two years, and in 1980 he organised passports for the band, and bought a bus for their first European tour, lasting three months. Stein is back this year and noted “the music has the same energy and dynamism I experienced in the 1970s – though the number of musicians has reduced”.
It’s a glorious story – but with one sour edge. Bachir Attar, the son of one of Joujouka’s best-loved musicians, runs a rival band called The Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar. He speaks English (unlike the Joujouka musicians), has lived in New York, played with the Rolling Stones on Steel Wheels in 1989, with Ornette Coleman at his London Meltdown in 2009, and won a gold medal from the Kennedy Centre for the performing arts this year. Which is all fine – there is surely room for two bands from the region? But Bachir, who has a house in the village but was not in evidence during the festival, claims his band are the “authentic Master Musicians … not to be confused with any imitations”. And that has caused major problems.
Rynne says he started the festival in Joujouka to prove that these really are the village musicians, and was delighted that Brian Jones’s former partner Anita Pallenberg came along to the first event in 2008. So what do the Joujouka musicians think of Bachir’s music? “It’s popular music, not the ancient music of Joujouka,” says El Attar. “But let him do what he wants. Anyone who comes here and sees what we do knows what the story is.”
And it’s the Master Musicians of Joujouka, not Jajouka, who will be at Glastonbury, where they last played in 2011. They are clearly excited to be going, especially the three band members who have never been outside Morocco before. “We loved it,” said El Attar. “We had no wellington boots until someone gave them to us. Boujeloud music brings blessings.”
“People want the baraka, the healing power,” adds the ghaita player Abdeslam Rrtoubi. “This music is ancient. It will never die.”
• The Master Musicians of Joujouka play London Forge, 20-21 June, and Glastonbury 23 June (Pyramid stage, noon)