Reviews

Fès Festival of World Sacred Music 2004

Nathan Salsburg
Fès Festival of World Sacred Music 2004

Fès Festival of World Sacred Music 2004

City: Fès, Morocco
Date: 1969-12-31

Youssou N'Dour
Fès, that incomparable Moroccan city, is a place of gentle and sublime harmonies. The world's oldest Islamic university, the Karaouin, is at the city's heart and just steps away from the Millah, the venerable Andalusian Jewish section which still thrives. Men and women cloaked in the ubiquitous hooded djellaba shuffle through the teeming cobblestone streets of the old city -- the oldest populated medina in the world -- accompanied by teenagers sporting Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts and Nike sneakers. Many of the medina's 18 gates pour themselves directly into the traffic-clogged, diesel-fumed, café-laden streets of the Ville Nouvelle, the modern section built by the French during their colonial misadventure. And music is heard at every step, blaring from the market stalls and the taxis -- Oum Khalsoum here, Britney Spears there, the traditional music of the Moroccan Gnawa just about everywhere -- all bowing out for the muezzins' call to prayer, broadcast, in various volumes and fidelities, five times a day from the loudspeakers of the city's countless minarets. It is entirely fitting, then, that Fès, a United Nations World Heritage Site, plays host to the annual Festival of World Sacred Music, the tenth anniversary of which has just come to a close. Since its establishment in 1991 as a symbolic counterweight to that year's Persian Gulf War, the Festival has brought together musicians, scholars, activists and diplomats in a series of concerts, colloquia and workshops and has offered the hopeful (if vague) intention of "harmonization [and] of mutual recognition of the diversity of cultures and spiritual [traditions]." This harmony was beautifully reflected in the Festival performance of Youssou N'Dour, the superstar Senegalese vocalist, who presented the debut of his collaboration with the Egyptian composer Fathi Salamah's Cairo Orchestra. The result was a joyful fusion of West African and North African/Arab musical styles; the drive and the bounce of the kora and the djembe so delicately spun out by the flourishes and arabesques of the Cairene ensemble's violins, oud (lute), and rababa (two-stringed fiddle). Yet it was a decidedly uncerebral experience -- one needed not to be a musicologist to appreciate the synthesis; it was as seamless and organic a harmony as any that rose from the streets of the city. To be sure, some of the more highly touted performances were dim occasions. The concert of the legendary "Voice of Africa," Miriam Makeba, was a great disappointment; the vocal power and grace which earned her that title five decades ago has mostly dissipated, leaving behind only a shadow of its former self accompanied by synthesized, antiseptic arrangements of the songs it once made famous. Sabah Fakhri, a Syrian vocalist greatly revered across the Arab world, was astutely described by a British journalist I caught walking out early as having the bearing of a "singing bank manager." His vocal improvisations (called mawawil) were impeccable, and the orchestra was sensitive and limber, causing the audience -- overwhelmingly dominated that night by well-to-do Moroccans -- to leap from their seats to clap and cheer and sing along. Yet overall, his delivery was chilly and staid, offering none of the pathos inherent in the mystical poems he is celebrated for singing.

The Dancing Monks of Tibet
Most of the performances, however, were of accomplished artists ably exhibiting their wares. The program's diversity seemed an attempt to reflect the incredible richness of the colors, the smells, and the sounds of Fès. As a single stretch of stalls in the medina can offer a passerby anything along the spectrum from prosaic (tea kettles and shampoo) to the curious (goats' heads or sequined turquoise slippers with signature, upward-curving toes), so were the Festival's artists arranged. The Iraqi vocalist Hussein Al-Adhami and his group played a pleasant but bland set to a nonetheless rapturous audience who were most likely applauding the great trials he, his country, and Iraq's maqam tradition have undergone in recent years. The Dancing Monks of Tibet, dressed as (among other creatures) dragons, lions, and bears, bounded about to sporadic banging of gongs and the guttural vocalizing made famous by the Gyütö Tantric school. They were a beautiful sight for the first hour of their performance, though soon into the second I found myself attending only to whether one of the dancers would continue to get the fringes of his skirts caught on the peak of his helmet when he made a particular jump. The good-humored Anaiki Men's Chorus from the French Pays Basque batted at hornets and withstood the blazing afternoon sun to present their buoyant three-part harmonies, but were no match for the machine-like -- and breathtaking -- vocal precision of Russia's Sirine Choir. But only a few performances were capable of cutting through the recurring fog of genteel respectability and classical reserve. These shining moments were provided by the Sufis, that mystical branch of Islam known for its ecstatic forms of worship, especially through music. Certainly the most well-known of these varied devotional traditions is qawwali, a synthesis of Persian and North Indian classical music with various South and Central Asian folk styles, internationally popularized by the late master Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. The brothers Mehr and Sher Ali, one of Pakistan's most revered qawwali groups, offered their intoxicating program of vocal acrobatics, irresistible rhythms pounded out on the dholak and tabla, and steady percussion of handclaps, singing praises to the Divine in its poetic manifestation as the Beloved-the Urdu word mehboob. The true gems of the Festival were the nightly "Soirees des Soufis" exhibitions, held in the courtyard of a 14th century library and consistently packed with attendees, buzzing with anticipation. Each night a different Sufi brotherhood would share its particular set of songs, instruments, and ritual intricacies: one entered in procession, accompanied by torches and burning incense, great silver platters of dates and the frenetic wailing of the ghaita horns; another consisted of an oud, a violin-playing conductor of sorts, and a dozen teenaged female initiates. Regardless of its details, when the music started, the air nearly burst with clapping, singing, and shouting. Trilling ululation and cries of "Ya Allah!" ripped through the thunder of drums and chanting, the singers rose to their feet and linked arms. Some members of the audience helped them along with the traditional method of what has come to be known in meditation vernacular as "Sufi breathing" -- a percussive near-hyperventilation traditionally used to maintain the rhythm and tempo when other "instruments" were not religiously permitted. Moroccan teenagers and French tourists alike danced as best they could among the mass of bodies sweating and swaying together, and the rejoicing continued late into the night. At one particularly riotous climax of shrieking and rumbling, I found nearby one young Fassi girl working her way into the legendary universe of Sufi trance, flailing her head violently around and shaking all over as her friends attempted to keep her under control. She was overcome with the hadra, the "presence," a state akin to the rapture one envisions taking place at old-time Southern revivals when god-fearing, tambourine-rattling devotees "get happy" and begin to speak in tongues. Yet, though I had never witnessed such an event first-hand and was certainly transfixed, it was hardly shocking or startling. It seemed a perfectly natural -- dare I say obvious -- reaction to the intensity and immensity of the performance. I did not worry for her well-being, looking at the crowd surging between and around us. Amidst the incredible harmony and humanity of a truly sacred music, I felt we were among friends -- evidence that the Fès Festival is doing something right.

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