Monday, June 06, 2011

Malhun Music at the Fez Sacred Music Festival

The View from Fez's resident musicologist has been out and about in the Fez Medina searching out the talent appearing at the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music. Today he had the chance to sit down with Mohammed Sousi, who, on Wednesday, will be hosting a performance of malhun at Bab Boujloud. Chris Witulski explains :

Mohammed Sousi

In brief, malhun is a sung poetry that rests somewhere between Moroccan folk and classical musics. It uses a large orchestra, typically including 3 violins, 'ud, suissen (a small stringed instrument), cello and/or bass, keyboard, and two dedicated percussionists. Furthermore, the many vocalists often pick up small clay drums during the course of each song, pounding out complex overlapping and interlocking rhythms.

This Wednesday, four or five different munshidin (reciters, or singers) will each perform one piece of the malhun repertory. Most of what they sing will sound familiar to the audience, and despite the length of the 20-minute songs, many in the crowd will recite along, out loud. The refrains ("harba") are famous and the genre enjoys a wide appeal across generations and social classes. The poems are sung in a linguistic register that is, while specific for poetry, dependent on Moroccan Arabic and, as such, it is a specifically national genre.

In Sousi's words, the texts are "words of the Moroccans that measure their nature, their culture, how how they speak. The melodies, all of them, are from the zawiya (Sufi lodge, place of repose) of the 'sama'a' and 'mdih.'" He is referring to the explicit connection between this popular genre and the ecstatic poetry for which Sufism is so well known. Further, this relationship is heightened here in Fez, and the practitioners of malhun go out of their way to draw sonic, textual, and spiritual connections between their spiritual and entertainment lives.

He continues, "Those that are beautiful speak to the subjects of love: love of God, of the Prophet, of parents, of one's wife, of nature, and of drink." When pressed... "The drink of both God and man." Like much of popular culture around the world, malhun occupies that space between spiritual ideals and everyday life, the struggle to live as both servant of God and man in the world.

The audience on Wednesday night will hear two new types of poems. While there are a handful of poets still writing, they often recycle old musical settings saying simply, "Play this one like that other big hit," and proceeding to sing new words. At Boujloud, however, Sousi will present one poem in the style of northern "Jebli" musicians, and what will be even more exciting for the young crowd, I'm sure, he will be fusing a new poem with the musical style of Morocco's Gnawa musicians.

I asked about the other poetry that he will present, and he described how it's from the classic tradition, the loved "oldies." Will everyone be singing along with him? "We hope!"

"An Evening of Malhun" will be presented by Mohammed Sousi and his Orchestra at the Bab Boujloud stage, 10:00pm on Wednesday. There is no charge for admission.

Photos Chris Witulski
Click images to enlarge

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