From the attention of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in the ’50s, to that of Brian Jones in ’68 and latecomer Mick Jagger in ’89, the Master Musicians of Jajouka possess a celebrity cachet disproportionate to the three albums they’ve released during their ongoing millennia-long gig in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco. During their second trip to the United States, the eight Jajoukans who appeared at the Knitting Factory last Thursday presented a scaled-down version of the spectacle one might see back home— where each year several dozen players accompany the randy antics of the goatskin-disguised spirit of Boujeloud amid clouds of kif smoke.
Part-time New Yorker Bachir Attar now leads the Master Musicians, as did his father before him. “Lead,” however, may be the wrong word for a group that functions like a solo-free ecstasy machine. The first and last of the early set’s five pieces were performed on five loud and piercing double-reeded ghaitas accompanied by drums. The horn players divided into three groups, each of which played a segment of an extended, continuously looped phrase with variations, while the drummers parsed the beat into a deeply subdivided pulse. Played either by eight or 80, this trademark Jajouka groove is African music at its most communal and polyrhythmically intense.
In between their ghaita threnodies, Attar and company played less feverish grooves on various combinations of gimbri lutes, lira flutes, and violins. Toward the end, one of the older drummers arose and did a coyly flirtatious Ed Grimleystyle dance about the stage. His gambol was entirely in keeping with the Boujeloud ceremony’s fertility theme, which Attar referred to while introducing the final ghaita piece; he described it as “the real pipes of Pan” and added, “Take it with you to the bed.” —Richard Gehr
Even when he has to sing “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Alex Chilton is a good sport. “I’m sorry about this one,” he told the crowd at the Box Tops’ show August 26 at the World Trade Center’s outdoor plaza. It’s a terrible song, but as Alex observed, audiences have been begging for it for over 200 years. Besides, it’s on four of the six Box Tops greatest-hits albums. The other Tops side with Alex: drummer Danny Smyth tossed him a towel to drape over his arm just before he sang, “the waiter brought a tray.” Hand outstretched to support an imaginary dinner, Chilton tried a deadpan, but cracked up.
Welcome to the alternate universe of the Box Tops. Direct from the Wisconsin State Fair, the band’s five original members closed out the Port Authority’s free post-work Summer Oldies series, which had already featured Gary Lewis, Mitch Ryder, and Little Eva. Above ground, Big Star never happened and Alex Chilton wouldn’t merit a mention on VH-1, but everyone can sing the first two lines of “The Letter,” which inevitably closes the show. Aging office workers nabbed the folding chairs, leaving Chilton’s hipster fans to mingle with bemused passersby. A member of the Clean standing among the Gekkos and longshoremen: only in New York, kids.
Chilton did his best to please everybody, following musty Dan Penn numbers with rock detritus like “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right.” He seemed pleased himself: the Box Tops’ Memphis soul is certainly closer to his solo act than last year’s mummified Big Star tour. To look at him, you’d think he’d spent the last 30 years in that waiter job, and couldn’t be happier to be back. —Josh Goldfein
About halfway through the Arsonists’ record-release party at the Bowery Ballroom August 28, Q-Unique— one-fifth of the Bushwick rhyme collective, which also includes Freestyle, D-Stroy, Jise One, and Swel Boogie— stepped to center stage for a rendition of “Rhyme Time Travel.” Sort of a hip-hop version of “Through the Years,” it finds our man warping through three time zones— 1979, 1988, and 1999— and roughly emulating a paradigmatic lyricist of each era: Grandmaster Caz, Rakim, and El-P, respectively. The song encapsulates both the Arsonists’ cozy charm and their schizoid weakness, as they uprock their way through a mishmash of old-school revisionism.
Familiar, yes. But this was no typical underground show. The Arsonists are signed to alt-rock credmeister Matador, the first hip-hop act on the roster (now joined by Non-Phixion). So in addition to the usual baggy-cargo-panted and flyer-dispensing suspects, the crowd sported a healthy dose of rock journos and indie-rock guys in tight T-shirts and ratty jeans. As the Arsonists plowed their way through selections from their debut album, As the World Burns, the crowd answered with appropriately mild enthusiasm. But when they launched into the singles that made them stalwarts of the independent scene— “Session,” “Seed,” and the raucous “Venom” among them— the backpacking contingent hit its stride, chanting alongside the MCs and turning the crowd into a semimosh pit. Earlier, one of them had shouted at the stage, “Wassup with the open mic?” The closest the show got to spontaneity was a sketched “battle” between Swel and Great Scott (actually the kid who sells the group’s T-shirts), in which the pro took out the amateur with the boast, “To battle me, you don’t need a mic/You need an asthma pump.” Or a bigger record contract, it seems. As this night proved, independent hip-hop may no longer have to rap for its supper. At least not on the spot. —Jon Caramanica