Music lovers are already making plans for the 17th Fes Festival of World Sacred Music next year:
3-11 June 2011. For those who would like a taste of the festival, we are very pleased to be able to give you a sneak preview of a very fine article by Rolling Stone writer, Mark Kemp. Below is just one section of a much longer piece that will be published in the new year. Full details and a link will be provided then. In the meantime... over to Mark Kemp
AT DUSK on Saturday, the first full day of music, no one pressed against the barrier separating the stage from the crowd at Bab Boujloud Square was complaining about musical styles or the ratio of Moroccan musicians to those of other cultures. The people in the largely local audience – some 5,000 strong – were too busy furiously waving bandanas around so fast they looked like the flapping wings of hovering hummingbirds.
Dressed in a long, flowing djellaba with brown stripes and a plain white kufi skull-cap, thirty-five-year-old Moroccan star Abdellah Yaakoubi – a member of the Issawi brotherhood of Sufis – had the crowd in a frenzy. A mass of young people in their teens and twenties – eyes ablaze, jumping up and down, fists pumping in the air – nearly fell over each other thrusting themselves toward the stage. But Yaakoubi barely moved. He just walked back and forth, singing snaky, curlicue-like melodies into his microphone as percussionists seated behind him pounded away. During the most intense climaxes of his songs, Yaakoubi’s voice sounded as though it was penetrating some invisible barrier between earth and heaven.
To many fans of Sufi music, that penetration is real. “Sufism is something transcendent, from the inside to the outer space where God’s mercy is. It’s coming from the soul, from the bottom of the heart,” said Marouane Hajji, a twenty-three-year-old Sufi-singing prodigy who performed another night at the nearby Dar Tazi. He was speaking in Arabic, through an intepreter. “People are in love and in touch with with the Sufis, because they know that this is the line between them and spirituality and flying into the space.”
Like gospel singers in the U.S., a Sufi singer’s sole reason for being is to reach God through music, says Blain Auer, a Western Michigan University professor of comparative religions who lives part-time in the Fez medina and the rest in Kalamazoo. Betto and I visited him one day for a walk to some of the medina’s more notable sites: the Moulay Idriss Mausoleum; the Attarine Madrasa, a Fourteenth Century Islamic school; the tomb of Ahmad Tijani, founder of the Tijani Sufi order. We ended the afternoon over tea and conversation on the rooftop of the Nejjarine Museum, a converted inn and warehouses where merchants in prior centuries would display their goods. “The idea (in Sufism) is that there are many ways to God and each individual needs to find his own unique way,” said Auer, a lanky, thirty-one-year-old academic whose pale skin, khakis and button-down shirt make him stand out in the medina like a Jack Russell terrier in a pack of Atlas shepherds. “For some people, music is a very powerful avenue, for some people it’s poetry, and for some people it’s prayer.”
The night before, at another Sufi performance, a scruffy-haired young singer had admitted to Betto that for him, music is a more important avenue than prayer. The statement probably wouldn’t go over well among fundamentalist Christians in the part of the South where I live. Auer said it wouldn’t go over well among some Muslims, either. “There are many Muslims who would say that this is not appropriate behavior, that there is no substitute for prayer and that prayer is an obligation,” he said. But Sufism is a very different kind of Islam from the fundamentalist branches most Americans read about or see on television and in movies. Like the Christian mysticism that inspired Catholic writer Thomas Merton, Sufism is the branch of Islam in which essential questions are raised: What does it mean to be a Muslim? What does it mean to be spiritual? What does it mean to be religious? “Sufism is the space where questions of tolerance in the religious tradition are raised,” said Auer. “Like, how much orthodoxy should we adhere to and where are the boundaries that we can stretch and expand upon?”
When I talked to Ricky McKinnie of the Blind Boys of Alabama on the afternoon of the group’s final-night performance, he sounded a lot like a Sufi. Dressed in a well-pressed sky-blue suit, McKinnie said he and his band keep coming back to Fez because they don’t see themselves as any more or less enlightened than any other person or culture seeking a spiritual connection. “See, communication is the main thing,” he told me. “We need to learn to sit down and to understand that your way doesn’t necessarily have to be the right way.”
The author with his Moroccan tour guides Mohammed Barqine and Maurat Charef
MY MOROCCAN tour guide, Maurat, is laughing at me. We are driving past bountiful groves of cherry and apple trees, to the farm of one of his family members outside the village of Imouzzer-Kandar. I’m trying to ask him what his brother, whom we had just met outside an Imouzzer-Kandar cafe, does for a living. The only thing his friend Mohammed, the better English-speaker of the two, will tell me is that Maurat comes from a wealthy family. Maurat was trying to tell me something, too, but I have no idea what. And now he’s laughing. Betto, who knows just enough French to get himself in trouble, tries to help me out. “I think he’s saying ‘finance.’”
During our day-long excursion through the Moroccan countryside, Betto and I have played all kinds of communication games with our hosts. And we’ve shared our music. A panoply of songs has played through the tinny speakers of the car’s stereo system – everything from random radio songs by artists from my neck of the world (Dolly Parton and Louis Armstrong) to the Euro dance-pop of Italian diva Elisa to Maurat’s endlessly looping CD of Fez singer Said Sanhaji. Betto even brought along one his own CDs, which also got stuck on an endless loop: Ernesto Anaya’s Huapangueando, an eclectic compilation of traditional Mexican songs with modern arrangements released last year.
It is perhaps ironic that the pursuit of cultural empathy sometimes leads to cultural misunderstanding of comic proportions. Betto and I have been eager to hear Maurat and Mohammed play the traditional Moroccan music we’ve heard around Fez and to tell us what it means to them. But Mohammed, who has blended powdered hashish into his cigarettes and smoked the concoction throughout our trip, at one point turns to face Betto and me in back seat, his eyes red and wide grin revealing yellowing teeth: “I like Pink Floyd. I like Eric Clapton,” he says. “I like, um… Jim Morrison.”