Saturday, June 23, 2018

Dhafer Youssef Mesmerises Fes Festival

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music opened on a high today with two great concerts and perfect warm weather

ENSEMBLE MOXOS 16:30 JARDIN JNAN SBIL - Lauren Crabbe reports

The afternoon at Jnan Sbil was balmy, with the overhead shades trapping the humidity – very reminiscent of the Amazon jungle, where this afternoon’s performers were from. The Moxos Ensemble, dressed in white robes with tribal trimming, entered the stage to the gentle sounds of Spanish guitar and slow, waltzing flute, almost like a march – and that is the persona they initially portrayed.

Gentle but proud, the lead sopranos hit the high notes like they were skipping across clouds – simply divine – with their hair bound in plaits and trailing with beads. Their energy carried across to the flautists and guitarists and violinists, strong and soaring, gathering momentum with every passing minute. Each note seemed to fill and light them up, and there were many shared smiles. Soprano bowed to bass and back again. Gospel turned to gothic tones that rumbled the ground, and then sprung back up out of the grass like wildflowers, the sound swaying in the wind at the vocalist's invitation.

The musicians exited for a few minutes and re-entered to flood the stage with colour – coral, mustard, magenta, purple, adorned with leaf prints. The conductor and a French translator (again no English) explained how the next section depicted the Spanish and Indigenous worlds colliding, and celebrated the holiest time of year – Easter.

The pace picked up and became joyful. The river stage was transformed into an open air cathedral through truly resonant renditions of hymns like Kyrie and Gloria in Excelsis Deo, exquisitely parlayed between the angelic sopranos and ghostly baritones. Audience members dissolved into tears. Singing paused while people wiped their eyes, and the conductor took the opportunity to discuss the school for underprivileged children Moxos funds through music sales, and how they’re making musical education accessible – no longer for the elite.

Clad in white again, the few musicians remaining on stage looked to be toning down the pace…and then floored the audience with the reappearance of the other ensemble members garbed in vibrant, dazzling Spanish dress, to a soundtrack of a deep, arresting violin. The stage became a flurry of colour and costume, so captivating as to make blinking a costly act. The musicians donned bells and masks and headdresses and began calling, cheering, whistling life, dancing around each other and ruffling their clothes like native birds. Tradition swirled around pure, unsullied joy – just incredible.

After nearly two entrancing hours, the musicians exited by floating down the concrete river snaking between the chairs, much to the pining of the audience. Teary-eyed Juan from Colombia, who’s wanted to travel to the Fes Festival after first hearing sacred music years ago, described the performance as, “ancestral, like the original thing – a sound that comes from within.” Catherine, from France, summarised their passion as “playing for God”.

DHAFER YOUSSEF 21:00 BAB AL MAKINA - Suzanna Clarke reports

The concert opened with images of the swirling cosmos projected on the walls of Bab Makina. In some contexts, this may have seemed grandiose, or clichéd, but for Tunisian oud player extraordinaire, Dhafer Youssef, and his four piece band, it perfectly encapsulated what was in store.

This was an extraordinary concert; where the fusion of the melodies created by a master musician on an ancient instrument, bouncing off the contemporary jazz played by four other excellent musicians - drummer, double bassist, pianist, and electric guitarist - became more than the sum of their parts.

The playfulness with which he and the other musicians interacted was a joy to watch. He leapt around the stage, playing extended duos with each.

Youssef has described himself as spiritual without being religious. He comes from a long line of muezzins, and learnt how to effectively use his voice from a young age. He has an unusually wide range, and can create evocative soundscapes. At times his voice sounds like the call of birds; at others the violin tones of whale song. But it’s not his voice alone - Youssef uses his body as an instrument, drumming on his chest to add to the reverberation of deep notes, or flexing his fingers to shape echoes which soar across the audience.

Many of the compositions were from his new album Diwan of Beauty and Odd - his eighth album, and were greeted by the audience with enthusiasm.

The images projected onto the walls, mainly in blues, and the laser lights reaching into the night sky and framing the half moon above, enhanced the rich sensory experience.

Youssef has said he feels a connection with Sufism, and the mesmeric, uplifting effect of his music reminded me of Sufi concerts, and seeing audience members go into trance. After almost two hours of his music, I felt like I was in a wonderful trance myself. It was one of the best concerts I have ever seen.


Jordi Savall
Tomorrow @ the Festival




Weather Forecast: 33 degrees Celsius down to 18 at night.

Credits: Lauren Crabbe, photos and text (Ensemble Moxos)
              Suzanna Clarke, text (Dhafer Youssef). Venetia Menzies, photos Dhafer Youseff


Fez Festival Fringe Event


Friday, June 22, 2018

Fez Festival of World Sacred Music - Opening Night

The Fez Festival of World Sacred music kicked off its 24th edition at Bab el Makina with its trademark opening night extravaganza and theme of 'ancestral knowledge'.
a single oud player dominated by the fluid lines of Arabic calligraphy

And if the strings of the lute should vibrate
I shall sing my song
And, with my steady voice
Tunes full of symbols and metaphors
And you, making me drink divine wine from your amphora
And candles, like a lighthouse, spreading their light
In such a fine and dreamlike atmosphere. - Ahmed Lel Grabli 16th Century weaver from Fez

Lalla Hasna

The programme elaborated on the ambitious creation, saying that "in the Arabo-Islamic tradition, aspects of handicraft know-how are originally linked to a divine or prophetic revelation, as evidence for the desire to integrate a craft to a wisdom  and to a practical and daily spirituality. The craftsman models and works on the material in the same way as the divine intellect configures the Soul in order to produce the cosmos, using shapes and colours. Therefore, the craftsman’s gesture is like a fragment of the universal action of the Soul, creator of the universe. Such creation will, thus, be a great poetic and musical evocation of the privileged relationship prevailing in the City between architecture, handicraft, brotherhoods and crafts.  Such reflections shall be  nurtured by the thoughts of the great Arab philosophers, both ancient and modern, inspired by Greek philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle." The editorial went on to say that "the most prestigious artists from Morocco and the Arab world shall highlight the traditional and modern aspects of these art crafts".

Newness was in the air at Bab Makina tonight. The walls had been re-plastered, there was a new team in charge, and for the first time the King's sister, Lalla Hasna, swept in with her entourage.

The Fes Festival theme for 2018, Ancestral Knowledge, was beautifully realised in this intelligent and well thought out production. It successfully crossed cultures and celebrated the art of making and how it is connected with the wider world and the universe beyond.

It was a welcome reminder of the original reason for the Fes Festival's existence - to bring people and cultures together; to find common ground.

The audience was guided through the production by a Shakespearean-style narrator, dressed in black, who shepherded listeners into the intoxicating strums of a sitar, which swelled into a grand symphony of Indian brass. The narrator led the audience on a journey through the history of the ancient city - a village of stone houses by the river, the growth of the urban centre; then in the 14th century, the rise of the artisan. "They gave the city its soul," he said, in French. "Working by hand was humble, yet their creations were rich, and in them was the divine." The visuals morphed from speckled constellations and feather mandalas to what looked like ancient cave paintings. The music switched nationalities from Indian to Andalusian, now earthy and primal and full of raw undulation from the two male singers.

The narrator spoke only in French and Arabic, with no English subtitles or text provided, so the linking stories tying together different nationalities under themes of craftsmanship, humility, and ancestry were lost on the Anglophone members of the audience.

However, the music and lighting worked well together – beautiful flute-like birdsong wafting through pop-up-book images of birds and the jungle fanned the crenellated walls. As quickly as they appeared, they were replaced by the cheerful, shuddering energy of the High Atlas Amazigh whose glyphs painted the surrounds like golden temporary tattoos.

The return of the Moors from Spain, and how Andalous and the Maghreb have long influenced one another was a strong theme.

Suddenly, the mood changed. The walls resonated with the rumble of a tap dance, like choreographed horses. A nimble man in blue with an impish grin busted out his swiftest flamenco dance. His body built a soundscape, from his toes to his gnashing teeth. He then challenged an elderly Moroccan man to match him. A flamenco singer, and a Maghrebi singer showed how the style of their songs were different, while sharing essential elements of rhythm and style.

Each subsequent part of the performance celebrated a specific craft. The "geometry of vertiginous tiles" was one of the most affecting. The deep and rich voice of a female singer, with long dark hair and wild eyes, called without words, and it felt as if she was transitioning time and space.

Song without words was stunning
There were visual references to astrolabes and travelling, as the world of the artisans grew ever bigger.

Other delights followed - dainty Balinese dancers to Andalous orchestral accompaniment, joined by the Rajastani drummers and dancers; a single oud player dominated by the fluid lines of Arabic calligraphy forming above him; an Amazigh group playing the gembri, with a singer whose voice could echo across mountains.

The end section of the concert led the audience back to modern Morocco, where we were overwhelmed by not only visions of roses but the dizzying musky scent of roses, wafting from the stage  - with the roses consuming the walls accompanied by a seductive violin - an aphrodisiac for what’s to come for the rest of the festival.

...and a scent of roses

Technically the production was by:
Alain Weber – Stage production and conception
Ramzi Aburedwan –  Music direction
Christophe Olivier – Lighting designer
Franck Marty and Spectaculaires – Spectacle managers and image light operators. Scenographic creation (mapping)

Tomorrow at the festival.
Dhafer Youssef



Weather: A top of 33 degrees Celsius going down to 16 at night.

Credits: Suzanna Clarke, text and photography, Lauren Crabbe, text and photography Additional text: Sandy McCutcheon


Hamid El Kasri and Snarky Puppy set the bar high in Essaouira

Hamid El Kasri and Snarky Puppy set the bar high in Essaouira. Chris Witulski reports for The View From Fez

Almost as soon as the Essaouira festival's opening parade concluded, the crowds moved toward the main stage at Moulay Hassan square where Hamid El Kasri's gnawa troupe was to play with the American jazz group Snarky Puppy.

Compared to previous festival fusions that I have seen, which ranged in quality—I remember some that felt as if jazz playing guests were improvising over a bed of gnawa sound for an hour and others, like Wayne Shorter's visit, which were memorably powerful—this performance was a clear result of the week that the musicians had spent working together.

The two groups were tight, professional, and funky. This may speak to the mallem's ʿprofessional experience and Snarky Puppy's eclectic musical productions, but whatever the reasons, it worked.

Throughout the concert, Kasri's gnawa stayed clearly in the foreground. But Snarky Puppy's role was hardly in the background. They brought colorful sounds and brilliant solos, not to mention groovy beats that fit flawlessly into gnawa music's difficult rhythms.

I was struck by fleeting moments of familiarity: I could swear that I heard a moment from Stan Kenton's big band arrangement of "The Peanut Vendor" in the middle of a song for the Muslim saint and gnawa spirit Sidi Abd al­Qadr while an electric violin solo fit beautifully the dense­ but­ light textures elsewhere.

Kasri's stage presence itself showed the fruits of the ensembles' interactions, as he moved around like a lead guitarist, to encourage and play off of soloists around the large stage.

The night continued with a reminder that the stages present a very specific view on what gnawa music is and can be. As has been the case, the Festival opens doors for those who are interested in the sound of the ritual healing ceremony that sits at the community's core. 

Essaouira was shaken in 2015 by the death of Mallem Mahmoud Gania, one of the city's most well known and respected figures. His brother Mokhtar Gania and six other celebrated mallems from the city and region carried out a ceremony at the Zawiya Sidna Bilal, one of the spaces that will continue to host "intimate concerts" through the weekend. The mallems took turns working their way through each colour, each set of spirits who possess gnawa adepts. 

The evening was a chance for members of the community (at least those who were able to enter the invite­ only event) to see each other, catch up with old friends, and listen to the playing and singing of their respected elders. Mallem Allal Soudani leading the ritual through the music for Sidi Musa and the blue spirits at the Zawiya Sidna Bilal.

Report and photos: Christopher Witulski
Christopher Witulski is an instructor of ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University and the author of The Gnawa Lions: Authenticity and Opportunity in a Moroccan Ritual Music, due out in October 2018 with Indiana University Press.