As Joujouka’s musical tradition has evolved from its tribal roots into an international concern, two factions have emerged who call themselves the Master Musicians. One group, led by Bachir Attar, whose father was the leader during the Jones era and who no longer resides in the village, has spent decades blocking the efforts of the local contingent (currently led by the bass drummer Ahmed el Attar) to call themselves the Masters and perform as such. It’s been challenging for them, but ironically, has led to greater exposure and acclaim.
As Rynne puts it in his unmistakable brogue, “The festival began to give the Master Musicians of Joujouka a voice and a place where they could show people that they were truly the masters of their village and their music. For their own community, it shows the younger generation that there is a future in the music, as each year people come from across the world and show devotion to their parents’ playing, culture and hospitality. And they want it to continue. They feel this music in their hearts; it’s in their blood.”
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Joujouka – the place and particularly the music – doesn’t lend itself to easy verbal description. While there are a handful of recordings, the music is best experienced in situ. The sound of the ghaita, a double-reed horn whose closest cousin is the clarinet (or maybe tenor kazoo), is indescribable and yet is the driving pulse of the music.
The festival itself flows the only way it can: according to the collective vibe of the musicians and audience. It’s definitely not for everyone – though this year’s 40-plus attendees include filmmakers, writers, musicians, teachers, students, social workers, artists, designers, academics, people who work for insurance companies and mines, two professional belly dancers and one herpetologist. If you need a schedule, all-day entertainment, predictable mealtimes, a soft bed, Western plumbing and other creature comforts, go elsewhere. Joujouka is more like an anti–music festival. There are no announcements, no planned show times, no clear sense of anything.
By day, musicians gather, magnetically, on the porch of the main communal building to play their ancient songs and continually improvise on them. Kids drop by to bust a move. As guests finish breakfast with their host families, they amble over, speaking a Babel-esque mélange of Spanish, French, English and the few Arabic words they’ve acquired.
After lunch there’s more spontaneous musical performance – drums of course, the fiddle and probably birdsong flutes. (The intense ghaitas, pronounced “rye-ta,” only come out at night.) Musicians will put down their instrument to dance and pull people (usually women) up from their seats. Audience participation is as integral to the performance as the music-making. There’s a late afternoon break, usually involving a disco nap; around 10:30 or 11 p.m. dinner is served, before the evening’s climatic jam.