While many North American cities have farmers' markets where local produce can be purchased or enjoy specialty markets like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, the market as a public gathering place on that continent has never established itself to the extent that it has in other places in the world. While some have tried to make the spurious argument that the shopping mall has become the market of today, large groups of people sharing the common objective of spending money don't lend itself to the level of social interaction one experiences in the markets of Europe and North Africa.
Many of the markets in Europe have existed for thousands of years; they dot the trade routes that have snaked their way from India to Europe and into North Africa since long before the birth of Christ. Thus they were not only places of commerce, they were the only source of information as to what was happening in the world beyond a city's walls. Caravans would arrive carrying goods and information from around the world and people would gather to see the wonders and hear the news.
Of course where ever people gathered, so would those who required an audience. Musicians, storytellers, priests, soothsayers, and animal trainers would flock to the markets to perform and evangelize. In some ways it was the natural extension of when a tribe used to gather round the fire to sing the songs and tell the stories that told them who they were and to enact the rituals needed to guarantee their survival. The markets served the same function as the communal fires on a larger scale as befitted the increased size of population centres.
The Trans-Saharan Highway follows the old the caravan routes across the Sahara desert, beginning in the Moroccan port city of Essaouira and traveling down the road to Marrakesh before setting off into the sand. The market in Marrakesh, Jemma (or Djemaa) el Fna has been the gathering spot for caravans setting out upon the trade routes for centuries now. By day the market bustles with the sight, sound and smell of colours and scents from all over Africa and the East while the business of trade is carried out. But when darkness falls and the shutters close, merchants covering the stalls with their bolts of cloth and heaps of spices, the descendants of generation's old musical brotherhoods begin to perform.
Musical Brotherhoods From The Trans-Saharan Highway is a new DVD just released this year by the Seattle-based music and video production company Sublime Frequencies. Directed by Hisham Mayet and shot on location in 2005, mostly in Jemma Al Fna, the film is an entry into the magical world that comes to life after the sun sets in the market.
But before we can come to Marrakesh we have to land in Morocco so the film opens in the port of Essaouira with a performance by Jamel Babamer and footage of the ancient fortress that faces out into the ocean ready to repel any and all invaders. Babamer is filmed singing and playing an Xalam. a rectangular precursor to the banjo, which is played by strumming the instrument's strings and beating out a rhythm on its skin covered body. The intensity and hypnotic quality of his playing is merely a taste of what's in store for us in Jemma Al Fna.
We, or the camera, arrive in daylight and we wander among the stalls where merchants sell everything from live falcons to bolts of cloth. Soon the daylight fades and with darkness comes the first sounds of music. Amplifiers powered by car batteries are turned on and up to the point just before distortion blows sound apart into white noise. Even though there are indications everywhere that you are in the twenty-first century, from the clothes people are wearing to the mopeds whizzing by, you could swear years were shed and you were slipping backward in time.
People don't still gather in ritual circles around musicians playing wild music that builds to a fever pitch of a nearly ecstatic intensity, do they? Drummers can't play with such speed that their drums are seemingly suspended in mid air between their hands, can they? Well according to Hisham Mayet's camera they do all this and more. As we travel through the market that night with Hisham from one circle of people to another we witness scene after scene reinforcing the power of music and the bond that it establishes between the performers and audience.
With no voice to guide us we can only trust that our eyes and ears aren't deceiving us and that the performances we see on the screen are true. Of course there is no reason why they shouldn't be, but to eyes that aren't accustomed to seeing sights like crowds bursting into spontaneous song in accompaniment to music that's not preceding a sporting event, it's not an easy sight to accept. But time and time again we witness moments of connection between audience and music, either by singing or dancing, so it must be reality.
There's one band in particular that the film maker keeps coming back to called Troupe Majidi, featuring the man playing the Oud in the picture on this story. He epitomizes the intensity and skill level of the musicians. With the one man playing either the Oud or a banjo that's been tuned to a higher pitch than we're used to, playing the melody, anywhere between three to five men playing hand drums or other types of percussion, and all of them singing, the level of sound makes Phil Spector's "Wall Of Sound" seem like a quite hum.
The Oud player would start each song, either with an extended slow intro or a few quick bars fired off in machine gun like burst. A slow start on the lead instrument usually indicated a gradual build up in intensity until the music would reach a fever pitch, and as the drums picked up the tempo the chanting and singing would increase in speed and intensity as well. Just when you feel like your head is about to burst from the power of the sound and energy it stops, cut off as cleanly as a sharp knife severs a stick.
Periodically the camera will leave the music and we'll be taken on a tour of the market at night, through the open air kitchens where skewers of lamb nestle next to buckets of escargot, and the smoke from the fires sustains the otherworldly feel that the music generated. There are no special features on Musical Brotherhoods From The Trans-Saharan Highway; no director's commentary or deleted scenes, no blooper reel or making of the featurette. Instead you get an intimate, close up view of a way of life that has existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and the chance to hear music being played in a way you've never heard before. I think that's pretty special – don't you?