Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Flamenco at the Fes Festival

Our musicologist Chris Witulski reports on the Flamenco concert he managed to attend last night and this is followed by a report from Karl Muller on the night's other concerts.

I didn't realize how lucky I was last night to have chosen to go and see Jesús Corbacho and his Flamenco ensemble from Spain at the only covered venue in Fez, Riad Mokri. Under the sound of heavy rain, amplified by the hard plastic cover over the courtyard, the packed audience was treated to something beyond "typical" flamenco. The singer included a piano in his group, allowing the pianist space to include hints of jazz and classical stylings to float along with more standard flamenco harmonies. The long piano intros built a sense of anticipation and as soon as the guitar entered with some quick figures and flicks of the fingers across the soundboard of his instrument, the crowd reacted joyously.

Then Jesús' tension-laden and sorrowful voice entered. The concert featured a genre of Spanish Andalusian music (not to be confused with the Moroccan variety) called the saeta, devotionals to the Virgin Mary that typically occupy Holy week across the southern region of the country. The music is full of pain, emphasized by interjections of complex guitar chords or abrupt percussive syncopations. And the quality of vocal tone is striking, especially when situated in a festival that features Sufi performances. The style and technique of vocal recitation, while not identical, mirrors that of certain performers from the Sufi nights performances, perhaps one of the reasons that flamenco, a not-too-distant relative of more local genres, is a mainstay of the Sacred Music festival here in Fez.

As a note, I heard from a friend that Alèmu Aga performed between the two scheduled flamenco concerts. I was disappointed that I missed it. Then, at 11:45 I received a text that Aga was to perform again, after Corbacho's second set. I rushed out the door and arrived at Riad Mokri at 12:00. By 12:05, however, Aga's second set was done. I have a difficult time understanding how any why the administration finds this "hope you happen to be in the right place at the right time" attitude appropriate. I assume now, since Aga performed his two sets (with one being in the vicinity of 15 minutes long) he will not be rescheduled. A friend, who was luckily in the right place at the right time) described his performance as "like the eye of a hurricane." The way last played out was a shame, but I am thankful for the opportunity to have seen Corbacho's impassioned performance while I could.


Our intrepid team decided that we just had to have a report about the concerts that so many people missed, especially that of Alemu Aga, the Beguena master. Born in 1950 in Entoto, near Addis Ababa, Alemu Aga has played the Ethiopian traditional lyre Beguena since he was 12, having been trained by a famous master, Aleqa Tessama Wolde-Ammanuel, who was his neighbour and teacher at his school.

Alému Aga
Alému Aga graduated from the Addis Ababa University (in geography), he taught the Beguena at the Yared Music School until 1980. He now teaches on a voluntary basis and focuses on his researches about this instrument.

He has published numerous audiotapes and several CD's and appeared in concert worldwide. Nowadays, Alemu Aga is the most highly respected Beguena player of Ethiopia.

The View from Fez is very much in debted to one of our readers, Karl Muller, who sent this report.

After walking the labyrinth of the Medina from venue to washed-out venue, it was a relief to find comfort and song in the Riad Mokri - the quiet welcoming voice of Alému Aga accompanied by his tall harp-like instrument producing a baseline that sounds at once ancient and futuristic. The bèguèna has a rich, deep sound with an unusual resonating buzz - somewhere between the buzz distortion of an electric guitar and the twang of a jaw harp.

Alému sings his lullaby over the baseline gently and peacefully, almost whispering at times. It feels like he is a grandfather, tenderly telling stories to his captivated audience.

The following performance by Jesus Corbacho and his band was a huge contrast musically, but his songs also have a story telling quality. His passionate vibrato fills the room and resonates in every chamber of the raid, demanding the attention of the audience. The pianist introduces many of the songs with delicate, lyrical melodies that have a detectable jazz influence. And once the story is underway, the flamenco guitar and duelling clapping drives it forward, a deep drum beating out the pulse. We were even treated with some impressive flamenco dance from the percussion section in their encore, which left the audience exhilarated and amazed.

At the end of the night there was a large enough break in the rain to allow Sheikh Taha to proceed with his scheduled performance. It was a relaxing and joyful music with a call and response form reminiscent of a Hindu or a Hari Krishna mantra, though with a distinctly Arabic flavour. The Sheikh would sing out a line, improvising a melody around the chant, and the band then responded in a happy sing-song chorus. A warm, light-hearted way to end the evening.

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