Friday, June 10, 2011

Fes Festival in the City

Our music correspondant, Chris Witulski, reports on two more of the three events he attended on Thursday evening at Morocco's premier music festival. All these events were free offerings at the Fes Festival in the City.


At Boujloud, the band was ready to go. The bandleader, a violinist, started the group off before their singer arrived, warming up the thrilled audience. Pictures of Fatima Zahra La'aroussa adorned the stage, the crowd waved around glossy photos of their own (or perhaps some that were given to them before the show). Then, as she walked up the stairs behind the stage and made her way to the front, caftan glittering, her orchestra kicked it into another gear.

She is considered the "Blossoms of Tarab" here in Morocco. Tarab refers to the music of 1940s and 50s Egypt, embodied by Um Kulthoum, Abd al-Wahab, Abd al-Halim Hafez, and others. Yet her sound is distinctly grounded in the rhythms and textures of her country. The high paced, amplified violins, unabashed synthesizers, and percussion say Morocco "miya fi miya," 100%. The music would sit just as easily at a wedding or celebration as it did here at Boujloud. The dancing crowd had long since forgotten the heavy beats of Muslim, and rejoiced as if they were there, at one such family holiday.

I snuck out early during "You left and you left me" ("Mshiti w-khliti"), but not before noticing that she would take entire verses off, letting the excited crowd fill in the long lyrics. Impressive! And trusting!


The Medina Group of Russia (pictured above) was on stage at Dar Tazi when I walked in, with the Khalwatiyya Brotherhood of Meknes to take over soon afterwards. These events were an exercise in new technologies, some of which were better choices than others... The four Russian singers had this wonderfully crystalline sound, embedded with familiar harmonies and minor scales, everything that screams "Russian!" Yet for the majority of their pieces, they chose to perform with taped accompaniment, which, and I may be wrong, sounded like a computer's MIDI file, something typed in and rendered electronically instead of a recording of musicians. The result was stiff and dry. The women ventured into harmonies less often, relying on the "accompaniment" to provide some of the musical interest. The result was not far from a karaoke performance of Russian and Arabic Sufi poetry.

The Khalwatiyya Brotherhood fell into a similar trap. Perhaps this is why they were pared, the synth-Sufi night at Tazi. The instrumental melodies were long and awkward, and although two or more performers would play together (mostly the violin and Korg keyboard), they did not ornament or add rhythmic textures, as do most groups, and because of this lack of freedom with the melody, they struggled to play in unison. The keyboard player would change his sound between phrases, from the classic 70s synthesizer to a theater organ (think Phantom of the Opera) to a jazz organ (think The Doors, actually), to that 90s Michael Jackson ballad sound. It was distracting, and the real problem was what it was distracting from!

After the long introduction, the group's leader, Abdallah al-Makhtubi (pictured above), opened with two phrases of "Allahu Akbar," the words that open the call to prayer. His high tone was not strained, and he sat perfectly on the Arabic consonants, as a master reciter does. Immediately the audience oooh-ed and ahhh-ed, astounded by the sound coming from this humble-looking man, and perhaps exhausted by the instrumental work that came before him. As he continued, everything that came from his voice dripped like honey, that space of perfection in recitation that rests between strain and ease, giving the voice the color that is so identifiable in this festival.

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