Fes Festival of World Sacred Music 2011. Part I: The World’s Spiritual Glories in the Medina

Medina Nights: Alemu Aga, Ethiopia - Photo by Evangeline Kim
What is important, and indeed urgent, is to unlock our systems of thinking, our mental habits and automatic responses, to allow us to become more attentive and receptive to other sources of wisdom, other paths, and other words.” – Faouzi Skali

There were many reasons to celebrate Morocco’s 17th annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, not the least of which was the return of the festival’s original visionary founder and director, Fes Sufi scholar and anthropologist, Faouzi Skali, after an absence of a few years.

He organized an intensive festival experience whose whole featured a tough-minded morning forum “Giving Soul To Globalization,” with thematic reference to the Persian 12th century Attar’s allegorical “Conference of the Birds.” Debates among several global pundits in diplomacy, politics, philosophy, arts and culture revolved around topical interests: “Which Wisdoms for Our Times,” “What Future for the Middle-East,” “The Arab Spring: New Horizons for the Maghreb,” “Cultures, Governance and Corruption,” and “The Ups and Downs of Democracy.” There were also children’s programs, art exhibitions, film screenings, and of course, a wealth of spiritual musical presentations from all over the world under the art direction of Alain Weber.

Marinid Dynasty Site - Photo by Evangeline Kim
It was all the more remarkable that while most of North Africa is intensely preoccupied with the Arab Spring’s focus on long overdue political changes, Dr. Skali and his well-organized team delivered this peaceful and spectacular 10 day-long world music festival in Morocco’s first 1981 World Heritage site, the medieval medina, attended by thousands of visitors and locals.

This year’s main theme was “Wisdoms of the World.” Where but in Fes, Morocco’s renowned spiritual, cultural, and intellectual center so imbued with powerful Sufi saints’ histories over 1200 years, could such an event take place? To be present in Fes, one cannot help but begin to absorb and intuit other-worldly knowledge of Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam.

All the decorative architectural embellishments in the medina trace centuries of the sublime and the sacred in Sufi-inspired aesthetics. Sufi mystics have long claimed that Sufism cannot be learned from books. To allow in the sensorial, visual splendor in Fes, may be part of catching a glimpse of the Sufi path.

Giant keyhole palace gates, museum interiors, riad central courtyards, and restaurants in the Medina burst with arabesque patterns in intricate mosaic zellij tile work, finessed plaster carvings, and interlacing polygonal geometric or flowering patterned cedar woodwork. Andalusian gardens bloom with fragrance in cooling foliage. By moments, an almost palpable crystalline Mediterranean light seems to illuminate the air while it materializes in the gentle yellow ochre shade covering palace walls and older buildings. Five times a day, polyphonies of the muezzin call to prayer roll across the city.

The ineffable seduces the unknowing heart in the medina of Fes.

Fes Musically – The Bab Makina

Bab Makina, "Leyla and Majnun - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The festival’s artistic director, Alain Weber, orchestrated many fine musical concerts throughout the festival in multiple elegant venues. A profusion of cultural and religious diversities often reached exalted moments of musical grace. Musicians from all over the globe sang praises to divine – and sometimes earthly – love in Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, Farsi, Hindi, Wolof, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Amharic, Mongolian, Italian, Spanish, Ladino, French, and English.

The Bab Makina, whose giant elaborate palace gate and surrounding crenellated ramparts loom over the festival’s main ticketed open-air concert stage. The enormous interior square seating 3,500, was the evening concert site befitting world superstars. Each concert was introduced and given context by North American Festival Director, Zeyba Rahman in English, and by Morocco’s popular actress, Amal Ayouch, in French and Arabic.

The festival opened here with a premiere of “Leylâ and Majnûn, or Mystic Love,” an oratorio mundi by the composer Armand Amar. 38 singers and musicians from Asia, the East and West celebrated the enduring allegorical legend, so popular throughout the Islamic world, of unrequited earthly love and the journey of seven stages towards the transformative power of spiritual love. The dramatic songs were sung in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, Turkish, Mongolian, and French. And the orchestra’s musicians were masters of both western classical and ancient North African and Middle-Eastern instruments (duduk, oud, and kamancheh.)

Maria Bethania - Photo by Evangeline Kim
A clearly delighted and joyous Maria Bethânia reveled in her concert the following evening. It’s so rare to catch this beloved Bahian great diva outside of Brazil, yet she lived up to her powerful, long history since the ‘60s with eternally commanding and nuanced emotional vocals. Barefoot, though clad in a long, brown satin skirt and a white jacket – with her long hair flowing, she danced and skipped across the stage as she imparted the spirit of Bahian romantic allegria and sang praises with uplifted arms to Afro-Brazilian Orixás (syncretized Catholic saints). Her band was lean: guitar, cello, bass, piano, traps, percussion and 2 women vocalists, but how the enchantment in her brimming sound seemed to reach the heavens.

In sharp contrast to Ms. Bethânia’s freedom of movement on stage, Lebanese Julia Boutros’ performance with a full backing classical Arabic orchestra including western and middle-eastern instruments was one of high Arabic stylized culture. Although she smiled from time to time and outstretched her arms occasionally, dressed in a long red sequined gown, she stood rooted imperturbably throughout her concert. Although young men swooned to her love songs, there was perplexity among critics concerning the appropriateness of her last militant song lauding Hezbollah.

Billed as a “rapper, slam poet and composer,” prize-winning French star Abd Al Malik was a symbolic advocate of the redemptive soul of Sufism and lent moving testimonial to the backdrop of Moroccan social reforms underway. With Congolese roots, his story is what miracles are made of. After a hard, despair-filled life in a Strasbourg ghetto as a youth, he eventually discovered the Moroccan Sufi master Sidi Hamza al-Qadiri al-Boutchichi whose message of universal love inspired his rousing concert.

Fareed Ayyaz's Qawwali Group and The Fes Arab-Andalus Orchestra Directed by Mohammed Briouel - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Among the festival’s abundance of highpoints, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour’s concert backed by his Super Etoile band and animated by whirling acrobatic dancers, was a passionate tribute to the great Sufi saint whose magnificent mausoleum is located in the medina: Cheikh Ahmed al-Tijani. The Tijani Brotherhood, founded by the Cheick in 1780, has millions of adherants throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Magreb, Asia, Europe, and the U.S., and the peaceful order is closely related to Mr. N’Dour’s Mourides Brotherhood. His set began with his famous “Bamba” tribute to Senegal’s Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mourides order, and included songs from his “Egypt” album.

The following evening featured one of the festival’s sub-themes of spiritual musical encounters between different nations. Pakistan’s Sufi qawwali group led by Fareed Ayyaz joined the Fes Arab-Andalus Orchestra directed by Mohammed Brioul. The art of qawwali’s rhythmic, soaring intensities wove effortlessly with the sung and played melismatic ornamentations in the music of classical Fes. A few of orchestra’s singers bounced up and down to the rear of the musicians, punctuating the repetitive choral stanzas in the Sufi art of samâa (praise chants), while throngs of Fassis (Fes people) in the audience sang along to the familiar melodies.

The two last sold-out concerts in the Bab Makina were overflowing with crowds of local fans along with teenagers and children. People were frantically searching for last-minute tickets.

Kazem El Saher - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Iraqi heartthrob crooner Kazem El Saher is a household name in Morocco. The audience excitement was at a high pitch and concert-goers called out favorite song titles for him to sing. Beaming broadly, his stage presence was laid-back as he paused between each song and struck up amiable conversations with the full Arabic classical band. Reminiscent Egypt’s golden age of glamour and romance, personified by Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Oum Kalthoum, his emotional and ecstatic tarab style is today a rarity. Suiting the festival’s spirit, his message was one of love and peace, tolerance and understanding.

The beautiful and captivating representative of the newer generation of popular Moroccan singers, Asma Lmnawar, opened the concert with three songs in praise of the Prophet Mohammed, followed by happy, love songs. She reflected later in interview, “Happiness is another way to spirituality.” Both artists joined in duet, their recorded hit “Al Mahkama” to wild applause.

Ben Harper - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The closing Bab Makina concert brought on the United States’ Ben Harper, wearing a black tee-shirt carrying ‘Fes’ written in white Arabic calligraphy and Morocco’s emblematic green star underneath. It was astounding to hear young overjoyed Moroccans singing along to his songs, word for word in English, as they whooped and clapped non-stop. His fan base in Fes is assuredly solid. This was his first appearance on the African continent and his chemistry with the audience was immediate and charged. His concert alternated between introspective, bluesy solo ballad work while seated with his lap slide guitar as he teased forth sitar or plucked oud resonances, and electric guitar rock-gospel with 3 band members. At one point he stepped away from the mic and stage lights and howled his lyrics a cappela to the night skies. As his set concluded, he invited singing audience members to join him on stage. A roar of approval exploded as he donned presented gifts of a long Moroccan robe and babouches slippers.

Bab Boujloud’s Final Concert

For the final night in Fes, we attended the last free to the public concert at the Bab Boujloud. Thousands of happy local people filled this public square, late evenings, during the festival, where concerts by some of Morocco’s great artists, including Nass El Ghiwane and the master Issawis, overlapped with international ones in the Bab Makina.

Asma Lmnawar and Hasmi El Kasri
The night belonged to the regionally popular, though yet-to-be-discovered worldwide, singer Asma Lmnawar and her band (who appeared the night before in the Bab Makina with Kazem El Saher) in concert with northern Morocco’s Gnawa master Hamid El Kasri and his group of singing parade of Gnawa musicians, all armed with metal castanets. Ms. Lmnawar is a Moroccan crowd-pleaser and she knows her audience well. With megawatt smiles and a supple, melodious vocal range filled with long glides of melismatic phrasing, and a charismatic stage presence, she seems poised for world music stardom.

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