Inside the Oldest, Most Exclusive Dance Party in the World
High in the southern Rif mountains of northern Morocco, just before midnight, a buzz begins to radiate through the groups of sprawled attendees decked out in colorful robes, hippie skirts and flowing Western clothes. Wordlessly we edge up from supine to seated, and rearrange ourselves in casual semicircles, all eyes on the 13 men in ceremonial brown djellabas parading up the front of the stage, which is to say the carpeted chill-out area of a three-sided tent done up in red and green tribal fabric.
Horn squeals and drum taps puncture the silence, come faster and gradually knit into melody and rhythm. A yowl of high-pitched ghaita horns pierces the air, reverberating from every direction, despite the lack of walls. Five different kinds of drums thunder into a rhythm, then syncopate and alternate, creating layers of polyrhythms.
Almost involuntarily, people make their way to their feet and begin dancing to the pounding drums, the energy among the audience escalating until it’s reached the same fever pitch as the players’. And just when it seems like the music is reaching a climax, rhythms change, horns shift gears and the tsunami of sound starts to recede and slowly build all over again.
This continues for a couple hours, until just like that, the music stops. Dancers inch their way to their spots on the carpet as the musicians, still glued to their chairs, ritualistically refill their spindly wooden Sebsi pipes and smile beatifically at one other and at the audience, who are flashing Cheshire cat grins right back at them.
Welcome to the eighth annual Master Musicians of Joujouka “micro” music festival; held in the stunningly isolated Ahl Srif region of Morocco’s Rif Mountains, it has become a destination event for impassioned fans around the globe. Each year, a growing number of musicians, world-music devotees and the curious stumble upon this tiny gathering (ticket sales are strictly limited to 50), many returning annually. They come to watch and dance to the village’s 15 or 20 master (or malikim in Arabic) musicians performing the tribe’s traditional music.
In the early 1950s, the Masters were renowned in their tribal region, but not much beyond. All that changed when writer Paul Bowles and Canadian artist Brion Gysin, based in the expat mecca of Tangier, stumbled upon the MMJ at a Sufi festival, fell in love with the music and befriended the Masters through their painter friend Mohamed Hamri, who had familial ties to Joukouka.
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