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The Black Michael Jackson

Joe Ambrose discovers the joys of portliness and the disappearance of the Black Michael Jackson

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by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: January, 2007
Tayib looked entirely leonine and taut that day, a very young man in the fullness of his adolescent beauty.
by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: January, 2007
Tayib looked entirely leonine and taut that day, a very young man in the fullness of his adolescent beauty.

When I took the photograph above of Tayib Tayibi, he was a rising star on Marrakesh's Place Djemma el Fna, leading the most pushy and funky of the square's Gnoua troupes. Gnoua are one of the most accessible of Morocco's Sufi musical brotherhoods. They've inspired all manner of rock music, but their most eminent proponent would seem to be Robert Plant. When I took this photograph Plant and Page had just issued their Gnoua-suffused Unplugged album. That was ten years ago.

Dressed in the traditional costumes of their sect, Tayib's posse were younger and more aggressive than some of the more mellow "wiser head" Gnoua practitioners. When not performing they dressed urban, much like contemporary hip hop street gangs in NYC or LA. Dark rumours swirled around the enigmatic Tayib and he fascinated, in different ways, both myself and Frank Rynne, whose recordings of Sufi street urchins eventually made their way onto the album Sufi (Sub Rosa). With music writer Chris Campion and film maker Marek Pytel we made a short move, Joujouka, which features the rituals and lifestyles of both Gnoua and Sufi brotherhoods. I took this photograph during a break from one of those film sessions. Tayib looked entirely leonine and taut that day, a very young man in the fullness of his adolescent beauty.

In the years that followed I returned to Djemma el Fna often - I'm writing this in an internet cafe around the corner from it right now. Naturally I always looked for Tayib but I never found him. Other Gnoua would tell me that he was away touring Europe of that I'd just missed him, that he'd be back in a little while. But I never caught a glimpse of him and, as time went by, I gave up expecting to do so.

A couple of years back Frank eventually tracked him down. He'd been there all along and hadn't done some mysterious Sufi disappearing trick - he'd grown fat. Increased portliness is seen as a good thing in Morocco, a sign that a man has grown more prosperous and more settled. Tayib's good business head had made him a decent living and he has the signs of it on him. He just became unrecognizable to those who had known him as a teenager.

Last night when we spoke on Djemma el Fna, I could see nothing of the boy who danced and sang so spiritually and so fervently ten years back. But he was still happy to talk, better at dealing with westerners than most of the square's two bit operators, just no longer the black Michael Jackson I once described him as being.

Photo by Joe Ambrose.
Find out more about Joe Ambrose at Joe Ambrose.net

Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor

Joe Ambrose has written 12 books, the most recent being Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. He is currently writing a book about the Spanish Civil War.

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