Inside an Ancient City
“Fes, yes, that festival is for sacred music from all over the world. If you want Gnawa music, you must go to Essaouira. There you hear the best. But Fes is a very good festival.”
Pathways to Creation: Exploring Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco
The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The bald-headed clerk at the Virgin Records in the Casablanca airport was more than helpful—he even tore off the plastic from albums to allow me to sample. In the middle of Fes’ famous medina—the largest car-free zone in the world, at 24 kilometers and 9,400 streets large—I was able to listen to Gnawa, malhoun, Sufi and diffusion (electronica) at the 14th Fes Festival of World Sacred Music in June. But first I stopped in that store, where all the albums were bootlegged and cost 20 dirhams apiece ($2.60). I thanked the Virgin clerk and paid for two albums (a bit more at $10.92) before boarding the plane.
It surprised me that during ten days of programming at the Fes Sacred World Music Festival, no Gnawa bands appeared, especially considering that Gnawa is the epitome of ritualistic music in Morocco. Yet the schedule did not lack. It featured a dizzying array of genres including the indigenous sounds of Vietnam, Tunisia, Norway, Pakistan, Belgium, America, and many more, including Morocco. The idea behind Fes is to honor and share the world’s great spiritual music traditions. When they are all presented, fans can find common links between the sacred arts of varying cultures. Celebrating its 14th anniversary, and coinciding with the 1,200-year anniversary of the City of Fes, the festival has become a pivotal destination for fans of global music.
The city was founded in 808 by Idriss II, son of Morocco’s first sultan, when 800 Muslim families from Andalusia set up residence on the right bank of the Fes River. Since then it has remained a source of pride for Morocco and a disorienting mystery to the outsider. During the large part of the 20th century it underwent an identity reformation, due to its colonization by the French, and its subsequent freedom that saw both a tribal mentality cling to old rituals as well as a new fascination with Western architecture and lifestyles. It is, like most Muslim nations, steeped in religion, with the famed mosque el Qaraouiyyine in the middle; a local artisan told me there are 355 mosques in total. Surrounded by towering walls on all sides, with numerous gates (babs) serving as entry points, to descend into the medina—the word means “city”, and here refers to the older part of Fes—is to step not only back in time, but inside a cross-cultural exploration that defies much of what the Western world defines as urban.
For example, knowledge of Manhattan, with its grid system and sharp right angles, has no functional use in Fes. Many streets inside the medina are slim alleyways; you must turn sideways to scoot past others. At any moment you could be confronted by a pack of children kicking deflated soccer balls, or a donkey carrying hundreds of lamb skins on his back, its leader walking behind him, shouting wildly and flailing his arms in warning. Yet if these images seem chaotic, it is anything but—there exists a rhythm that, once found, is simple to dance to. As I was warned before traveling to Morocco, it is just safer not to walk through these streets with your iPod on, lest you not hear the clap of the donkey’s hooves, or the buzz from the motor of a small scooter approaching behind you.
Amidst the “primitive”, hundreds of satellite dishes sitting atop the bricks of Fes are a sight to behold. The city has been dubbed the “e-capital of Morocco,” mostly due to an initiative by the Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, which linked with Canada’s International Development Research Center to jumpstart the e-Fez Action Research Project.
The medina is a surround-sense experience. Scents of freshly cooked dough and coriander are plentiful. Around another corner, however, indescribable gusts of garbage and donkey droppings invade your nostrils. The scent of leather, one of Fes’s trademark exports, is everywhere. When standing inside a carpet shop gazing down at the famous tannery, while a boisterous local explained the dying process in exchange for ten dirhams, the scent was near toxic. I couldn’t imagine working in an environment like that every day; just as that thought came to mind, I noticed a hideous cloud of black smoke arising in the distance, and was told that it is from pottery making. I found it ironic that such beautiful art is created from such a destructive and polluting process.
While these images were powerful markers of my journey, Fes is actually leading efforts in Moroccan technology. Gaze into the horizon of thousands of earth-toned buildings stacked one upon another like baffling origami and the hundreds of satellite dishes installed on their roofs—it’s as if one is looking at the set of a science fiction movie. The word “Cyber” is scrawled on walls in black ink, a stunning contrast to the buildings that house computers. Then again, I’ve grown accustomed to the word being associated with a battalion of lifeless skyscrapers currently being erected in my home of Jersey City and adjacent Manhattan: buildings that are either purely functional, or attempt to look antiquated yet fail to realize their intentions. Moroccan architecture, by contrast, is filled with warmth and color. The closest comparison I know of is the vibrant hues of Mexican folk art and dwellings, as well as the old section of Barcelona, with its equally twisting and adventurous alleys.
From an aesthetic point of view, Fes is an ideal city to host an event like this festival. The historic Bab El Makina, a towering fortress that one would suspect leads into a castle of amazing riches, served as the main venue for the series of concerts. Opening night revealed an underlying tension between the soul of the city and the intentions of the producers; one that I learned has been long-standing. While the fete is promoted as a unifying force, the actual presentation hinted at the disparities of economic status that has always gripped nations.
Craig Adams on stage at Bab El Makina
Firstly, the festival—at least at the two main venues—is expensive, which is why the crowd attending is predominantly Europeans of means. Held on the grounds of the medina, few people who actually inhabit that land step inside for Fes. That first evening the feeling of economic disparity was exacerbated when the Princess arrived an hour late, holding up the show and leading an entourage onto a makeshift stage with a royal seat directly in front of the stage. Photographers such as myself were not allowed to shoot in front of that stage, for fear that we “might block her view”. (Thick men in black suits and wearing earpieces would swiftly descend upon the unlucky photographer attempting to take her photo, as well.)
What took place on stage that evening was, alas, another display of over-the-top vanity. Performing alongside France’s Regional Lyrical Orchestra Avignon Provence, American gospel-opera singer Jessye Norman made a horrendous attempt to reach pitches that she inexcusably floundered. Her repertoire of Bach and Handel arias (both, clearly, composes of sacred music) was challenged by an orchestration that sounded as if it was battling with its soprano, and with all the stargazing at the royalty going on, I felt that the focus was on being at the event rather than the music, its intent, and the musicians that played it. Fortunately these displays of excess were but an isolated incident. The Princess did not return for another performance, and the music on subsequent nights improved tremendously.
The late night Sufi ritual at Dar Tazi, by Hamadcha Brotherhood
In fact on the second night, a performance that could be viewed as metaphoric of the principle of this festival took place on the same stage. Pakistani qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz joined forces with American gospel singer Craig Adams. Faiz, considered the successor of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (though not by bloodline; that title goes to Nusrat’s nephew, Rahat), has picked up where the legend left off. Nusrat is considered the first to have taken qawwali out of his native land to transport this 700-year-old family craft by collaborating with Michael Brook and Eddie Vedder, allowing the sacred folk song to be tinkered with in a digital age.
Faiz has continued this trend. Qawwali, which comes from the Arabic qaul, meaning “word”, was birthed in the non-orthodox strain of Islam known as Sufism. Strict Muslims believe music is distracting from the recitation of the Qu’ran (the very word means “recite”), and so Sufis, often misrepresented as the “mystical” strain of Islam, had to move around the conventional model of society, inventing such disciplines as the famous whirling dervishes of Turkey, as well as qawwali. The form shares with gospel its focus on reaching ecstatic states through the repetition of words and phrases, making Faiz’s pairing with Adams a fitting choice.
Born out of the spirituals tradition, when African slaves appropriated Christian saints into their rich history of native gods and spirits, gospel’s evolution followed the performers’ secret communal meetings of voice and makeshift drums into established churches. Both traditions have to do with a “return” of sorts—for Adams, it is a music based on returning to the “Promised Land” (something he actually did this night on African soil), and for Faiz, it is the poetic withdrawal of the senses that extinguishes the adherent into the divine like a “moth into a flame”, as the famous Sufi poet Rumi expressed.
Faiz Ali Faiz Qawwali Dam Mast Qalandar Sayarts.com
As an idea, the Qawwali Gospel project is an important political and cultural instrument; as a reality, the event sputtered along at times. The mere presence of Christianity and Islam on stage together, however, represented a powerful message: that despite political and social differences a common force brings us together. That fact that all the transitions between the two bands were not smooth should not fall completely on either musician. Perhaps a bit more rehearsal time would have served them well. Adams, on lead vocals and piano, performed first with his seven-piece outfit, joined by a drummer, bassist, and four back-up singers. Adams was followed by Faiz’s nine-person ensemble, which included two harmoniums and tables, while everyone in his entourage chanted and clapped.
After their solo sets, the two crews returned together from backstage. Adams opened with “Amazing Grace” segueing into Faiz’s next number and the back-forth began. The marked difference between the two acts was in delivery. At its best, qawwali expresses the heart-wrenching cry of existence inconsolably wrapped within the sheer ecstasy of living. The experience is cathartic for performer and spectator alike. By diving deeply into the subconscious suffering inherent inside all of us, we bring to light what is often pushed down from our psyche. By recognizing the root of pain for what it is—something the Buddha called dukkha, and implied that all suffering is created by the human mind ignorant of the way in which the world actually works—you experience a transcendent moment of releasing emotional and psychological bondage.
The ululations of Faiz’s voice, a style of singing completely foreign to Western music, represented the emotional conflicts taking place inside of a soul intent on merging with the deeper sense of mystery our religious traditions expound upon. I wish I could say the same of Adams, but any sense of torture was missing from his gospel. It was uplifting and angelic; it did nothing to dig into the depths of the human condition. For this, it sounded contrived—clean and sterile. Whereas Faiz’s pantomimes—his head bobbing up and down violently to the rhythm, the forceful slapping together of his hands—made you feel elevated and somewhat outside of yourself, Adams’s band looked like it was preparing for Showtime at the Apollo. The music felt like it was a preparation for something else, somewhere in the future, while Faiz’s unfailing sense of urgency made you feel that the revelation was at hand, this very moment. Interestingly, this well represents their respective philosophies: Sufism, which is about being fully present in the moment and staying in communion with the godhead, and Christianity, which states human existence is only a preparation for something that awaits after death.
Ironically, three years prior on this very same stage, Faiz came much closer to a fusion of faiths when performing alongside flamenco singers Miguel Poveda and Juan Cortés, a.k.a. Duquende. Like gospel, flamenco began acoustically, with just voice and a style of handclaps known as palmas. In the 19th century the guitar was added to accompany dancers. A few decades into the 20th, flamenco became popularized in much the same fashion as gospel—the former, in cafes with the addition of the now ubiquitous castanets; the latter became one of the first genres to become saleable in the recording industry, forced to change format to appeal to broad audiences.
Devotion time in a mosque in Fes’ medina.
Poveda and Duquende are to flamenco what Faiz is to qawwali—no way popularizers, but serious artists who feel their respective genres should evolve to fit the dynamic of an ever-expanding global community. Their 2005 performance Qawwali Flamenco, captured on a two-disc/one-DVD set distributed by Harmonia Mundi, looks and feels completely natural. The guitars and handclaps merge effortlessly into tablas and harmonium; the call-and-response chants of both parties, although separated by language, seamlessly weave into one another.
At its peak, the Qawwali Gospel performance accomplished the same. Regardless of sonic miscommunications, the open-mindedness of both Faiz and Adams must be applauded, for showing how their respective arts share the same space without friction, an obvious metaphor for the deeply troublesome religious rifts formed between said parties when Pope Urban II launched the Crusades to expand his territorial prowess. Despite minor issues the festival displayed behind the scenes—such as an incoherent media center where no one quite knew what was going on at any time, a trend that seemed to seep through every layer in the chain of command—these intentions alone would do well to be imitated around the world. By the time I left Bab El Makina to Dar-Tazi for a late-night Sufi performance, welcomed by the 75-degree evening breeze and little children trying to sell small, cracked mirrors for five dirhams, I was fully enraptured by this gathering of spirits convening for the common purpose of community.