In Search of the Sacred at the Fez Festival, Part 2

Before I jump into the Batha Museum concerts, I want to impart some other cultural discoveries on my journey. The ‘new city’ section of Fez bears a striking resemblance to most cities with its street choking traffic, interrupted by the occasional slow moving donkey cart, slickly lit cafes and chic nouvelle cuisine restaurants tucked in between upscale, high rise apartment buildings and hotels and a street savvy population of internet surfers and suited businessmen rushing off to meeting. But in this growing city of concrete and neon, where the satellite dish is now the ubiquitous building adornment, there is a slower-paced population decked out in the traditional jellabas and kaftans, a reminder that Morocco is in transition and is still deeply religious.
 Americans on the street in Morocco are easy to spot with their baseball caps, shorts and flip flops, but the rise of women in the Moroccan workplace makes it harder and harder to distinguish them from many of the other tourists from France and Britain. Fashionably dressed, they work in banks, travel agencies and boutiques, they meet family and friends at restaurants and enjoy an afternoon with girlfriends at on of the salons de te, but the one thing they do not do is sit in one of the street cafes alone. Don’t get me wrong, I did see the occasional Moroccan woman at cafes, but only in the company of a man.The street café is still considered the sole domain of the Moroccan male. And the cafes are positively teeming with them. From morning till night, there is this seated line of men drinking soft drinks or mint teas watching the time pass. A fellow journalist, Javier, living in Morocco, pointed out that soon the whole of Morocco will be completely run by women because all the men will have withered away staring off into eternity at the local café. While this might be exaggerated, the concept of the male dominated street life is not.

The evidence of the lure of Western influences is strongest in the old city, or medina, of Fez. That might sound like a contradiction, but so little of the very essence, even the construction, of the medina has changed over the years, seeing the West so blatantly displayed is a jolt. The medina, constructed in an intricate warren of narrow alleys surrounding a mosque, by which shoppers, shopkeepers and donkeys go about their daily business is indeed a marvel.

In the medina it’s possible to pick up a tube of toothpaste, drop your child off at school, purchase a new cell phone, check up on the progress of construction of your sister’s ornamented wedding chair and buy all the ingredients for dinner in a relatively short walk. It’s a cornucopia of goodies. You can stop to purchase dried figs, dates, apricots or nuts on one street and pick out a bra or other lingerie on another or buy a T-shirt for your daughter that says across the front "Totally Zen."

In one alley are stalls for the traditional leather workers and in another alley is an Internet café. Cell phones are sold next to religious pamphlets. It’s as easy to rummage through the sale racks of women’s clothing as it is to get a piece of marble carved or pick up a pet turtle for your nephew’s birthday. The medina is home to the time-honored craftsman as it is to the CD store as it to the bins of cheap plastic junk you’d find in an American discount store; it’s where the practical lives side by side with the elaborately crafted.

Most Moroccans in the medina seem content to pick and chose which Western conveniences or influences that make their lives easier, but there is no mistaking the deeply religious and traditional bent to the people. Standing on the smooth stones of a dim alley under two overhanging second story additions steeped in the aroma of centuries of Fez’s people, you could no more liberate the women clothed from head to toe than you could cover complete one of the smart-suited women from the front desk of one of the Western-style hotels. I think it is this very contrast of ancient and modern that makes Morocco so deliciously intriguing.

On to the concerts at the Batha Museum. The museum, built in the late 1800s as a palace by Moulay Abdelaziz, was later transformed into a cultural museum. The museum’s central courtyard, shaded by an ancient Barbary oak, set the stage for the afternoon forays into the sacred from around the world. With singing birds, the white columns of the museum behind and the splendid gardens as a backdrop, the Batha Museum concerts offered a pleasant respite to chaos of the vibrant city.

Opening the Batha concerts was what I considered as one of the gems of the festival. Classical Iranian singer Parissa, accompanied by members of the Dastan Ensemble enthralled the audience with songs and poems from the revered Persian mystic, poet and theologian Jalaudin Rumi, as well as the poets Araghi, Djoshgani, Nizami and Sa’di. Parissa, the epitome of elegant repose, silenced the normally fidgety crowd with the emotional power of her voice.

Even the birdsongs of the Batha Museum’s year-round residents surrendered center stage to Rumi devotionals. Dastan Ensemble‘s Hamid Motebassem, composer and sitar and tar player; Hossein Behrozi-Nia, composer and barbat player; Behnaam Samani, daf and daman player and tombak and pendariq player Pejman Hadadi dazzled, bathing the very air in the Persian sacred and weaving a spell more beguiling than any of the intricate patterns found on the rugs on which they performed.

The Batha Museum venue, with its peaceful, intimate space between museum wall and garden, played host to the misty cloud of a capella sacred songs performed by the Lisbon Gregorian Choir.

 Judeo-Spanish influenced Claire Zalamansky offered her rousing repertoire that included "La Roza Enflorece," "Las Morillas de Jaen," "Purim, Purim" and a poem by Henri Zalamansky.

Vasumathi Badrinathan gently soothed the audience with the sacred music of Southern India. Trained by the great T.R. Balamani, Vasumathi‘s mastery of the Carnatic traditional music was evident in the ebb and flow of her vocals and her accompanying musicians from Mumbai, as the sound filled the space and lulled the restless child a couple of chairs away from me.

The Piñana Brothers along with Cuba’s Diapason String Quintet bit through the air with their passion filled "Misa Flamenca Murciana." Guitarist Carlos Piñana’s flamenco energy plowed through the highs and lows of the concert, as singer Curro Piñana exuded passion, if not a little heavy-handedly at times. The restrained sweetness of the quintet throughout the concert finally did give way to a welcomed bit of the string group’s true vivacity during an encore that was sorely missed in rest of the program, but in the end the concert was a crowd favorite.

Mauritania’s Aïcha Mint Chighaly was another one of my personal favorites in addition to Parissa of the Batha Museum concerts. The edgy quality of Ms. Chighaly‘s vocals set against the dulcet sounds of her harp made the griot music of her homeland a spicy blend of the sacred supplication and charged roots music. The edgy soulfulness was provided by one of Ms. Chighaly‘s relatives whose name wasn’t listed in the program, but who electrified the performance with some bluesy guitar licks and backup vocals.

The Dar Tazi venue, a former palace and the current home of the Fes Saiss Association, was the scene for the free concerts of the Sufi Nights’ program. On its stage Tariqa Tijania, Tariqa Alliouia, Tariqa Darkaouia Habibia and Tariq Al Alamia played to enthusiastic locals and festival attendees.

The highlight for me was the Ouled Kamar Gnaoua Ensemble from Marrakech. The syncopated palmas groove set by a psyched up crowd started long before the ensemble reached the stage, making the carpeted audience seating a writhing mass of fervent fans too impossible to penetrate.

Taking up a spot in an adjoining gardened section provided me a view of the parade of fans from jeaned teenagers to an aging hippy couple in matching, newly purchased jellabas. By the time the Sons of the Moon Ensemble, formed by Master Abbés Baska and Maqqadem Ahmed Baska, came on stage the hyper crowd buzzed with energy. That energy wasn’t diminished as the ensemble set work with their thick, chunky beat and clashing cymbals.

I did manage to catch a glimpse of the stage through the sea of bodies and caught a couple of the eighteen members of the group, especially the spectacular whiling hat tassels of the dancers as they called forth the sacred trance. The bulging crowd on the outskirts of the concert turned a little dicey when security put up barriers against more people getting into the courtyard.

The party feel of the concert turned to electric frenzy as the waves of chant filled the night air. A colleague filming the event with a slim square space next a British photographer told me later that the two people being carried out were said to be in a trance. The Gnawa masters on stage didn’t seem at all bothered when a couple of audience members hopped on stage to dance along, lending a truly cosmic feel to the heady rush of beat, cymbal and chant of the Gnawan musical odyssey.

Chasing the sacred at the Fez Festival of Sacred music is a little like kicking stones, you just never know what you are going to unearth. In the end, I don’t think I had one large, life-changing sacred moment. Instead I had thousand small ones, like the very moment an audience held their collective breath waiting for that next note, or sitting in the steam of mint tea as the call to prayer would fill the evening sky or the whiff of the rough exotic as I passed a restaurant or the sweet tang of an orange or the anticipated way the proprietor of the fruit stand I stopped at each day on my way back to the hotel would pluck two of the small, deliciously sweet green melons before I’d even got to door. I was glad to share in the sacred of the music, but I’m equally grateful for the sacred that reached me in so many small ways.

I would like to thank Cindy Bryram, the American press coordinator, for the chance to attend the Fez Festival and her husband, Stephen, who was kind enough to give me his tour of the medina one afternoon. I like to thank my fellow journalists for being free with their opinions as well as their advice.

Special thanks goes to Mr. Abbas Azzouzi, the CEO of the Moroccan National Tourist Office for his arranging the tour of Rabat and lunch. To the hotel staffs at the Crown Palace Hotel and the Royal Mirage, thank you for your hospitality.

I hope someone will point out to the families of the maitre’d and wait staff of the dining room at the Crown Palace Hotel that these are extremely brave men. I saw the devouring hordes of tourists descend on these poor fellows each morning and so I have nothing but respect for them. Finally, I would also like to thank the government of Morocco and his Royal Highness Mohammed VI for the warm hospitality of their people.

Read In Search of the Sacred at the Fez Festival, Part 1

Web sites:

All photos © TJ Nelson, World Music Central