Saturday, April 03, 2010

Fez Sacred Music Festival: valid criticisms?

The View from Fez looks at some criticisms of the Fes Festival - some old chestnuts and some more recent points of view.

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music was established 16 years ago by Sufi scholar Faouzi Skali as a direct response to the first Gulf War. Skali felt that world peace could be enhanced by the harmony engendered by music.

For the first festival in 1994, musicians from the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - were invited to play in Fez. Since those early years, the festival has grown to include musicians from other religions and belief systems: Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shintoism and shamans from various countries have been represented.

Is it spiritual?
One of the criticisms levelled at the festival is that some of the music is simply not 'spiritual'. While you can easily see the spirituality embodied in, for example, Christian Gospel music, can Spanish Flamenco be considered 'spiritual music'? Just because Ismael Lo is a member of the Tijania Sufi brotherhood, does this make his music 'spiritual'? And likewise in this year's programme, what's 'spiritual' about Ben Harper's music? Does his philanthropic espousal of worthy causes make his music 'spiritual'?

Aissawa Brotherhood

On a practical level, there have to be world-renowned artists at the festival to put bums on seats. Diverse performances will attract a larger crowd, festival music programming head Zineb Lemrabet said.

"During the festival, we offer a mix of musical genres to attract the largest number of people," she explained.

Lemrabet went on to say that "The spiritual essence is present in all types of music that we offer. Even rock music has that essence, as does rap - for example, the song 'Aissawa Style' by Moroccan group H-Kayne, which saw much success at the festival."

"It is also present in popular Moroccan music, as evidenced by the name of God and prayer to the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) in many of the lyrics," Lemrabet added. "For me, what shows the presence of a spiritual essence is the audience's interaction with the singer."

"The call for tolerance is found at all festival performances," she said, "and everyone must broaden their intellectual horizons to receive that call."

Is it Moroccan?

Samira Kadiri and Esperanza Fernandez

An oft-heard complaint is that few Moroccan artists are involved in the festival. The event has grown to include more international acts in recent years at the expense of Moroccan artists, according to critics.

"We have reservations as Maghreb artists with regard to the organisers' failure to take interest in Moroccan art, and we question the reason for the severe lack of Maghreb artists within the activities of a festival that is originally from Morocco," Moroccan composer Aziz Hosni said.

"We are proud there is a festival of this scale aiming to foster a culture of tolerance and religious co-existence and working to give Morocco a good image, and that many foreigners have paid to get to know the country," Hosni said.

The event may have lost its local focus with its growing success, however. The organisers have failed to involve local organisations, said Noureddine Mosaid, who serves as assistant president for the Fez-based Sabil Association.

"The festival targets the elite, and there is an absence of cultural involvement in events in the city, so we don't participate in developing its programme," he said.

Spirit of Fez President Mohamed Kabbaj defended the festival.

"If you look at the programme as a whole, we find it contains 90 percent Maghreb artists," he said. The events that lack Moroccan art, such as those at the Batha Museum and Bab el Makina venues, are private and charge an admissions fee, he said.

"The reason stems from wanting to make it more open to the cultures of different people and to not be dominated by a particular culture," Kabbaj said.

This year's festival features Moroccan Ahmed Essyad performing with the French ensemble Accroche Note on the afternoon of 7 June at the Batha Museum. There are some other artists from the Maghreb. It should be noted, too, that the majority of artists performing in the Festival in the City are Moroccan, including a number of Sufi brotherhoods.

Is it elitist?
Programming during the first few years of the festival was certainly elitist as most Moroccans couldn't - and still can't - afford a ticket to events at Bab el Makina (this year costing from Dh150-500).

However, in recent years there has been a Festival in the City running at the same time at the expensive events at the Batha Museum and Bab el Makina. Free concerts are held each day at 18h00 at Place Boujloud, at 20h00 at Ait Skato in the new city, and at 23h00 at Dar Pacha Tazi. There are also free exhibitions. This embraces the people of Fez who otherwise would not be able to enjoy the music on offer at this major event.

The Festival runs from 4-12 June.
See the programme here.


Marocjewel said...

I am sure this must have been thought of, the Edinburgh festival started as a somewhat elitist affair. Within a few years a 'fringe' festival started and has grown to be recognized as an excellent starting place for young performers, both Scottish and worldwide to meet and perform.
How about the FEZ Fringe comedy Festival?
Perhaps this suggestion could be forwarded to those understandably complaining of their exclusion.
David (marocjewel)

Nikki Thornton said...

Peace is a gift,
It is a gift we give to ourselves,
And then to each other.

pema said...

In response to Marocjewel..
Please try suggesting fresh ideas to the festival organisers and see where it gets you. I was involved with the festival for 5 years. During this time I (and others) suggested ways to take it forwards -- like a Fes Fringe. We even had a name for this -- Fassination. And The Fez Prize. They were consistently ignored. You are also probably aware that the festival is overwhelmingly francophone. Anglos (inc Americans, Australians etc) have virtually no voice. Since 2006 there has been no indigenous UK act in the music programme. There are only ever one or 2 token Brits invited to the forum. In one of the quotes in the main item I see the words "INTELLECTUAL horizons". this speaks volumes about the misunderstandings around the meaning of the word "spiritual". It has nothing to do with the intellect. Anyone who has gone even some small distance on the spiritual journey would affirm that nothing happens, no understanding arises, until you let go of intellect. If this fundamental misconception is embedded in the festival administration, it is no surprise that genuine spirituality is only present by default. There have been some sublime moments in the past. Not many, but enough to make the trip to Fes in June worthwhile. I remember soaring with Mohammed Reza Shahjarian -- and with Shiekh Haboush with the Al-Kindi Ensemble. And with an exquisite young Moroccan girl singing with the Sufis at the Dar Tazi. The 2010 programme looks promising in this respect. See you there.

Felix Zee said...

There used to be a Fringe Festival at Fez Hadara and local musicians, artists, dancers and actors all took part as well as some of the 'big names' from the main Festival. It was free and open to the public. But beautiful ideas don't last. I believe the problem always comes down to too much ego and there is always someone on the door who puffs himself up and decides who can and can't come in. The 'spiritual' tag never convinced me but the artists who performed without this pretence always shone and their personalities were the most beautiful. I think there is a yearning for something spontaneous and sincere.

pema said...

Hi Felix Zee,
If "spiritual" is a pretence then its not spiritual. Its easy to spot the posers once you have some experience of the genuine article. Most likely the performers you admire are genuine. Most genuine seekers don't flaunt it. Quite the opposite in fact. Its the ones who blather on about "intellectual horizons" who are dubious -- to put it mildly. Re Fes Hadara -- this has now morphed into a mega-posh guest house known as Riad Alkantara. The part-owner, Fettah Saffar, appears to have given up on the idea of promoting events for less-than-megaposh visitors. ....although I will always be grateful to him and Camille for organising a healing ceremony for me with Said Guissi and the Aissawa Sufi brotherhood. Four years later hamdulilah I am in fine fettle.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments Pema. There is a lot of pomposity and intellectual masturbation. However, I don't believe it is the performers who are the phoney ones but those who promote the 'spiritual tourism' of Fez. I think the comparison of what is real and what isn't is can be seen in the metaphor of the garden. It used to be a natural setting and you could hear the birds and the gentle flow of the fountains....but then came the loud speakers and the microphone in the fountain...then the swimming pool, the bar and the patio heaters?!!
Fez is beautiful but you need the quietness and stillness to hear the music...the sparrows roosting in the olive tree, swifts at dusk in the holes in the wall, the 'clacking' of the storks and...I could go on, but I won't.