Selling out the Bab Makina venue at the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music is a big ask. The venue is huge. But the secret appears to be to programme a concert that will attract the locals. Thousands turned out last night and every ticket sold. The View from Fez sent freelance writer Josslyn Luckett on a mission to capture the atmosphere. Here is her report and her photographs.
All week long I've crammed inboxes of friends and family back in the States with photos of the breathtakingly beautiful Bab Makina; still I've wondered who or what it would take to fill up the World Sacred Music Festival's premier venue. Now I know. Saturday night's double bill of Moroccan pop singer Asmaa Lmnawar and legendary Iraqi balladeer, Kazem el Saher was standing room only. The area to either side of the stage that previously had been sprinkled with camera operators was jammed six to seven rows thick with cheering fans…and yes, many of those fans were festival workers themselves. I happened to sit next to the wife and four children of one of the employees I've seen working round the clock all week. (And forgive the private detail but this man's wife was nursing their infant while waving her free hand in time to Saher's greatest hits—that's devotion!)
Not only was the crowd size different than the concerts I've seen all week, the crowd's make-up was different too, easily 95% Moroccan. For the pricey Bab Makina concerts this was quite a shift and such a welcome one. While I have enjoyed a Fes Fest filled with a radiant and eclectic international mix of music lovers, I've felt the palpable absence of locals at the Bab Makina and Musée Batha concerts. Tonight I experienced a whole new Fez. Rows filled with men and women aged eight weeks to 88 who seemed to know every lyric of every song both singers performed. The women, yes, the grandmas and the babies were screaming particularly loudly for the dashing Saher. I don't know the Arabic for "That Brother is Fine" but that's what we'd be saying where I come from. Mr. Saher was as elegant as he could be, dressed in all black (more George Clooney than Johnny Cash). Ms. Lmnawar was sparkling in her red, gold and black gown…though I must say there was quite a rumble amongst the women seated around me about her belly. They confirmed for me that the singer is pregnant, though they weren't sure who the father was. As gossipy as this sounds, I include this because I really want to capture the different scene at this show. Love was in the air and as far as I could tell, not so much the sacred, high-mosque/high-temple/high-church kind of love, this was something much more romantic. It seemed everytime I'd ask my seat partners to describe the content of the songs, they'd sigh, dreamy-eyed: "l'amour!"
Ms. Lmnawar, who opened the show with Aziz Lachhab skillfully conducting the grand Orchestra of Fez, presented a warm, bubbly set of clearly beloved tunes. Her enormous smile and tenderness with the audience made me nostalgic for Tejano pop legend Selena. When she joined Mr. Saher for just one tune, their distinct styles became clearer to me. She is much more bouncy, hair flipping, playful, and he is much more still, classic, both hands grabbing the microphone stand almost as if to contain the power of his "amour"-filled lullabies and swooning tales of yearning.
Mr. Saher seems aware of his affect on the crowd, but never takes it for granted. He passionately delivered each lyric, often with eyes closed, consistently turning to Maestro and the musicians of the orchestra with deep appreciation for their creative collaboration.
The entire show went for over three hours, again a first for Bab Makina this festival, Mr. Saher triumphantly crooned his last lines about 11:45pm. Though I saw a few teary, punch drunk babies carried off to a jammed packed parking lot and long taxi queues, there was a remarkable amount of energy in the eyes and strides of the profoundly satisfied fans of these pop stars of the Arab world. You ask me, it might as well be spring.
Josslyn Luckett is a freelance writer from Los Angeles, California, and this is her first trip to Fez. She is currently completing her Masters of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School with a focus on sacred jazz and interfaith dialogue. Please visit her blog: jazzhallelujah.wordpress.com