Various Artists

Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway

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Hisham Mayet's continuing series of narration/narrative-less documentaries of music in Africa and elsewhere has a strong new entry with Musical Brotherhoods, which despite the sweeping title is focused primarily in Marrakesh, Morocco, with a brief introductory segment in the seacoast town of Essaouira. As with most of Sublime Frequencies' various DVD releases, the emphasis is not to capture an older sound frozen in amber but a living tradition as it stands, with the implicit questions over what a "natural" style truly is constantly addressed but never resolved. The "brotherhoods" in question -- a number of groups or troupes that regularly meet and perform in Marrakesh's market area in the evenings -- mix acoustic and electric instruments with ease, wear 21st century clothing and haircuts, and in all, by their simple existence, undercut the limiting fetishization that any number of European and American artists of all stripes have often projected onto Morocco in particular, not simply in matters of music. This all said, the music itself is the core and Mayet's on-the-fly work -- usually just among each troupe as they face each other and perform -- is both visually fascinating and sonically captivating. All of the troupes have subtly distinct styles amid the overall blend of percussion and string instrumentation mixed with vocal chants and calls and responses that mark the music's place of origin as well as the historical backgrounds that caused their combinations to grow and flourish, as the title hints at. Interspersed with scenes of the audiences and others roaming the marketplace, including everything from soothsayers to soccer fans, with the modern and the past coexisting just as it does around the world, it's a welcome document in the midst of a troubled decade.