Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fes Festival Closing Concert - June 22

This year, the Fes Festival audience were left a little deflated, reeling from all of this week’s performances but unsure how to digest an oddly put together two-part closing concert


After a slow start the stalls filled up to the brim, but luckily a warm breeze kept the audience awake and energised as they waited. For the last time the hosts entered the stage and gave a warm thank you to all the festival regulars who had attended this year.

Karen Gibson - ‘Britain’s godmother of gospel”

The Kingdom Choir, from the isles of Britain, brought buckets of energy to the stage for the first part of the final concert of Fes Festival 2019. After recently performing at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in St George's Chapel of Windsor in May, they have leaped from fame to fame.

At the wedding they performed the iconic ‘Stand by Me’, topping the US Hot Gospel charts, and bagging a record deal with Sony Music. But their roots are twenty five years prior to this. Based in London, and conducted by founder Karen Gibson, who was declared the ‘Britain’s godmother of gospel”.

Tonight the audience had the pleasure of two concerts, one gospel and one flamenco. It wasn’t clear why they had put them as a two-part concert, and the order was even more confusing.

Opening with a powerful ballad, ten women and three men walked onto the stage with confidence. The conductor Karen introduced herself and thanked Morocco for welcoming them:

“I don't know if you know the meaning of gospel but it's ‘good news’, so we hope you will feel really good. But we need to see your hands and feet… can I see you click? Can I see you clap? Can I see you stand? Can I see you tap your feet? Okay let's practise again.”

“Tonight we honour our one and only Aretha Franklin” Karen declared as they burst into song with ‘Sing a Little Prayer’. The truth is, within the first five minutes of singing, they blew every other vocalist in the festival out of the water. With a natural volcanic sound that exuded power, confidence and soul, they were unrivalled.

“We have people from England, from Italy, from India, Jamaica, Guyana. We're sorry we don't have anyone from Morocco, but tonight we have you.”

In honour of one West African singers in their ensemble they sang a traditional song. After that things got funky, and they asked everyone to take to their feet. With crisp clear and explosive vocals, the audience couldn't help but sing and dance along. The audience hadn't quite seen anything like it.

Being positive in the face of sorrow and hardship is central to the message of gospel music. Born from the suffering of slaves, and used for solace in secret, the melodies and lyrics of gospel, with flavours of jazz, blues and soul, has a unique power to uplift that no other music quite rivals.

Suddenly looking around it felt we were at a gospel church session. With the boys singing a long ‘lovely day’ and the girls repeating it over and over, the whole audience was on their feet singing.

“Thank you the Gospel Choir of Morocco” the conductor said to the audience. With hips moving as fast as hands clapping, it was hard to see how flamenco could follow this act.

After a fifteen minute hiatus the audience were in store for something very different, Spanish flamenco music led by the duo José Mercé (vocals) and Tomatito (guitar). Performing since the age of 12 in flamenco festivals, José has an incredible voice, something unique and natural. His voice erupting from his frame like a spirit being exorcised, he shakes and wobbles as he sings, throwing his hands around in spasm.

José Mercé (vocals) and Tomatito (guitar)

Tomatito, real name José Fernández Torres, is a Spanish flamenco guitarist who has accompanied many of the most famous flamenco singers such as Camarón de la Isla. Together with Jose they shifted the atmosphere completely. Joined in stage with three percussionists using only their hands, and a drummer who was banging in all sorts of places, the sound was constant and hypnotic.

For a lot of the local audience who had been enjoying every minute of the Kingdom Choir, they weren’t so appreciative of the flamenco music. A lot of Moroccans left early, leaving a good few empty rows. However those who stayed enjoyed each rhythm and best, dancing and swaying their hips for the last time this year.

José Mercé 

Disappointingly there was no finale that mixed artists as expected. The audience were left feeling as if the finale failed to deliver that ‘out with a bang’ feeling. The combination of various artists all on stage that occurred last year was unforgettable, and was a poignant end to a festival about unity. This year, however, the audience were left a little deflated, reeling from all of this week’s performances and unsure how to digest them with this oddly put together two-part closing concert.

Review and photographs: Venetia Menzies


Friday, June 21, 2019

Fes Festival - June 21

Mohammed Briouel

On the penultimate day of the Fes Festival, it has become something of a tradition to give the locals a treat with one of their favourites - the Arabo-Andalus Orchestra of Fes, directed by the renowned Mohammed Briouel. This year was no exception, but several other performances attracted visitors and gave superb performances - Venetia Menzies reports...


Ballaké Orchestra

Under the direction of the master Ballaké Sissoko, a member of the National Orchestra of Mali since the age of 13, young musicians from Bamako gathered for an afternoon of Mandika music.

Ballaké Sissoko

Ballaké’s musical talent was inherited and developed by his late father Djelimady Sissoko who was the founding director of the NOM. He specialises as a kora player, an instrument with a mysterious origin related to the Mandika tradition.

Mandika are an ethnic group spread across Mali, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Senegal and Benin. Descendent of the Mali Empire, their musical tradition holds the kora as a mythical instrument.

Tradition has it that it was first played by the supernatural spirits, the djinns. The Mali King Sundiata found a djinn playing it by a riverbed and ripped it from his hands, bringing it into the human world. A cross between a harp and a lute, the instrument is dynamic and rich, literally considered a portal to another world.

Balleké played the instrument as if second nature, helping it to live up to its reputation. After two enigmatic pieces, he left the stage. Five men dressed in shining hand-made Malian djellabiah replaced him, each with their own kora. They were different shapes and sizes, one so large it came with its own seat, and with holes in different places.

Never failing to surprise, three singers in colourful outfits entered injecting another level of joy onto the stage. Getting the audience involved with claps and cheers, they bobbed from side to side singing over the instruments. Turning to the musicians, one singer addressed them directly blessing their instruments and expertise.

Singing odes to the river and the bounties of nature, they gave us duets solos and harmonies to take us to neighbouring Mali. The eldest vocalist sang with such passion that if it wasn't for his beaming cheeky smile you'd think he was furious.

For the entire performance their director Bassaké had his eyes closed, sitting muted at the back focusing solely on his kora. With total trust in his fellow musicians, he let them slowly melt the audience into a dream.

Opera Slam Baroque
Captain Alexandre

“We walk, we walk, again and again we walk, towards the same beautiful sun”

Marc Alexandre Oho Bambe

Captain Alexandre, real name Marc Alexandre Oho Bambe, is a poet and slam artists. This evening in the medina he shared with the audience a flowing text that celebrated the human journey of being alive, with all its twists, turns and hard lessons. Spoken in French, even for those who couldn't understand, his message was translated in his embodiment of the emotions.

The setting of the performance was as evocative as the lyrics, a single spotlight shining on the slam artist aptly named Captain. With each word he personified the emotion of the song, his face expressing each sorrow, each hardship and each joy.

What was unexpected was the vocal skill and sound of his fellow performer Alain Larribet. With the ability to make noises that evade human origin, those of birds, animals and forms altogether unknown, he stunned the audience into silence.

Alain Larribet

Flitting between an Indian harmonium, flutes, percussion and using only his voice, he created a mood of reflection and awe. At the left of the slam artist was our and guitar player Christophe Isselée settings the undertone melodies of the pieces, keeping otherwise disparate components united.

An unmissable addition to the Festival, and for those lucky enough to find Dar Batha in the medina, a favourite.

The art of Muwashah from Aleppo to Fes

Literally meaning ‘to embroider’, muwashah, is a Semitic word that describes a poetic structure. With each word accentuated by the music, the structure is connected and yet free flowing. The rhythms often intensify in speed until you can feel ‘drunk’ under its spell.

Tonight Bab Makina was packed out with mainly local Moroccans, waiting for an orchestra considered the most important and oldest of Moroccan Andalusian tradition: the Arabo-Andalus Orchestra of Fes, directed by the renowned Mohammed Briouel.

The Arab-Andalusian musical tradition was preserved by the efforts of such orchestras after the fall of Granada in 1492. Bringing together traditions from both sides of the Mediterranean, and the best of both rhythms.

Another local hit, the audience knew exactly when to clap and sing in unison as if it were all rehearsed. It wasn't too long before there were foot taps that morphed into dancing. With catchy rhythms and the energy of the crowds, the enjoyment was infectious.

Switching between the vocals of the beautiful Nabyla Maan, Moroccan singer songwriter, and the blend of percussion, oud, cello and violin, they played the smash hit song “chams achya”:

“Oh sun of the evening,
I hope you do not go away with God,
I am all yours”

Nabyla Maan

It didn't stop until the clapping was deafening and the strings of the violins began to split and spray. Hypnotic projections circled behind them, designed on patterns native to Fes that decorate the medina.

A sudden break was taken, and next up was the Syrian Orchestra of Paris, directed by lead violinist Khalil Jerro. Dressed in modern black tie, they entered with more the same instruments to show their flavour of Mushawah musical tradition.

Syrian Orchestra of Paris

Aleppo was at the heart of conserving and developing this tradition throughout the centuries. Omar Sarmini entered belatedly, a famous musician known for his ability to sing the sacred songs of Sheikh Muhammad Sarmini and sang alongside the orchestra.

A Fes Festival regular, the orchestra are a big hit every year. With a similar set, it is just how the audience like it: catchy, familiar and evocative of past traditions still alive today.

Reviews and photographs: Venetia Menzies

Tomorrow at the Festival

Venue: Jardin Jnan Sbil

Venue: Dar Batha

Venue: Palais Glaoui

Venue: Bab Al Makina

Weather - Warm  sunny and 35 degrees Celsius


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Fes Festival - June 20

While Fes was buzzing about the concert by the great Youssou Ndour, there were other wonderful performances today - especially the concert by Homayoun Sakhi from Afghanistan.


Homayoun Sakhi - The art of rubab

Almost on time the concert got off to a start, with the two artists humbly entering the stage and beginning to tune their instruments. Both dressed in traditional Afghan clothes, they sat cross legged and started to play with their eyes closed.

Immediately entrancing the audience, both the sound and the vibrational energy of his instrument, Homayoun opened with a piece so effective that he even froze the photographers, who seemed to forget about their jobs and instead sat open mouthed.

Homayoun Sakhi is considered a master of the iconic lute of Afghanistan, the rubab. Born in Kabul in 1976, he later moved to the United States to Fremont in California, which is known fondly as ‘Little Kabul’. He once famously told NPR that he practices the instrument for up to eight hours a day, and his dedication has paid off well.

He was joined on stage by Siar Hashimi a talented tabla player, also from his native Afghanistan, and the chemistry between them was magnetic. Smiling, as if sharing in-jokes lost on the audience, playing their instruments to each other akin to a conversation, not a touch of nervousness was evident on stage.

Siar used both the heel of his hand and his fingers to create very complex rhythms that perfectly underscored the melody of the rubab. His eyes dashed from side to side and his eyebrows danced as he played, deep in concentration, yet fluid and loose. Eventually his hands were moving so fast I could feel empathetic pangs of carpel-tunnel syndrome emerging.

Learning the rubab from his father, Homayoun understands the importance of passing on this musical heritage, traditionally handed down through generations. In lieu of this he has set up a school in his area, populated largely by the US Afghan diaspora, where he teaches traditional music.

Not leaving the audience one minute to applaud, each piece was strung together without a beginning or an end. As the audience slowly forgot such trivialities as time and place, they were transported to a foreign land. A land where music from Afghanistan, Persia and India mounded into one, infused by centuries of trade across the infamous Silk Road.

The designs and fabrics of this route were also on stage tonight, as the performers sat atop a carpet surrounded by blankets and trinkets from these regions. Homayoun strummed, plucked and plucked his rubab, a multifaceted object known as “the lion of instruments” that was first mentioned in Persian scripts of the 7th century.

When it reached South Asia, the rubab went on to be the first instrument central to Sikhism, a personal favourite of Guru Nanak. With its eleven sympathetic strings, it has an unrivalled acoustic depth that allows the evocation of various moods and feelings.

The audience were dumbfounded at the end of the performance - had an hour and a half really passed by so quickly? A unique favourite of the festival, the audience cheered for more until the duo left the stage to take a very well deserved rest.

Review and photographs: Venetia Menzies

Tomorrow at the Festival

Venue: Jardin Jnan Sbil

Venue: Dar Batha

Venue: Palais Glaoui

Venue: Bab Al Makina

Venue: Place Boujloud