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V/A - Music Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway

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Artist: V/A

Album: Music Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Feb. 29, 2008

Hisham Mayet has gathered both video and audio from Saharan West Africa for what have no doubt been some of the venerable Sublime Frequencies label's most intriguing releases. His latest project is Music Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway, where he focuses his camera on Marrakesh, Morocco and its lively center square, the Djemma El Fna.

An open-air spectacle of acrobats, snake charmers and storytellers by day, the Djemma El Fna turns into one of earth's best open-mic nights after dark. Mayet's camerawork captures performances by the country's various musical brotherhoods, including the Hamadasha, Jilala and the Gnawa, whose music and words are the products of centuries-old Sufism and the power of trance that comes with it. The video typically gives itself over to the performers, but occasionally strays off to follow the packed square of strollers, juice sellers and motor scooters as they weave through the foot traffic.

Having lived and traveled extensively in Morocco for a year nearly a decade ago, including many visits to Marrakesh (where I made crude recordings of a few of the performers featured here), I almost became homesick watching this documentary. This is simply some of the hottest street music one is ever likely to experience. Part of this is due to the location of the city itself, acting as the major trading gateway between the typically Berber south and the Arab north. Also, because of the city has been the crossroads of the centuries-old caravan route between Morocco and Timbuktu, Mali, it continues to be at the center of cultural collision, something the music on this DVD – with its Middle Eastern modalities co-mingling with the bluesier drones of Gnawa – makes clear.

While Marrakesh itself and the Djemma El Fna, in particular, attract tourists by the busload, by the time the square comes into its own, most visitors are off eating or asleep. Only the devoted remain. Until the early hours before dawn, these musicians reach ecstatic heights – and volume – turning street performance into the highest of arts. Amplified four- and six-string banjos and ouds set up grooves for rhythmic heaps of medina-space percussion and vocal harmonies, which rip through the clouds of smoke and steam coming from nearby food vendors.

It's ironic, to say the least, that such a document exists for people to buy and, most likely, watch in private. Perhaps this is the narrator-free film's most unsettling pronouncement, that all the technology, money and relative privilege many of us enjoy can't possibly come within spitting distance of a living, breathing cultural tradition, something that exists for no apparent reason other than because it's vital to the daily lives of a people.

By Bruce Miller

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