Tucked away in the foothills of the Rif mountains of Morocco, The Master Musicians of Jajouka have practiced their ethereal music and simple way of life for centuries. Lilting melodies and propulsive drum beats are second nature to these gentlemen. Their sole purpose in life--besides eating, drinking and smoking--seems to be the pursuit of music and the reenactments of ancient rituals concerning the Goat God, Jou Beloud.
Over the years, their music and lifestyle have come to the attention of many influential writers (such as Paul Bowles and William Burroughs), many musicians, including Brian Jones and Ornette Coleman, and artists like Brion Gysin. Through their patronage and support, more people have discovered the merits of the Master Musicians’ musical and creative abilities. A critically acclaimed recording by The Master Musicians entitled “Apocalypse Across The Sky,” released in 1992, showcases their music; and infrequent concert tours have spared interested audiences the arduous, uphill trek to Jajouka, where the Musicians perform regularly.
Steven Davis, author of numerous biographies on contemporary musicians including “Hammer of The Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga” and “Moonwalk” (on Michael Jackson), now turns his attention to the Master Musicians of Jajouka. His new book, “Jajouka Rolling Stone: A Fable of Gods and Heroes,” is a novel, but uses nonfiction devices to to chronicle the facts, myths and anecdotes surrounding Jajouka.
Davis starts his “fable” in late December, 1973. The narrator’s trip to Jajouka has been financed by National Geographic; his research is relayed to us before he writes his article. Since the book is billed as fiction, the reader can only hope that there is some kernel of truth to the narrator’s research, for much of the information is quite revealing as he interviews and visits with the Master Musicians and the members of their inner circle.
On the other hand, Davis’ concept of utilizing a journalist on assignment for a fact-hungry publication like National Geographic delivers an almost too-detailed account of his story for a work of fiction. Not only is there more ethnomusicological detail than the casual reader might want, but the narrator also shows quite a flair for menu writing as he recounts meal after meal to the smallest detail: “They stuffed us with left-over chicken and mutton on huge plates of cous-cous.” Or: “At eight o’clock we breakfasted on harsh blood-orange juice, oily black coffee and great croissants.”
As the story proceeds, the journalist meets up with his friend, Morgan, and fellow adventurer, Joel, who wants to record the Master Musicians. Soon the narrator’s range of activities and observations would almost seem more befitting to someone writing for High Times rather than the generally reserved National Geographic:
“Back at the madrassah, I found Joel chopping a bit of cocaine on a mirror. ‘It’s gonna be a long day,’ he said.” The narrator keeps a keen eye on the proceedings throughout, even though he admits at one point to being so high on kif (marijuana cut with black tobacco), “I wonder whether my eyes were crossed.”
They arrive upon the scene at a time when The Master Musicians’ new djellabas (parade uniforms) have been stolen by their ex-manager and resold on the used djellaba market in Tangiers. The Musicians really don’t want photos taken by National Geographic unless they can somehow acquire new djellabas to wear in the photos.
The three researchers decide, wisely, to pool their expense advances and buy new uniforms for the Musicians. The response is overwhelming and the Musicians welcome their documentors with the attention afforded only very special guests, such as past visitors Brian Jones and Ornette Coleman. Thus, kif burns freely throughout the first part of the book and subsequent “munch” fests are detailed with mouth-watering accuracy.
The research ends and the men part ways. Although the narrator’s article on Jajouka is not published by National Geographic (no surprise), he is still so obsessed with the music and culture of Jajouka that he makes two return trips during the course of the next 15 years. Even marriage and a child cannot keep him away.
As Davis updates us on Moroccan politics, the far-reaching effects of an increasingly more global economy and professional strain among the Master Musicians, the narrative grows more somber. A sound-the-alarm, Jajouka-must-be-saved urgency creeps into the text.
A scheduled interview between our now renowned journalist/narrator and Keith Richards is to double as a plea for the Rolling Stones to release Brian Jones’ recordings of The Master Musicians. Instead, a loaded Richards loses so much coherency from snorting coke during the course of the conversation, the narrator likens it to “trying to speak to someone through 6 inches of plate glass.”
While the continuous episodes of staged docudrama would be amusing to readers who enjoy the sense of absurdity that runs through pop journalism, a question persists: Has the incorporation of real life characters undermined the book’s credibility as a work of fiction, or do their views on The Master Musicians of Jajouka serve the author’s aim in telling this story?
As a reader, I wish this book had been written as nonfiction.