Thursday, June 09, 2011

Youssou Ndour enchants at Fes Festival

Youssou Ndour is no stranger to the Fes Festival, nor indeed to the city itself. He is a member of the Tijani Sufi Brotherhood whose saint Ahmed Tijani is buried near Attarine in the medina. The concert at Bab al Makina this evening was dedicated to this founder of the tariqa which has spread across West Africa as well as to Syria, Indonesia, Europe and North America.

and there was an acrobat!

Along with his eight piece band, the Super Etoile of Dakar, Ndour provided a scintillating concert that soon had the audience on its feet. At first deterred by over-zealous security guards, the public was encouraged by the Senegalese star and then by the Festival Director, Faouzi Skali, to dance in front of the stage and in the stands - it was simply irresistable.

But the Senegalese were not the only ones on the stage. Ndour invited a brilliant young sama'a singer (pictured above) from the Fez Tijaniyya (whose name, we have to admit, we don't know) to join him, and this was followed by four older members of the brotherhood, including master Haj Mohamed Bennis (pictured second from left, below).

Our musicologist correspondant, Chris Witulski, continues with his take on the Youssou Ndour concert:

With the boppy guitar picking around between songs, palm muted to sound like an ngoni, a West African instrument that looks like a small Gnawa ginbri, some in the crowd erupted in excitement. They could hear one of Youssou's old hits, "Birima," in the guitarist's wanderings. Whenever I listen to it, it stays in my head for days, it's just one of those perfectly bouncy pop hooks that lodges itself in there, in all the best of ways. It is also an example of more traditional styles of praise singing from Francophone West Africa (primarily Mali, Senegal, Guinea). The singer (Youssou) highlights the bravery, valiance, generosity, lineage, and anything else he can improvise about his wealthy patron, comparing him Birima, a Senegalese military hero. There's an easy to find music video on YouTube that emphasizes these connections as Youssou and his band follow their benefactor down the street, offering him praises. Meanwhile, the gracious man smiles upon them and occasionally gives them money (at one point, stuffing a bill into an instrumentalist's mouth while he plays a solo).

This song, although sythned-up for a popular music audience, maintains the importance of these economic connections in much of the region's music. These patron relationships, although much changed after French colonialism shifted the social climate and hierarchies, continue. Praise singers (griots in French) record tapes or CDs of praise for individuals, sending them away via post in hopes for some monetary return, and even moreso, at performances (public or private), praise is still exchanged for money.

Last night, for the final song, Youssou invited Mustapha Baye on stage, calling him "the Prophet's griot." Instead of singing for individuals, Baye often adjusts his improvised texts to address the prophet Mohammed, the ultimate patron within Islam. He walked out with an air of dignity, heightened by his flowing bazin robe, bunched at the shoulders as if he were the wealthy patron turning his attention and thanks to his spiritual leader and inspiration.

Then he sang, and suddenly Ndour's band's grooves fell away, settling into a simple supporting role for Baye's lavish words. Tradition reclaimed the space as, early on, a man walked up from the audience, approached the stage, passed the security guards, and gave Baye 200dh. Baye continued singing (he probably responded with a few phrases about the man's generosity and lineage, but frankly, I don't know Wolof!), and held the bill in his hand for the duration of the song. With assistance, he descended to the front of the stage, the crowds pushed forward creating a circle around him, and more money (and more praise) changed hands feverishly. I believe I saw Faouzi Skali, the festival director, get up and pass over a bill... After a few minutes of staying out of the way on stage, Youssou hopped down and the two danced together. Meanwhile, surprisingly, the lyrics shifted from praising the Prophet Mohammed to singing the virtues of King Mohammed VI of Morocco! The main patron of this festival (you see the statement of his financial assistance atop every poster), they could find no one more worthy of their songs.

Mustapha Baye on stage - cash in hand!

Altogether this was a very satisfying concert from the master of West African music - Ndour closed out the performance memorably.

Click images to enlarge

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