Jemaa El Fna has for centuries been an integral and vibrant part of the unique culture of Marrakesh. This Moroccan square, whose name can be translated to mean "the mosque of death," or "the rendezvous of the dead," is a historic gathering place, and with the marketplace, array of cafes, and constant, ever-changing stream of performers, from snake charmers to fortune tellers, is an always-bustling part of Marrakesh today. Sublime Frequencies's "Ecstatic Music of the Jemaa El Fna" provides lasting documentation of the local musicians who frequent the square, and of the blistering and beautiful music they make there every day.
"Ecstatic Music" was recorded live by Hisham Mayet in 2005, and features the performance of songs taken from the Moroccan pop music canon by Troupe Majidi, Amal Saha, and Mustapha Mahjoub. Each track is recorded live, in Jemaa El Fna, with instruments powered by car batteries and amplified by megaphone speakers. In stark contrast to the incredibly precise, heavily-mastered studio recordings of Arabic music that circulate most frequently, each track on "Ecstatic Music of Jemaa El Fna" provides a heady, aggressive, and paired-down mix of thumping rhythms, fuzzy vocals, and piercing mandolin and banjo strings.
With calls from the audience distinctly heard in Mustapha Mahjoub's "Tal Raibak Arzali (Cheb Hosni)" to the raucous hand-clapping and whistling of the gathered crowd during Amal Saha's "Lahmami (Nass El Ghiwane)," each song is felt to be not simply entertainment, but rather the product of a participatory group performance.
The tracks are crunchy, raw, and incredibly emotional. Each song is catchy and just plain fun; taken all together, though, "The Ecstatic Music of Jemaa El Fna" is a perfect representation of just why live music is so exciting, regardless of the time or place. The album has the personal and liberating quality of a spontaneous field-recording, with the content and quality of a studio album. The title of the album is particularly fitting; you can't help but feel ecstatic listening to these communal and free celebrations of music. Even without being physically present, the urgency and excitement of these Marrakesh musicians and their audiences is transmitted through each piece, making "The Ecstatic Music of Jemaa El Fna" the dazzling album that it is.