Sidi Ahmed Sheikh

Bachir Attar at the Sanctuary of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, 1989
Photo: Cherie Nutting ©

Master Musician Mohamed Attar (Mohkadem) in the Sanctuary
Photo: Cherie Nutting ©

The Sanctuary of Saint Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, 2008
Photo: Cherie Nutting ©

The Sanctuary of Saint Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, 2008
Photo: Cherie Nutting ©

No one can say for certain when Jajouka, Morocco was founded. Historians have put the date around the 8th century A.D., or about 1,300 years. It is generally accepted that Jajouka owes the origins of its magical healing music and continued existence to the learned saint Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, who came from Persia around 800 A.D., to spread Islam to northern Morocco. His tomb is both the spiritual and geographic center of the village of Jajouka.

Sidi Ahmed Sheikh’s prominence comes from his reputation as a great Muslim missionary, a wise teacher of the Qur’an, his position of being the teacher of the teacher of Moulay Abdesalem (the “Patron Saint” of northern Morocco). Like other saints who lived and died in the region, Sidi Ahmed Sheik was blessed with baraka, or the “spiritual power”. According to the villagers, the saint’s control over the minds of people and animals was so great he once made a lion submit to the yoke and pull a plow. That power has lived on. Today, the lame, the barren, and especially the mad, still come to the tomb of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh in hopes that his baraka will relieve their afflictions. In the courtyard of his shrine stands a fig tree, a descendant of one said to have been planted by the saint himself. Pilgrims believe that when they chain themselves to the tree, the baraka will pass through them and their minds will be tamed as the lion was long ago.

Before Sidi Ahmed Sheikh arrived in Morocco he stayed at one of the caliphal courts in Andalusia in Spain for several years, making a name for himself as a preacher and healer. Eventually, he was invited to Jajouka by the Attar family. He was a great lover of music and formed a close bond with the people of the village and never left. In exchange for teaching him their special music, Sidi Ahmed Sheikh taught the musicians his metaphysical techniques of spiritual healing and blessed them with his baraka, which is now transferred to people through the Masters’ music. In time, Sidi Ahmed Sheikh attracted so many followers the he needed a special way of calling them all to Friday prayer. So he took his two servants, Attar and Rtoubi, and had them play for him each Friday morning. As a reward for playing for him each week, he promised they would never need to work the fields or tend the flocks. They could always live from their music. This is when he blessed the music of the Master Musicians with his special baraka, giving them the power to heal the sick and the crazy.

For centuries, the descendants of Attar and Rtoubi have continued to live very much the same way as Sidi Ahmed Sheikh told them they would. In each generation, young men have learned from their fathers and uncles, finally earning the rank of master craftsman. Others have become guardians of the saint’s tomb, welcoming pilgrims and accepting their donations. Each Friday morning, these musicians gather at the saint’s tomb to play his music.

Today, since the occupation of Morocco by France and Spain, the Master Musicians no longer hold the exalted position in the Royal Court. Although pilgrims seeking out the healing baraka of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh still come to his tomb from as far away as Rabat, Marrakech, Tétouan, Tangier and the surrounding villages, the income the musicians made from being the King’s royal court musicians is gone. Consequently, many things in the village have been deteriorating, the most important of which is the tomb of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh.

Preserving the traditions of Jajouka has many facets. Bachir Attar is undertaking various projects ranging from archiving past Jajouka recordings and films to repairing and maintaining the infrastructure of the village. He has been able to secure government help in repairing the road to Jajouka, which now makes travel to and from the village much easier for Jajouka’s 400 residents as well as others who visit the village and the tomb. Bachir’s latest project is to save the tabernacle housing the tomb and shrine of Jajouka’s saint, and he and the musicians need your help to make needed repairs and improvements to the sanctuary. Some are structural, while others are aesthetic. Bachir also hopes to repair and upgrade the accommodations which the Master Musicians provide for visiting pilgrims. This will help to preserve the traditions of Jajouka. Once the tomb is repaired, we will be moving on to other projects in the village. Check this page for updates on the progress of these ongoing preservation efforts in Jajouka—a special place in Morocco.