Monday, June 13, 2011

The Great Voices of Malhoun in Fez

Saturday night's free concert in a packed Bab Boujloud square was a star-studded event that brought together some of the great voices of the Malhoun. We intended to send our music reporter, Chris Witulski along to review the show, but he came up with the best excuse we have ever heard. He couldn't review for us, because he was playing in the concert! However, we twisted his arm, and here is report from "in" the performance.

Chris (front, second left) goes Malhoun bizef
About two hours before the concert we were trying to get someone to sit down and teach us the last song. In the white tent to the side of the Bab Boujloud stage, 20 or so musicians, each sporting a slightly different white jallaba and red tarboush, sat drinking coffee at the surprisingly comfortable red plastic tables. Some where warming up, some were tuning, but most were just wandering in and enjoying conversation with friends. I have been struck, over the past few months dealing with the professional musicians here in Fez, by the consistency of performers and the small, tight community that provides the backing for so much of the city's live and recorded music.

 So many of these guys (and they were all men, aside from a small number of singers) recognized me from past events, when I was carrying around a camera, yet I think that I might have blown a few minds anyhow. When I work in Fez, everyone assumes that I am Frederic Calmes (aka Yusef), a French musicians who has been fully embedded into the scene for 10 years. Yet now, there we were, Yusef and I (known as Driss) sitting next to each other!

Of course, then everyone decided that I must be Eric, the guitar-playing English teacher. Oh well. One step at a time.

I had recorded Mohammed Sousi singing each of the songs that we were to play that evening. He went through them, in order, so that I could transcribe the melodies and contribute. But then I heard everyone practicing a new one. Easy enough, malhun songs are incredibly repetitive, musically, as the point of the genre is in the texts. Musicians play the same melody over and over and over as the intensity gradually increases, leaving space for more improvisation and embellishment as the 15-20 minute song moves forward.

Finally, it bursts open into a frenzy and you simply hack away at a pitch, moving up the scale along with the singer. The result is that an hour or so in the afternoon is enough time to transcribe what you need for a 2-hour event. And it all fits on one page. But then, when you get there, up on stage in front of a packed Boujloud square, and the singer turns and calls a different tune, you're left to your own devices.

C'est la vie. This is the life of a gigging musician anywhere in the world. You fall back on your training, and most importantly, you trust your ears and the experts around you. By listening to different members of the group who happened to play the melody with little variation (the keyboardist and the saxophone player nearby me were especially clear and easy to hear), you fake it once or twice, then dig in. You lean forward, moving from the position of frightened faker hiding from the mic to one of guest performer, contributor to the sound of the malhun. Everyone plays the same melody, ornamenting it differently, so it isn't necessary to be exact, but it is necessary to be interesting. And, as is always the case, you make absolutely sure that you do not - I repeat DO NOT - play in the rests! 

This was my first time on stage during the Fez Festival of Sacred Music and, after a week of covering events from 10 feet in front, and behind a camera, it was a rewarding end to the festival experience. It felt good to be a musician, not a researcher, hack journalist, hack photographer, friend, or follower. The view from up there, it was just blackness. I went from nerves about the large stage (and the larger audience) to just doing what I do, a moment of familiar comfort in the incessantly unfamiliar world of living and researching Morocco and her music.

I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts with the folks at the View from Fez over the course of this past week, and finally I got to share some music as well. I hope there were some of you out there listening, but if not, be aware that you missed a great concert. Sousi commanded the stage, directing the group from song to song with casual, unhurried ease. He leaned in, picked soloists and songs as the audience demanded them. An anticipated pair of pieces in the style of Morocco's northern Jebli music and the Gnawa were enthusiastically received, especially when one of my favorite old men, Abd al-Haq, began to dance "as if he were Gnawi," spinning slowly and trotting back and forth, overcoming his age.

Just as the previous night's Aissawa concert was stuffed full of pure, loud sound, this was malhun for a different audience. The pensive (but excitable) middle class was there, though the addition of these new songs, alongside electric bass, guitar, and saxophone, made sure that this was not your parents' malhoun.

Photographs; Ann Witulski

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