Pipe Dream

11.10.09

Left: David Katzenstein, Robert Palmer and Bachir Attar playing cane flutes together in Jajouka, Morocco, 1988. Right: August Palmer, The Hand of Fatima, 2009, still from a color video, 1 hour 15 minutes.


BRIAN JONES PRESENTS THE PIPES OF PAN AT JOUJOUKA arrived in New York record stores in 1971. The name of the remote Moroccan village where Jones recorded the “Master Musicians”—as they are called on other recordings—is, in fact, Jajouka (the error was corrected when the recording was reissued in 1995), but everything else about this magic LP was perfect. I played it every day for weeks and have it still.

Jones was introduced to Jajouka and its glorious kef-smoking, Sufi-related reed and percussion ensemble by Brion Gysin, who was a frequent visitor, along with his Tangiers literary pals William Burroughs and Paul Bowles. Burroughs dubbed the Jajouka musicians “the world’s only four-thousand-year-old rock band.” Jones’s excellent field recordings were issued after his death under the Rolling Stones label, and later the Stones used the Jajouka players on Steel Wheels (1989). But it was a long essay by rock critic Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone that brought the music of Jajouka to the attention of Western “new music” audiences.

The wildest music writer to hold a berth at the New York Times, Palmer was a frequent visitor to Jajouka from the early ’70s almost until his death in 1997 at age fifty-two. He was not just an inspired and learned critic (see his book Deep Blues, published in 1981), he also played clarinet and saxophone with the same intensity as he wrote. In Augusta Palmer’s documentary about her father, The Hand of Fatima (2009), Ornette Coleman, in a much too brief vignette, recalls being at Jajouka when Palmer blew one of the most amazing sustained notes he’d ever heard. The Hand of Fatima is full of terrific clips (archival and recorded directly by the filmmaker), not to mention some tantalizing footage of Jajouka and its musicians, now led by Bachir Attar. The form of the film—a daughter’s search for the father she barely knew—is, however, not particularly illuminating except perhaps to the parties involved. Palmer was hell on women—he left his first wife soon after his daughter’s birth and subsequently had three other marriages. It’s a tribute to the transcendent force of Jajouka’s “Pipes of Pan” that the filmmaker found in their sound a way of reconciling with her errant dad, but I would have preferred to witness less of the personal drama and more of the music.

Amy Taubin

The Hand of Fatima plays at Anthology Film Archives in New York November 13–19 at 7:30 PM and 9:15 PM. In person at the early show on November 13: Bachir Attar, Anthony DeCurtis (editor of Blues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer), and Augusta Palmer. On November 16 at Le Poisson Rouge: a tribute to Robert Palmer to benefit Jajouka, hosted by the same trio and with musicians Ned Sublette, Lenny Kaye, and Gary Lucas.