Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fez Festival of World Sacred Music ~ Wrap Up

"I am happy with the festival and what we achieved gives us all hope for the future." -Faouzi Skali

The seventeenth Fez Festival of World Sacred Music 2011 (Le Festival de Fès des Musiques Sacrées du Monde) will be remembered for a number of reasons. The most important being that it saw the return of Festival Director, Faouzi Skali. Skali's return also saw the return of key staff which had a very positive effect on the running of the events.

Faouzi Skali

It was, of course, extremely important that the festival was a success, and on that score we can all relax. The Festival was one of the best. Faouzi Skali was assisted by Mila Gallozi Ulmann who was also of great assistance to visiting journalists. The View from Fez would also like to thank Mila for her work and friendship at the Festival.

Mila capturing the festival
While the festival was an undoubted success, it was not without problems. The chaos caused by the two nights of wet weather, could certainly have been handled better. That there was no contingency plan was a major problem. At a festival of this importance, to switch venues at the last moment would be acceptable if the venue was ready, if the technical people could get inside to set up and that someone actually had a key to the venue. The audience moved to the Prefecture Hall, only to find that nobody had any idea of how to get inside.

Yet the positives at the festival far outweighed these problems and with the exception of the rain confusion, events were well staged, managed and importantly, very popular. Although numbers were down on some previous years due to external events both economic and political, the venues were well patronised. The Batha Museum was used to great effect both for forums and afternoon concerts and Bab Makina, was as ever, superb.

Stunning lighting effects

A sound job ~ Steve Watson
Praise must go to the technical crews on sound and lighting. Steve Watson, who replaced Chris Ekers on the sound desk, did a fine job under at times difficult conditions, with the assistance of Eric Loots. This year, the lighting was stunning, and used with with beautiful effect on the walls of Bab Makina.

Festival security

Despite the events in Marrakech, there was little or no intrusive security. But before every single event, the security teams went through each venue.

Protocol? No problems!

Protocol officers had their work cut out with many visiting ambassadors and dignitaries. All of this was handled with great professionalism and courtesy.

Lamia Hejaj

The management of sponsors and artists is never an easy job as it is in the nature of major sponsors to request a few more seats here and there. The Fez Festival is extremely fortunate to once again have the services of Lamia Hejaj, who performed her role with grace and ease. Her friendly helpful attitude won her many more friends yet again.

Amal Ayouch (left) and Zeyba Rahman

Introductions before each concert were given this year by Zeyba Rahman (English) and Amal Ayouch (Arabic and French) They were delightfully presented and set up the context of each concert for visitors


Alain Weber
If Festival Artistic Director, Alain Weber, can be said to have a defining characteristic, it is that he always looks concerned. Yet, one wonders why. His selection of performers and his overall management of the festival deserve the highest praise. His assistant, Edith Nicol, appeared more relaxed but also did a great job.

Great stage design at Bab Makina

a memorable image from the ramparts

The opening night opera, Leyla & Majnûn, was a triumph, not simply because of the music and performances. The use of the Bab Makina stage was innovative and worked well to give a sense of grand scale to an already impressive venue. The too brief glimpse of the diminutive Chinese drummer on the ramparts was extraordinary.

Despite the problem of with wind-noise on microphones, the sound was good. It was, according to sound engineer, Steve Watson, his favourite performance.

Elena Ledda

Other stand-out concerts were numerous and appreciation is subjective. However, overwhelmingly audience members enjoyed Elena Ledda's Quintet and Polyphonic Chorus, Youssou Ndour, the Kazeem El Saher and Asmaa Lamnawar, who were a big hit with the locals. The top performances were however, the hugely successful Farid Ayyaz - an evening began with all the frenetic rhythms and rich ornamentation of qawwali by Farid Ayyaz later joined by the more staid Fez Orchestra directed by Mohammed Briouel, with sama'a. Then, finally, the amazing closing night concert with Ben Harper: an evening that everyone who was there will remember for a long time. An evening on which he wore the name of Fez on his shirt and in his heart.

Less sucessful was the Maria Bethania Concert

The Sufi Nights were as popular as ever and the free events of Festival in the City were an overwhelming success.

Julia Butros reaching out across the Celtic divide

سوف نكون جميعا بالقرب من نصيب يهتف
في اتفاق الحلو أن نشكر ربنا
لاولد عيد ميلاد لانج المتزامنة

One other "Festival Moment" needs to be acknowledged, and that was the stunning rendition of Auld Lang Syne in Arabic by Julia Butros. Her reaching out across the Celtic divide was heartfelt and a wonderful expression of the spirit of the festival.


Next year, let us have a contingency plan for bad weather
The Festival has a Twitter account. Lets use it throughout the Festival to give updates.
There was an English language brochure - it failed to appear until the end of the festival.
Give the sound engineers set up information well in advance "We learn the day before they need 52 lines when we only have 40".

How to annoy everyone


Not so much in the spirit of the festival was the winner of this year's Wooden Spoon award. The individual annoyed, patrons, photographers, video operators and musicians by wandering around on stage during a performance. Fortunately he did get the message and it was a one-off event


We caught up with Willem Heuves, a visitor from the Netherlands, and he was happy to share his thoughts on the Festival "We enjoyed our stay enormously. Both the Medina (we also visited the Mellah) as well as the festival, were wonderful. We enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and were pleased also to attend the Forums, with sometimes (indeed not always) very interesting discussions."

Willem describes himself as "a musical omnivore", so we asked what had impressed him. "Elena Ledda is absolutley one of my favorites, as are the Pakistanis. I was also impressed by the Wajd trio (Nazia Meftah) and the baroque from Paraquay, the Tetouan brotherhood, but I think my favorite was the persian singer Salar Aghili. Actually I I enjoyed most of the concerts. The only concert I did not appreciate very much was the Urbain Phileas, which lacked, IMHO, any authenticity."


By Anne Graaff. Anne is a South African artist and writer living in Paris. She is perhaps best known for her work on the outsider artist Helen Martins of The Owl House, Nieu Bethesda, in the Karoo, Eastern Cape. Ann is a festival regular and kindly contributed her reflections on the festival and particularly the festival art.

The Batha Museum is a favourite venue for concerts at the annual Sacred Music Festival. The venue brings people together in a setting that is both beautiful and intimate. The musicians play under the spreading canopy of an ancient and vast tree. It is one of those trees that, one imagines, belongs to the realm of magical trees, of soul trees. Its vast and protective arms seem perceptively to have flourished on a diet of countless sacred concerts over the years. The lush courtyard garden of the Batha palace, with its arcaded Fassi splendour, spreads out behind the players and the impressive old tree. In front of the musicians are lush carpets for those who want to lie on an elbow in an adopted Oriental fashion or simply sit in the lotus position of meditative entrancement. Then there are rows of chairs for the more conventional at heart. The chairs form a semi-circle of intimacy.

It is this linking of musicians and audience and the life of the garden that is so marvellous here. Watching the musicians play and sing on Wednesday afternoon I was struck anew by the collaborative enterprise of music. Everybody has their part to play, even the listening audience. The musicians must know when to come in and when to make space for others. There is the moment when the rattle of the tambourine is the perfect texture and the moment when the rich voice of the vocalist must soulfully fade out. Then there is the moment when the power and perfect musical expression of the piece derives from the union of all.

Urbain Phileas

It seemed to me on Wednesday afternoon that the collaborative enterprise of music is a metaphor that our current world hungers after. The concert was Urbain Phileas performing (pictured above). Perhaps this collaborative side of music making became clear on Wednesday afternoon because the audience was permitted, indeed solicited and urged to join in. It was simply some clapping to the rhythmic beat, some easy vocalising and the opportunity for exuberant jiving for those who chose to swing their hips and sway the arms. The enthusiasm with which this was enacted was almost ecstatic. In there somewhere, it seemed, was a hunger for the expression of oneness beyond cultural and personal divide. The group that was playing was from the island of Reunion. The audience was from around the world.

The Fes Sacred Music Festival attracts visitors from all corners of the globe. Not all the music fits a tight definition of the term sacred, with its connotations of spiritual practice and purpose. But on Wednesday afternoon I was struck by this broader idea of the sacred: – the connection of one with one, of group with group, of country with country, sacred as the idea that humanity is one. Music is a great metaphor for this idea, that it is possible to share across the culturally constructed chasms and to participate sensitively in a grander scheme of things – even if one is simply the humble tambourine player with a single moment to rattle the bells before the song dies down. And on Wednesday afternoon I saw the hunger of an audience to get in on the act, and like the stage musicians, participate in the making of music, and simultaneously participate in the culture of the other. The seventeenth Fes Sacred Music Festival is nearly at an end but the idea that the traditions of the world can meet through music, art and culture is ongoing.


Alongside the touted musical events, the variety of visual art on display at the time of the Festival, is worth taking in. This part of the Festival is more local than the music, with few invited international guests. It would be nice to see this grow and become as exciting and international as the music events. Nevertheless much of the artwork gave intriguing glimpses into the minds, hearts and methods of Moroccan artists.


There are tender glimpses of weathered faces at the Batha Museum and some striking images of Moroccan life – a baby being circumcised, for example. A series of paintings at the Batha Museum, in the group exhibition, La sagesse des proverbs, shows a number of Moroccan painters using surprisingly fluid and vivacious brushwork, like the mangy dog, captured on paper through a wonderfully loose and energetic flutter of marks.

Louise Cara Les Musiens

Then there is the art work at Dar Tazi. Paintings and drawings by Louise Cara aptly depict the musicians of Fes and some painterly and atmospheric renditions of landscapes. Also at Dar Tazi were the subtle and enigmatic photos of Omar Chennafi – a photographer with a fine eye for detail. One striking image was simply of hands emerging from garments.

At the Orientalist Art Gallery in the Ville Nouvelle there were some fairly conventional painted glimpses of Medina life by Mohamed Krich, but again rendered with commendable verve and expression.

Abdelhay Demnati and Anne Graaff

Another artist on display here is Abdelhay Demnati. His carefully rendered images of traditional life are each enclosed in elaborate and beautifully painted geometric borders, in the tradition of old illuminated manuscripts. The intricate and complex geometries of the borders are a fascinating and appropriately precious surround for the little theatre-like illustrations of daily life that they frame. The work is beautiful.

There are some Western artists on the circuit not to be missed. The photography of Paul Biehn at the Jardin des Biehn is certainly worth a visit. A series exploring the relationship between man and nature shows faces enigmatically emerging out of, and disappearing back into the bark of tree-trucks. This is a pertinent theme for the photographer to adopt. We currently inhabit a world where the destruction, that mankind has been capable of inflicting on nature, is propelling us all to reconsider new relationships between man and the natural world (if only to survive on this planet!). These mysterious and current ‘Green Man’ images are a powerful reminder of our inextricable links to the life of nature.

Gorgeous necklaces by Jess Stephens

One Western artist neatly and nicely combines the best of Morocco and Europe in her vibrant work. She is jewellery maker Jess Stephens, exhibiting her work at Bedouin Bon Bon, the Fes festival’s first ‘pop-up’ gallery. Her exuberant and gorgeous necklaces, bracelets and earrings are at her gallery on the Talaa Kabira, a small shop that she has rented only for the duration of the Festival.

Jess's exciting little gallery is choc-block filled with designer jewellery pieces that have both the whiff-on-the-wind of the wild Bedouin woman of the near Atlas hills and the complexity and colour sensibility of the a Camden art graduate. There is a special end-of-festival sale on the go. And if teapots can become chandeliers, jellaba buttons can be bracelets. There is a wonderful inventiveness and re-use of some traditional items of Moroccan garb. In the collaborative spirit of the Festival, the adornments bring together Orient and Occident, the world of here and the world of there. And like the sense of oneness and community elicited by some of the music, these delicious trinkets create a hunger for the coming together of cultures. They embody the exciting frisson that can occur when different world traditions rub together. This then, the coming together of cultures, is at the heart of this year’s sacred experience at the seventeenth festival of music in Fes.



But the final word goes to Faouzi Skali who told The View From Fez...

"I am happy with the festival and what we achieved gives us all hope for the future."

Words and photographs: Sandy McCutcheon.
Art and photography story and pics - Anne Graaff
Click images to enlarge

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