Saturday, June 11, 2011

Aissawa Sufis party at Bab Boujloud

Our music correspondant, Chris Witulski, was at the Festival in the City Aissawa performance at Bab Boujloud on Friday night. Here's his report:

When I walked backstage before last night's Aissawa performance, I could immediately tell that, as I had guessed, this would be a party. A number of small clusters of performers, dressed in their iconic carpet-like red and white striped djellabas sat at small plastic tables, sipping cups of coffee. A typical troupe is 10 or so individuals, but this was obviously going to be scaled up, an effort to relentlessly pound the audience with sound. And that's exactly what they did.

The eight muqaddams, each typically leading their own group, traded lyrics while sitting in front of a veritable wall of musicians. The second row, seated and hidden a bit from view, contained a number of 'ud (fretless relative of the guitar), bendir (large frame drum), ghaita (oboe relative), qraqeb (iron castanets borrowed from the Gnawa), and small clay drum players. This massive funky upbeat and off-beat rhythmic bed of sound, though, was nothing compared to the 21 - yes 21 - standing chanters in the back. They held six large colorful banners, framing the stage, and six long trumpets (longer than the performers were tall) that, when they punctuated the intensity of the performance, literally pushed you backward a step - their syncopated single-pitch blasts effectively thwopping the listeners, creating the true experience of feeling sound.

Abdullah Yaqoubi
While Abd ar-Rahim Amrani, a local Hamadsha muqaddam (another Sufi brotherhood here in Fez) directed, at times conducting the lines of people behind him, Abdullah Yaqoubi and the other seven muqaddams sang a litany of well-known melodies. Often it felt as if it was they who were singing along with the audience, not the other way around. This was popular Sufism in Morocco. It was epic in scope, Wagnerian Sufism, if you will.


After the onslaught, and seeking some reprieve, I escaped to Dar Tazi. I found that, well, I was exhausted in mind, body, and ears. The Wazzaniyya Brotherhood of Fez, though, gave the peace that I needed. I only stayed for a moment (the drain of the previous onslaught won out), but it seemed that, after almost a week of trying, the Sufi nights had found their sweet spot. The group's instrumentalists played beautifully, connecting chants with creative and meditative melodies, and there was no distraction from the heart of the performance - the texts. Perhaps I'm being unfairly nostalgic, but this is what I remember from the Sufi Nights of past festivals, this balanced and pensive sound is what gives the festival its power, and more so, its purpose.

Photos Chris Witulski - click images to enlarge

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