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V/A - Ecstatic Music of the Jemaa El Fna

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Artist: V/A

Album: Ecstatic Music of the Jemaa El Fna

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Aug. 27, 2010

Several things about this LP should ring familiar to those who’ve been following the Sublime Frequencies catalog since Hisham Mayet and Alan Bishop started it in 2003. The Jemaa el Fna, Marrakesh’s central square, has been featured twice before in the label’s eclectic "folk cinema," both in DVD format culled from footage Mayet recorded during visits to the country earlier in the decade. The two films, Jemaa el Fna: Rendezvous of the Dead and Musical Brotherhoods From the Trans-Saharan Highway (previously reviewed on Dusted here), offered a rare window into the culture that surrounds the rapturous street music, situating the sounds among Morocco’s arid landscapes and the crowds that thrive on the nightly rituals.

Ecstatic Music of the Jemaa el Fna, however, is a chance to focus solely on the music. It spotlights three different musicians/groups from the market: Troupe Majidi, Amal Saha and Mustapha Mahjoub. A few of the tracks presented here were included on the Trans-Saharan Highway DVD from 2008, but the chance to absorb them all in analog fashion is a welcome alternative, showcasing the overblown ouds, electrified mandolins and soaring vocals in rough-and-ready quality. In a way, Ecstatic Music can be seen as the audio companion piece to the DVD, even appropriating a variation of the film’s cover photo into a beautiful, gatefold package.

Removed from its visual context, the music of the Jemaa el Fna somehow seems even more rich and enigmatic to these American ears. Obviously, hearing the snaking banjo lines and propulsive percussion in the comfort of my living room across the Atlantic is shamefully secondary to experiencing them first hand, but the recordings are remarkably vibrant and reach transcendental heights. "Ecstatic" may be thrown around quite a bit to bolster indie/electronic press releases, but the music on this LP wears the adjective without a hint of exaggeration.

Aside from the electricity of the music within, the main strength of the LP lies in its sequencing. The tracks themselves are arranged in a way that flows logically and emotionally, juxtaposing Troupe Majidi’s scorching choruses with Amal Saha’s passionate call and response. The songs are all modern interpretations of decades-old folk and protest songs, translated through the years in these same social circles to communicate the continued struggles of the working poor.

Compared to the DVDs, the LP is perhaps an even better representation of what Sublime Frequencies does best: highlighting brilliant global cultures in a way that piques the interest of the consumer, acquiescing enough detail on the subject to spark a thirst for more. The sheer mention of the mystical brotherhoods in Mayet’s liner notes led me on another hour-long Internet stroll researching traditions of Gnawa and the Aissawa. Sublime Frequencies’ work isn’t meant as documentary, but presents these wildly varying ways of life in a way that lets the end user decide how to engage and respond. Ecstatic Music is another breathtaking entry into the label’s ever-expanding canon, and treats the music and culture with the respect and attention it deserves.

By Cole Goins

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