Under a hazy june sky in tangier, Morocco, Mick Jagger stands frozen with rapt concentration in the open-air courtyard of the Palace Ben Abbou, a handsome sixteenth-century villa tucked away in a discreet courtyard of the legendary casbah. Wearing a long white caftan and pointed Moroccan slippers, like some elegant pop pasha, Jagger is listening intently to the music – performed by seventeen men from the Moroccan mountain village of Joujouka – that first bewitched Brian Jones twenty years ago and dates back quite a bit further than that – about 4000 years. Pre-Islam, pre-Christianity and most definitely pre-rock & roll.
The Master Musicians of Joujouka, as they are commonly and reverently known, are lined up in the courtyard in an L formation flanked by several boom mikes. They pound out a fierce heartbeat rhythm on the rhaita (drum) and blow up a complex storm of shrill drones on the rhaita, a high-pitched pipe that sounds like a psychotic oboe. The result is a joyous, untamed noise that defies and transcends the stiff Western tenets of harmony and structure. It's the sound of 1989, all right – BC.
In fact, the Master Musicians, formally attired in yellow turbans and hooded brown robes, are trying to play along with the prerecorded track to "Continental Drift," the most unusual number from Steel Wheels. The song has a familiar Eastern bent, like a sleek update of "Paint It Black," with Jagger's voice periodically trailing off into Islamic-prayer-call flourishes. There is also a manic middle section tailor-made for the primal surge of the Joujouka players, if their sprawling ensemble wail can somehow be shoehorned into five minutes of tightly arranged ethno-rock. By day's end, Jagger – who is principally running the session while Keith Richards and Ron Wood sip mint tea and drink in the music from the sidelines – will have enough takes of the group to ensure success when "Continental Drift" goes into the mixing stage back at Olympic.
The essence, though, of what Jagger and the Stones have come here to sample and savor isn't so easy to digitize. At first, the Master Musicians gamely try to keep in step with "Continental Drift." But they soon roar into hypergroove, the drummers creating a vicious rhythmic undertow as the pipers unleash a riff that sounds like a chorus of police sirens run amok. Carried along by their own euphoric propulsion, the Master Musicians are still going full tilt long after "Continental Drift" has faded out of the monitor speakers.
It is a heart-stopping performance, a blast of alien sound fueled by a celebratory intensity that is damn close to rock & roll in spirit, if not form. Rolling Stone Brian Jones, sinking into a pit of drug-heightened paranoia and estrangement from the other Stones, was so entranced with the music and its cleansing powers that he journeyed to Joujouka, located south of Tangier at the foot of the Rif Mountains, to record the Master Musicians in their native element. (The results were released posthumously in 1971 as Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.) Two decades later, the Rolling Stones have returned to Morocco to tap an important vein in their past – and to reestablish their relevance in the present.
"I remember Brian playing the tapes," says Jagger, relaxing in an airy upstairs sitting room in the palace. "We had this engineer we were working with, George Chkiantz, and George was one of the first people to be heavily into phasing, which was like the scratching of the middle Sixties. So Brian took all of the Joujouka tapes and put them through phasing, which was really quite before its time. I always felt the Stones were quite adventurous in that way."
But, Jagger adds, "a lot of that had gone by the boards in the last few years. Not necessarily this particular kind of sound, but the whole idea of pushing the envelope open a little bit. We became a hard-rock band, and we became very content with it. The ballads got left a little behind as well. The hard-rock thing just took over, and we lost a little bit of sensitivity and adventure. And it's boring just doing hard rock all the time. You gotta bounce it around a little."
Hence this trip to Morocco, and hence. "Continental Drift," which was hatched in Barbados. "I woke up one morning," Richards says, "to find Mick playing this thing on the keyboard [he hums the song's core riff]. And I thought, 'Ah, that's nice, that reminds me of Morocco."' It was Richards who suggested adding the Master Musicians to the track.
"I thought, 'Yeah, we need something like this,"' Richards says, "the unification of what this band is about. It really pulled a string in me."
It also tugged at something inside Bachir Attar, the twenty-seven-year-old Master Musician who succeeded his late father, Jnuin, in 1981 as the group's leader. He was seven years old when Brian Jones came to Joujouka with his tape recorder.
"I become a musician, in a way, because of the Rolling Stones," Attar says. "When Brian Jones come, I listen for the first time to music from outside Morocco. And it gives me the wish to play this music, to someday play with this band. I was little, and it was a big dream for me."
Fdall, a stately gentleman of seventy-five and a veteran Master Musician who actually performed for Brian Jones all those years ago, is also moved by the import of this Stones-Joujouka collaboration. When Fdall is asked his opinion of "Continental Drift," his impassive, dark-mahogany features crack into a warm smile and he speaks solemnly in his native tongue.
"He says this is big music," Attar translates with a beaming smile of his own. "He mean there are big things in this music." Fdall interrupts to elaborate his point. Attar laughs. "He says, 'If anything, we need more of this."'
It's probably the longest-running gag in rock & roll. Every time the Rolling Stones release an album or go on tour, the press and fans ask the same question. Could this be the last time?
"First asked in 1966!" Jagger declared sarcastically when a reporter asked the inevitable question at the Stones' July 11th press conference at Grand Central Station, in New York City. But he's not quite as flippant about it in private. "If you asked whether I want to do it for the rest of my life," Jagger says, "Keith and I would probably disagree."
Which, of course, they do.
Richards is confident that Steel Wheels and the fall tour constitute a second chance for the Stones, not a swan song.
"A new sense of realism is pervading the whole arena," Richards says, "and that's all I need right now. If we can build on that, then we can keep this show on the road."
Jagger is nothing if not a realist. He says he is utterly committed to the Stones, for now, but is hardly ditching other options. "The Rolling Stones are the Rolling Stones," Jagger says. "When it's good, it's really good. And when it isn't good, it's boring. And I'd rather go and make solo albums than make boring Rolling Stones albums. It's very hard to keep doing the same thing with the same people over and over again. It just is.
"I think if Keith goes and makes another solo album," continues Jagger, "it won't be the same one. It will go further and further away from the Rolling Stones thing. The same with me. And that should be encouraged, not discouraged.
"Charlie should be encouraged to play jazz," Jagger says. "Keith should be encouraged to do whatever he wants to do. And I should be encouraged to do what I'd rather do. What it is, I don't know. But I should be encouraged to push it further. I don't want to stay only with this."
"Ah, fuck it, who cares?" he says wearily when asked, one more time, if this album and tour could really be the last time. "That's all I can say we're gonna do at the moment. That's all anyone can say."
"I can never think of starting something up again in order to make it the last time," says Richards.
"This," he promises emphatically, "is the beginning of the second half."
This story is from the September 7th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.
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