In Search of the Sacred at the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music (Part I)

Our invitation to the 13th annual Fez Festival of World Sacred Music came just a few short weeks before the opening ceremonies June 1, 2007. Scheduled was ten extraordinary days worth of music from around the world. A lineup that included the likes of the Dastan Ensemble, Aïcha Mint Chighaly and Kudsi Erguner, how could I refuse, right?
 All I had to do was get myself to Morocco, soak up the local culture, cram in as many concerts as I could and then write about it. It sounds so very, very simple. As it stands right now there are four versions of my report tucked away in invisible folders on my computer. I think this bears mentioning, because putting my experiences and copious notes in some sort of cohesive order has been frustrating. I composed the straight festival concert review that veered off into the inane. I compiled journal entries and tucked them in between the concert information, which was a miserable failure. I tried the travelogue version, but found my version to be insanely boring.I’ve written and rewritten entries, hoping to find that magical alchemy that would bind everything together. Nothing seemed to work. Each version drifted farther and farther from the wonderfulness that was the experience. I was the problem. I ignored my instincts and attempted to anticipate what you, dear reader, would want to know, like what restaurant you should eat at or where you should stay or what color robes the Lisbon Gregorian Choir wore and whether they wore matching socks.

It took me a while but I finally realized that all the extraneous information and advice I was doling out on the proverbial page belonged to the domain of a completely different brand of writers. If you want to know where to eat or where to stay or the surefire haggling techniques to use in the medina on your next trip to Morocco there are some very good guidebooks out there you can consult. If you want the skinny on the who’s who attended the concerts maybe you should get yourself a gossip magazine or do a celebrity search. You’ll need to ask an ethnomusicologist for the for the proper musical construction of the traditional form of Mevlevi ceremony. I am no good at these things. My job here is to wheedle out the wonderful and write it in such a way that you would want to take the journey.

As I stared at the cover of the festival’s information book I found what I was looking for – that essential piece of the puzzle that would tie all these concerts and experiences together – sacred. There it was staring me in the face the whole time, the word sacred. Fez’s festival is centered on the sacred; it is that quintessential force that binds the music to Morocco and what shapes the very soul of the country.

Rapidly flipping through notes and programs, I frantically searched for my own sacred moment. I couldn’t find a single one. Had I had a sacred moment and ignored it? Had my sacred moment been waiting for me in the shaded curve of a stair beneath a bougainvillea shuttered window and I had mysteriously gone the other way? Perhaps one of the pack donkeys that plodded up and down the smooth stones of the narrow streets of the medina hauled my sacred moment away. Or maybe it was the sleek shadow of a sly cat skulking across a pale yellow wall that nicked my moment.

Because I’m only loosely tethered to organized religion by the barest of threads – I’ve never fallen into a fit of speaking in tongues or been struck sightless on the road to Damascus or on any road for that matter – I’ll have to borrow the faith and music shared with me throughout my journey. Devoid of the strict rules about what is sacred and what is not, just about anything can be sacred; like beauty it is all in the eye of the beholder. Stretching the definition of the sacred and seeing that which is sacred to others is the good path for tourists looking to tread lightly in a foreign land. I can only hope that I was a thoughtful and respectful guest to my Moroccan hosts.

The opening ceremonies of the Fez Festival of Sacred Music were set at the stage of impressive, open air venue Bab Al Makina, the royal gates to the palace. Built in 1886, the smooth stone walls and carved arched gateway provided a dramatic backdrop to all of the festival’s evening concerts. Despite the setting, the opening didn’t much resemble the sacred I had envisioned. Instead, the concert, featuring the American soprano opera singer Barbara Hendricks, kicked off with all the glitz and glamour of a fashion show. Gowned women and suited men, all soaked in designer perfumes and colognes reminded me of a premier at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The costumed guards swathed in capes and carrying lethal looking swords were the dead giveaway that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Backed by the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble, under the direction of principal violinist Nils-Erik Sparf, Ms. Hendricks and Alto/Mezzosoprano Paula Hoffman launched into compositions by Georg Friedrich Handel and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Under the beneficent gaze of photographed King Mohammed VI, Ms. Hendricks lured listeners with her powerful voice in Handel’s "He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd" and selections from Pergolesi’s "Stabat Mater."

One of my favorite pieces was Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble’s version of Handel’s Concerto Grosso "Alexander’s Feast." The ensemble’s penchant for period instruments captured a peculiar sweetness sometimes lost with contemporary inspired ensembles. Unfortunately, Ms. Hoffman wasn’t really given her due in the festival’s information booklet and so it was a real treat to hear her interpretation of Handel’s "Hope Thou Pure And Dearest Treasure," as well as the duet partner to Ms. Hendricks for "Fac ut ardeat cor meum" by Pergolesi. Seated hip to hip, it wasn’t quite the steeped in the breathless sacred moment I had envisioned, but it was a lushly hued spectacular.

Something of a practical nature bears mentioning here regarding a cultural difference between the attendees. It’s a rare moment to encounter the stilled silence of an expectant audience at the festival in Fez. Talking, laughing and cell phone use run rampant throughout the crowds, especially at the Makina. Toddlers mill about, pre-teens run up and down the aisles and audience members carry out whole conversations during the concerts.

During the pop and rock concerts the sound level usually drowns out the audience, but quieter performances are filled with an incessant racket. Chip munching teenagers or giggling bands of girls seemed to be the norm. Even the security guards-slash- ushers often interrupted performances. Since I don’t speak Arabic, I can only guess that the sideline jokes were pretty funny. I was assured by several people that this really isn’t seen as disrespectful behavior but more of a cultural difference. Moroccans see the festival concerts as a venue for socializing with an added musical backdrop. For the young people, concerts are a rare opportunity to dress up in their best evening attire and mingle with, or at least been seen by, the opposite sex.

This cultural difference was made worse by the set up of the Makina’s audience riser system. My guess is that the audience risers were either set up the day before the festival’s opening ceremonies or had been installed in or around the time of the building of the walls of the Bab Al Makina. The eerie squeak of uncertain wood beneath the red carpet and the constant tramp, tramp, tramp of every heel could be heard throughout every performance. The uncomfortable metal chairs at the Makina and at the Batha Museum venue added to the discomfort and probably the reason so many people found themselves getting up and moving about during performances.

Possessed with the understanding that I was going to have to deal with cell phone rings, multi-lingual conversations and a metal bar from the chair biting me in the back, I mingled among the crowds each night at the Bab Al Makina for next concert. Johnny Clegg, Tania Maria, Sonia M’barek, Fadwa el Malki, Angelique Kidjo and Jahida Wahbé with Elias Karam played at the Makina.

The Bab Boujloud, the venue slated for the city program, starred such artists as Morocco’s Majda Yahyaoui, Said Bey, Amarg Fusion and Mazagan. Free Sufi night concerts at the Dar Tazi included such artists as Tariqa Darkaouia Habibia, Tariqa Alliouia and Tariqa Chekkouriya. The Batha Museum artists I’ll get to later.

I’ll admit a little skepticism at some of the choices for the Bab Al Makina concerts. For instance, Johnny Clegg, the White Zulu from Juluka fame, seemed an unusual choice for a festival centered around sacred music. The feel-good Afro pop sound of Clegg’s opening song "Africa" did little to evoke the sacred for me, but his total embrace for "Great Heart," "Emalonjeni," "Asimbonanga" and "Thamela" struck a chord with the enthusiastic crowd. His high-stepping Zulu dance and lyrics, along with a smart sounding band and two fabulous backup singers, made the sacred connection for me.

Clegg’s total embrace of the Zulu culture and the love for his South Africa animates his sacred state of consciousness in a combination of culture and race. In a post-apartheid land, Clegg is still fighting with his revolutionary singer’s soul with songs as "Bullets for Bafazana" and "The Revolution Will Eat Its Children."

Tania Maria was, in my opinion, another unorthodox choice for the sacred. I was prepared to change my mind when I saw that her concert was titled "Memories born of cries for liberty, forbidden pride and an ancient culture." Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything remotely connected to the title or the sacred. I confess a profound disappointment given the concert’s title and Tania Maria‘s Brazilian flair and genuine talent. While her quick, bright piano work and plumy vocals on songs such as "Intimidade," "Come With Me" and "Besame Mucho" were outstanding, I was left feeling flat. I guess what I was looking for was Tania Maria‘s take on the sacred and not just a musical lineup fit for a New York club or a Parisian performance.

Tunisia’s Sonia M’barek, Algeria’s Behidja Rahal and Morocco’s own Fadwa el Malki provided an evening of the Arab-Andalusian song of the Maghreb. Rooted in the Middle Eastern sound that included orchestration and backup singers, these performances were of a more manufactured commercial sound rather than the sacred. Ms. Rahal’s sweet songbird quality vocals and expert fingering of the kuitra were concentrated on the more Arab-Andalusian influenced music of North Africa, while Fadwa Malki owned the audience with her rich, throaty vocals against the backdrop of some pretty heavy-handed orchestration and backup singers. It was Sonia M’barek that transformed the mood toward a jazzy, sparkly feel as the audience joined in clapped along to "Ashrak."

One might argue that Afro pop singer Angelique Kidj was another unusual choice for a festival of sacred music, unless that definition included utter joyfulness, which I think it surely does in Ms. Kidjo’s case. Electrifying the audience with her opening number "Papa," Ms. Kidjo fanned the flames with her contagious energy by launching into "Djin Djin" and "Ae Ae." Backed by a kick-ass band that included drummer, percussionist, bass and two guitars, Ms. Kidjo whipped up the crowd with "Iwoya" and ballads "Salala" and the lovely "Malaika." By the time Kidjo launched into "Afrika" the entire audience was on its feet dancing. The mark of a successful concert is when even the staid, rhythmless folks get up to dance and Kidjo’s concert was a resounding success. In a nod to her commitment to children and her work for UNICEF, Kidjo brought children from the audience to dance with her on stage, making a brilliant finale.

I’ve saved my two favorite concerts at the Bab Al Makina for last. Pakistan’s Akhtar Sharif Arup Vale Qawwals, the darbari, or official qawwals, of the Data Ganj Bakhsh sanctuary brought to the Fez festival a blend of the sacred and ecstatic delight to the Makina. Singing Sufi texts in Punjabi, Purbi and Persian, as well as Urdu and the rarer Arabic, lead vocalists Akhtar Sharif Husain, himself a fourth-generation qawwal, and Sarmad Husain captured the sacred texts and set them free as thrilling, effervescent devotionals. With vocalists and harmonium players Sabir Husain and Amjad Hussain, Saqlain Abbas on tabla and additional vocalists Javid Akhter, Muhammad Anwar, Mukhtar Ahmed and Maqsood Sabir the rich Asian Islam sound permeated the night sky over the Makina.

Palmas, or handclapping, in addition to the tabla rooted the swirling vocals in hypnotic rhythms. A colleague commented later that he found the performance a little over the top; I countered that the largeness of the performance was well-suited to the grand open air venue and that religious ecstasy is part and parcel to the Sufi tradition. I’m not sure that the audience achieved wajad, that state of Sufi spiritual bliss, but I think we got pretty close.

Now my favorite of the Makina concerts had to be the Halakat Jalaludin Rumi a complete concert devoted to the Sufi master Rumi. Performing the traditional Mevlevi ceremony and the rarely seen Ayin-I Djem, the Kadiria and Mawlawiya Brotherhoods under the direction of Kudsi Erguner and four muezzins provided an evening steeped in the sacred. Days before the concert I had mentioned my enthusiasm for seeing the whirling dervishes to colleagues and was met with bored scorn. I guess once you’ve seen dervishes you’ve seen them all, though I can’t imagine such.

The call of the muezzins commenced with standing prayer and workman showed up next to me to survey a fold in the carpet covering the aisle on which several people had tripped. He summed up the situation and left. More call-and-response prayers were sung and the workman returned. Our dutiful workman promptly set about arranging a newly cut section of carpet, then pulled out his trusty stapler and commenced to staple the new section of carpet over the fold. Heads snapped around, followed by a flurry of shushes, but our handy guy wouldn’t be deterred. He must have used a hundred staples. Too bad he didn’t think to use maybe twenty to staple down just the fold.

With handyman gone, the muezzins’ call to prayer continued. Standing prayers were chanted and the brotherhoods joined together for the Dhikr invocations and the Samáa ceremony. With the chanters enveloped in tight synchronization, the dervishes moved to center stage. The slow circles begin in a self embrace; once the dervish establishes the rhythm of the revolutions his arms unfold, reach plaintively to the sky and extend outward in graceful surrender as the pale skirts blossom into perfect flowers. One by one the dervishes flowered, leaving me totally entranced.

Despite the rigorous training and the spiritual devotion of a dervish, their complete release to the simple circle is awe inspiring. Slowly, one by one, the dervishes returned the line of chanting brothers, where a tight circle formed and a rough, powerful chant rose and fell. Prayers lifted up by the weight of will and the brotherhoods’ voices reached up and disappeared into the thin air of a Moroccan night. Serenely they drifted off stage, reminding me that the sacred is often fleeting.

Now if you’ve been up the night before taking in Johnny Clegg at the Makina, it really does take a Frenchman with plenty of moxey and horse to get you out of bed at 3:30 in the morning to take a bus up to the Merinides Quarry that overlooks the city. Shuffling up a steep set of stone steps lined with the paper bag-candle luminaries, my first thought was that Martha Stewart had come to Fez. No, there was no Martha at top, but there was a square surrounded on two sides by chairs or raised earth banks covered in carpets with other two sides enclosed by sheer cliffs dotted with hanging plants nestled in crevices. Center stage was the famed horse Le Caravage and a robed handler. We settled into seats or on the carpeted banks and waited. Soon, some poor soul wandered among the crowd begging that we not take any photographs. Needless to say this did not sit well with the camera crews that had lugged equipment up the steep slope, but they did pack away their cameras.

Sufi musicians Nezih Uzel and Kudsi Erguner were in place on a carpeted rise, all that was missing was the famed equestrian Bartabas. Finally, in that peculiar morning gray, in-between light, a dark robed, booted Bartabas entered the ring. Seated on Le Caravage, he pulled up his hood that covered all but a slim section of profile. As the music rose into the air, Bartabas led Le Caravage around the space. Timed to the rhythm of the music, Le Caravage performed a variety of canters, skipping hops and high stepping walks. Horse and rider smoothly moved through the routine as the sun rose higher in the sky. At the end of the performance, Bartabas dismounted and unsaddled the horse; it was at this point that the horse took a good, long roll in the dust and then found a grass to munch.

I can’t say that the performance was particularly sacred in the traditional sense, rather I got the impression that the intent was meant to be esoteric. This concert was billed as an exceptional event. I’m not sure that I would go that far or that at five o’clock in the morning is really the time to explore the obscure. The horse was beautiful. The fluid movement of man and horse in partnership to the music was interesting, but hardly the impressive spectacle we were led to believe. Now if the horse hoofed out in the dirt Sufi love poems that would have been something to see.

Curious, I emailed a horseman and friend from the hotel’s pressroom to get his take on the show. Kenny Carlisle, breeder and trainer at Horse Run Acres in Springfield, TN informed me that with a willing horse and a good deal of consistent training you can get a horse to work well with the same pieces of music. Kenny, disappointed there were no photographs, got a laugh when I told him that at the beginning of the performance Le Caravage had a healthy bowel movement center stage and that everyone in the audience wondered if it was part of the performance. Must be a horse junkie thing.

The post-show breakfast smothered some of the grumbling as the audience fell upon the elegantly laid tables like a bunch starved wolves. All I ended up with was a slim square of bread with honey and an elbow to the ribs from a smartly dressed French tourist.

Author: TJ Nelson

TJ Nelson is a regular CD reviewer and editor at World Music Central. She is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing Athena’s Shadow.

Set in Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena’s Shadow follows the adventures of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long forgotten family mystery. Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of little help in her quest. Along with her best friends, an attractive Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931.

Traversing the line between the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to uncover Athena’s true crime.