Ecstatic Music of the Jema’a el Fna

This is one hell of an amazing record. There is nothing tame about this album at all.

The Jema’a el Fna is a marketplace in Marrakech that turns into a wild spectacle at night, punctuated by the roar of street musicians. They are ostensibly playing versions of Moroccan protest folk music of the 1960s and 1970s, but the Jema’a el Fna musicians’ versions are night and day different.  Many of the songs start with  an improvisation on an electric saz,  bouzouki, banjo or mandolin – instruments electriified with the cheapest equipment, patched together and amplified by car speakers, megaphones, or whatever else the musicans can wire together from scrap – and played impossibly loud, weird and distorted. On a couple of these songs the instrumentalist has managed to patch some sort of cheap phase shifter in the mix, a swirling, snarling noise unlike most anything you’ve ever heard.  Over this, singing and chanting, and powerful, unending drums. It sounds like anybody who isn’t abusing an electric banjo through a megaphone is hitting a drum.

The music usually starts out improvising, as I said, but when the drums and the chanting kick in, the effect is electrifying. Something is obviously happening in the ecstasy department, and the musicians build up a head of steam until they are roaring. One of the more striking moments comes when the electric saz, or whatever it is he’s got howling and buzzing, craps out.  You can hear the buzz of static and the sputtery signal going in and out as whatever kind of hinkty pickup he’s got stuck to it with spit and glue and baling wire dies. Doesn’t matter. The crowd carries on, the drums roar, the people chant, and whatever’s happening still continues to build and build, and then suddenly, the saz player is back – he’s got his crazy stuck together amplifier working again – and he enters with a ferocity worthy of a Jimi Hendrix or a John McLaughlin or any other cosmic-loco-en-la-cabeza guitar player you could ever name.

The album is something to experience rather than pick apart. The songs, performances, and performers are different but there is one uniting factor – all of the musicians, and all of the songs, are trying to short-circuit the path to ecstasy in the same way that jazz artists like Pharoah Sanders or Albert Ayler did in the 1960s and 1970s – only in a completely Arabic context, without excuse or explanation. It’s overwhelming and powerful and dazzling. What I want is for some brave raqs sharki dancer to take this on, because it can be moved to, but once you enter this feral dance it might be a bit hard to get out.

Happydog saith fuck four stars, I’m giving this Twelve Stars and you need to search the Internets till you find it. Of course the album is limited edition, but those who seek, find. And it’s worth finding.


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