At the end of the first night, I complimented musician Ahmed Attar, telling him that he was Islam’s Elvis. The master of the Masters looked quizzically at me and replied: “Shkun Elvis?” Who is Elvis?
The Masters are no strangers to five-hour sets and they tend to kick off where most of the best Western rock ’n’ roll winds up. They take what we know as a few frenzied minutes of encore and carry it on for an hour or more. Finally the audience, assaulted by bass and bewildered by treble, loses itself in ecstatic trance.
The music’s religious origins lie in this saintly sonic bliss. This is Sufi religious transcendence fuelled by pagan passion. According to Gysin, the musicians hold a secret, hidden even from themselves: they practise “the Rites of Pan under the ragged cloak of Islam”. The musicians weave arabesque soundscapes, the intensity building. When the Muezzin’s cry sent the revellers to bed, one guest shook his head in bewilderment: “If the Yanks had any cop on, they would close Gitmo and send the Jihadis to Joujouka and subject them, not to torture, but to this sublime sound.”
Sunday night saw a primordial panoply of fire, magic, dance, beauty, lust and fertility. Forging the most intricate of aural jewellery, the Masters brought the night to a crystalline climax.
Rynne explained that the spiritual power of the music originates with Sidi (saint) Ahmed Sheikh, a learned Persian scholar who brought Islam to northern Morocco around 800AD. The Sufi saint is buried in the village shrine and legend has it that he blessed the music of the Master Musicians giving them the power to heal the sick and the crazy.
To this day, the ill chain themselves to a fig tree in the courtyard of the shrine seeking solace. The Masters then come, play to the infirm and blow their madness away. “Electric shock treatment? Give me this cure any day,” Rynne said.
The group, whose current line-up ranges in age of 40-80 years, has been going for centuries and the skills are passed down from father to son. Their sublime Sufi sound strikes quite a contrast to the popular perception of Islam, which is dominated by the dour Wahhabi sect promoted by Saudi Arabia.
Shattering stereotypes, the Masters opened the Glastonbury festival on the main Pyramid stage last summer with an Islamic blessing before delivering a rousing set of ancient rock ’n’ roll. They then left the stage to younger and less experienced musicians such as U2 who have also cited the Masters as an influence.
I think I saw their ‘copy band’ on Halloween at San Francisco - playing on a sidewalk.