Peter Culshaw is a Fez Festival veteran and much respected music journalist. This year Peter Culshaw recorded his thoughts about the Fez festival of World Sacred Music on The Arts Desk - a highly regarded online arts site. With his permission, we reprint an edited version of his article. (A link to the complete article is at the bottom of the story.)
The Festival and the Moroccan Spring
Written by Peter Culshaw
Strange portents – the weather is always dry and baking hot this time of year in Fes. This time it was like winter, with lashing rain and thunder for the first few days of the Fes Festival. But then things are strange in general here; events are moving fast throughout the Maghreb. The first day I was there saw a demonstration of thousands in Rabat, and a smaller one in Fes. By the last day a new constitution had been posted online, with the King renouncing some of his powers. The energy in the city seems slightly giddy with expectation and a certain optimism.
Fes was always a fascinating city, but just as Morocco itself is at a central point between the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, Fes itself is the centre and heart of Morocco, one of the three great spiritual cities of Islam, with a university started three centuries before Oxford, by a woman. So is it really changing?
The Festival of World Sacred Music, to give it its full title, is now in its 17th year, and was set up initially as a response to the first Gulf War. The idea of music being performed by musicians of different faiths in an Islamic country was a powerful one as a symbol of tolerance, and even more so since 9/11.
A strong part of the festival is the Fes Forum, a colloquium which tended to be rather nebulous and well-meaning for more pragmatic Anglo-Saxon tastes but still valuable (one of the main benefits is the connections made in the down time). This time it was dealing with some grittier matters like corruption and the Arab Spring. Nothing overly controversial was said – but at least such subjects were being discussed. At the Forum I met two members of Transparency Morocco – an anti-corruption outfit still taking baby steps, raising awareness of the issue and lobbying for the rights of whistle-blowers. No bad guys have been arrested yet. But at least it is a start.
Fes still is a religious powerhouse with the city the centre of some of the biggest Sufi brotherhoods in the world – such as Tijani who have millions of followers in many countries. I met Ibrahim Tijani, the grandson of the Sheikh (the leader of the Tijanis), who runs the internet part of the operation. He’s one of the super-bright Moroccans who are likely to end up in leadership positions as Morocco pivots into the future.
|Peter Culshaw with Ibrahim Tijani - photo Daily Telegraph|
Youssou N’Dour is one of the followers of the Tijani, who are particularly popular in his native Senegal. When the programme describes him as “a veritable icon of west African music”, they do not exaggerate. Now 51, Youssou’s music is fabulously grown-up and mature these days rather than the eternal adolescence of most long-established rock bands.Youssou does rock, but also takes us on a journey as a kind of musical magus. I’ve never heard him and his band, the Super Etoiles de Dakar, in such yearning, bluesy form. The trip takes us from despair to joy, lifted up by his impeccable musicians and, if things got a bit slow, some amazing acrobatics (although not from Youssou who is a bit long in the tooth for somersaults). He also did a couple of numbers from his more spiritual album Egypt, an innovative and beautiful recording he debuted here in Fes with an Egyptian orchestra in 2004 – one of the most memorable concerts of the last decade. Youssou’s voice remains, as I called it the last time he was in London, one of the seven wonders of the world.
One of the great things about Fes is the showcasing of stars in other parts of the world that are not known much in the Anglo-Saxon world - such as Abd Al Malik, a “rappeur, slammeur and compositeur” who lived in Brazzaville, Congo and who is now a big figure in France. Unlike most rappers, he surrounds himself with a great band of jazzy musicians and his lyrics reflect the fact that he is a follower of the Boutchichiyya, an important Sufi group, also with millions of followers with its HQ in the east of Morocco – in other words, no songs about guns and bitches.
The biggest star of the week, though, was Kadem Al-Sahir, an Iraqi heart-throb who had scalpers wanting large amounts of dirhams for tickets. Le tout Fes turned up in their finery, men in suits and women glammed up in dresses and high-heels. With a swooning orchestra under the moon outside the gates of the King’s Palace at the Bab Makina (and an old weapons armoury on the other side), he thrilled the crowd. He told me that he would sprinkle his set with a few spiritual numbers as he was in Fes, which he did, but the fans wanted to hear songs like "The School of Love".
Born in northern Iraq, Al-Sahir dismayed his parents when at the age of 12 he sold his bicycle and bought a guitar, saying he wanted to pursue the precarious career of a musician. He studied hard and was accepted for the prestigious Baghdad Music Academy after being in a rock band: "I had long hair and listened to The Beatles as well as Arabic music and composers like Beethoven." Drafted into the army at 21, he remained in Baghdad, although his best friend and many others he knew perished in the war with Iran.
Generally, although, for musical enlightenment the biggest treasures were smaller events like the showing of Franz Osten’s extraordinary classic silent movie from 1929, The Light of Asia, about the life of the Buddha, accompanied by a wonderful group of Muslim and Hindi musicians from Rajasthan.
There’s also a magical underground in Fes, as in the rest of Morocco. One night a Moroccan kept me up late with stories which sounded as though they came from One Thousand and One Nights. An educated, modern guy living in Casablanca, he said he had no time for the old superstitions. Then his uncle began displaying strange symptoms: his eyes were staring and he spoke in a different voice. Being modern, they thought he had some neurological illness. But then he began to say he was possessed by a genie (or d'jinn as they say in these parts) that was able to live in two humans and that his story would be proved if he went to Larache, on the coast. His son decided to go. Walking along the quayside a legless sailor beckoned to him and said, “I am the genie who is also living in your father.”
What Fes has is a striking balance of the ancient and the modern. The Medina, where the so-called New Town dates from the 13th century, doesn’t give up its secrets easily. It's next to the French colonial Ville Nouvelle. (Ben Harper, who headlined the last night on Sunday with his gospel-tinged music, said that he was embarrassed to admit that this was his first visit to Africa and after a 10km walk in the Medina his life would never be the same again). Faouzi Skali talks of "the nostalgia of Andalusia" in Fes, a more or less accurate image of a golden age where Islam was at the forefront of science and where different faiths lived more or less harmoniously. When the Muslims and Jews were ejected many came to Fes. The hope is for a 21st-century Andalusia, for a birth that is not violent, for a transformation into a modern society, with more democracy and less corruption, but keeping the best of the ancient culture and not as materialist as the West. There remain huge problems, notably the level of youth unemployment, but there is that precious commodity of hope. There’s no doubt that the Fes Festival, as well as being the most consistently high-quality world music festival anywhere, has had a role in opening things up.
To read the full version go to the Arts Desk: The Festival and the Moroccan Spring
Peter Culshaw contributed to the (late) Observer Music Monthly, and continues to do so to the Daily Telegraph as well as a diverse range of publications including Rolling Stone, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the Sowetan and Island Life (Sri Lanka). He has broadcast for BBC Radio 3 and the World Service and produced compilation records and recorded with musicians including members of the Buena Vista Social Club and Indian playback superstar Asha Bhosle. He holds a master’s degree in Anthropology from University College, London.
You will find The View from Fez wrap up of the Festival HERE