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Hamri, the Painter of Morocco

In the first of a three part series, Joe Ambrose (re)introduces Mohamed Hamri, the painter of Morocco

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by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: April, 2007
Rolling Stone Brian Jones, dragged him up to the mountain in 1969 and recorded the totemistic Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka album
by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: April, 2007
Rolling Stone Brian Jones, dragged him up to the mountain in 1969 and recorded the totemistic Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka album

Silent midnight in Joujouka, 1997. The Master Musicians had all gone home to bed, even the dogs and chickens had finally shut up, and Hamri was getting ready to retire. He grew subdued late at night up there in his beautiful house on the side of the blue mountain where there was no electricity and where the nearest road - an insignificant empty back road - was at least a kilometer away. Outside it was pitch dark; he didn't like me to go walking alone late at night. I hated this but he was probably correct. I'd helped stir up a virtual civil war in the village. My presence was a source of tension and associates of a rival Master Musician camp had recently threatened to kill me. They wouldn't kill me, I knew, but there could easily have been a very sour brawl and it could easily have been a brawl involving blades.

I had become a player in the intense drama which was Hamri's life.

There were several parts to him and the parts all connected in on one another, as they should (but often don't) with any creative person. H was primarily a painter, but ancillary aspects of his art included his cooking skills and his fascinating role as mentor to The Master Musicians of Joujouka.

It was Hamri who, as a child, ran way from his family home in the provincial Moroccan city of Ksar el Kebir, where his people owned a ceramics business, to hang out with the Sufi musicians in his mother's village of Joujouka. It was Hamri who, when crippling famine came to the mountains in the early Forties, brought the musicians down off their mountain and dragged them from town to town so that they could make the pittance which staved off hunger. 'I used to dance in front of them to attract a crowd.' he told me.

With Beat Generation pal Brion Gysin he dubbed them 'The Master Musicians of Joujouka' and opened the 1001 Nights restaurant in Tangier at the time of the International Zone. The women of Joujouka worked in the kitchens and the Musicians played for William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, and Jean Genet. Via Gysin he met up with errant Rolling Stone Brian Jones, dragged him up to the mountain in 1969 and recorded the totemistic Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka album.

Although, by 1997, I'd visited Joujouka and stayed in his part-time home there on various occasions, he still liked to maintain complete control over his kitchen. Therefore I wouldn't be brewing up any more tea once he'd retired - it was last orders on the tea front. On the other hand he was indulgent of my chronic tea addiction. He was never entirely calm about music but he was relaxed about painting and had an unruffled approach to every aspect of food preparation and provision which harked back to his time as an Interzone restaurateur.

As midnight approached he would talk a lot, just above a whisper, a little stoned, winding down like a clockwork toy. Inevitably, we'd just shared yet another after-dinner evening of sonic exhilaration conjured up by happily well fed Master Musicians.

That night we talked about his years in California where he'd worked fulltime as a painter and published his book, Tales of Joujouka, with Capra Press whose authors included Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Anais Nin. His California trick or methodology had been a good one: he'd offered this deal wherein he'd show up at some rich folk's swimming-pooled party, prepare a Moroccan feast for the assembled guests, and sell them his paintings afterwards when they'd eaten and drunk their fill.

'You've done so many things, Hamri.' I said with near-filial respect as he eventually walked away towards his room, leaving me with a huge mug of strong tea, this erstwhile adolescent King of the Train, this erstwhile Tangier street corner savant, now grown up to be The Painter of Morocco, now The President of the Serifya Folkloric Association of the Master Musicians of Joujouka.

'In my life I have been through many doors.' he said, smiling sadly and disappearing.

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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