Pathways to Creation: Exploring Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco
PopMatters goes to Morocco for the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music to honor and share the world’s great spiritual music traditions. At this 14th annual festival, Derek Beres would hear the indigenous sounds of Vietnam, Tunisia, Norway, Pakistan, Belgium, America, and much more.
All photos by ©Derek Beres
“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.”
Author: Titus Burckhardt Book: Introduction to Sufi Doctrine US publication date: 2008-05 Publisher: World Wisdom Formats: Paperback ISBN: 1933316500 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/burckhardt-sufidoc.jpg Length: 152 Price: $17.95
Display Artist: Ali Faiz, Miguel Poveda Artist: Ali Faiz Artist: Miguel Poveda Album: Qawwali-Flamenco Label: Accords-Croises Fr. Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/q/qawwaliflamenco.jpg US Release Date: Available as import
Author: Khaled Abou El Fadl Book: The Place of Tolerance in Islam US publication date: 2002-11 Publisher: Beacon Formats: Paperback ISBN: 9780807002292 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/a/aboul-placeoftolerance.jpg Length: 112 Price: $15.00
Author: Paul M. Barrett Book: American Islam Subtitle: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion US publication date: 2006-12 Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Formats: Hardcover ISBN: 9780374104238 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/b/barrett-americanislam.jpg Length: 320 Price: $25.00
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.
Craig Adams on stage at Bab El Makina
The late night Sufi ritual at Dar Tazi, by Hamadcha Brotherhood
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.