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.


Essaouira Gnaoua Festival Opening

Chris Witulski reports for The View From Fez.  Essaouira's Gnaoua Festival began its 21st edition as it always does, with a procession. Mirroring the opening of a ritual evening, musicians played quraqeb (iron castanets) and the tbal (large drums) while walking down the medina's largest avenue.
In doing so, they invited an entire city—an entire country and world, if you look around to see how many come from afar to be here for the festival—into a busy weekend of concerts, demonstrations, and workshops. 

Crowds climbed up onto rooftops to prepare for the coming parade.Unlike a procession that opens a ritual, however, this parade included waves of gnaoua groups and other ensembles who will be performing this weekend.

One after the other, the groups and their leaders (surrounded, of course, by onlookers, cameras, and children) made their way down the wide avenue. The celebratory energy was palpable as musicians and fans alike danced their excitement.

The 21st Essaouira festival has begun.This event is not just for the gnaoua Aside from the many groups coming to Essaouira to participate in fusion project with ritual leaders (mallems), festival organisers invited Sufiʿbrotherhoods like the Issawa and Hamadsha and other regional groups including the Ahwach de Haha. They each processed with the the gnaoua and will perform on Friday and Saturday in large open air spaces around the city. 

Essaouira's Issawa process, playing loudly and even throwing a large incense burner from hand to hand, determined not to be outdone by the acrobatics of the gnaoua. The Hamadsha of Essaouira make their way down the parade route while playing large guwwal drums.

It has been five or six years since I've been at this festival. One of the most visible changes I see is the ubiquitous presence of cell phones and selfie sticks, even among the musicians. Everyone is memorialising (and sharing) their experiences!

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.
Photo and story credit 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.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fes Festival Preview Concert - Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai gave a Fes Festival preview concert on Thursday, June 21, at the beautiful Riad Le Jardin des Biehn. Lauren Crabbe reports for The View From Fez

The setting was befitting of a master Robab (a traditional lute-instrument of Afghanistan) player, with cushions and rugs drawing an intimate crowd closer to the earth. The predominantly French audience was boosted by the arrival of an Australian tour group. They were entranced. The musician’s wise eyes and grandfather beard endeared me to him instantly and I was eager for him to play, though he seemed content to perch off to the side, pensively still. As Daud Khan began to play, a crisp breeze blew through the venue and a calming quiver found my heart.

Stirring the strings, he conjured notes that hopped and skipped and jumped, like the laughter of children running down a hill. A dizzying ebb and flow, moving through his fingers and swaying his entire upper body, warm as Norwegian wood or cradling the nape of a lovers’s neck. I heard golden sunbeams on soft carpet, weathered hands clasping, and the slight mourning of the heart when it realises it’s too cheerful. The sound of happy-sad.

His music appeared to be plucked straight out of enduring love, to the extent where I couldn’t tell if he was improvising or not. The performance was honest and heartening in a way that transcended context. His audience was serene and peaceful, and I craved the space to lie back with closed eyes in a bundle of fabric. A beautiful prelude to the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music.

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai
Daud Khan, was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1955. He studied Robab with Ustad Muhammad Umar, who was the most famous Robab interpreter of the classical style as well as the traditional folklore style in his country.

The knowledge about building as well as playing the Robab has become rare, and only a few artists still keep the tradition of the classical robab-style which was mainly represented by Ustad Muhammad Umar in Kabul. Daud Khan is trying to preserve this authentic style of his master’s school.

Daud Khan has studied the North-Indian instrument Sarod, which is a descendent instrument of the Robab, with the great Sarod Maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan in India.

He will be performing in the Fes Festival with Jordi Savall on Jun 24th at Bab al Makina.