Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fes Festival of World Sacred Music 2012 - The Wrap

This year's Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, was, by any standards, a success. The programming was more balanced than in previous years, with notable highlights and few disappointments. The festival theme Re-enchanting the World was a bold one. Did it succeed? The team from The View from Fez reports.
Tony Gatlif and Alain Weber (right) the Festival's Artistic Director

The opening night Tribute to Omar Khayyâm, directed by Tony Gatlif, took the audience on a journey across East, West and Central Asia to Iran and Egypt. Its presentation was flawless and the audience responded warmly. The entire ensemble sat in a semi-circle across the stage and from their ranks singers emerged to add their voices to the, at times, delicate percussion and instrumental performances.

At times, the production was too static and much more could have been done with the vast space available. However, the small chandeliers and the hooped cone draped in white fabric centre-stage added a light theatrical touch and lead to the most arresting image of the night when a whirling dervish performed beneath it. It was extremely effective. (See our review here)

Amina Myers in full flight

Archie Shepp was, as expected, a huge hit with the crowd. The added bonus was the performance of singer Amina Myers, whose soulful voice complimented Shepp’s more gravelly tones. To hear the two of them trading riffs on a sumptuous extended version of Motherless Child was exquisite. (See our review here)

Archie Shepp

The concert of Sama'a was another festival winner. Katherine Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University writing in the Huffington Post commented, "The evening of Sama'a music Sunday night was a pivotal moment for the 18th annual Festival of Global Sacred Music in the magical city of Fes, Morocco. The festival's goal is both noble and ambitious: through the diversity and the power of music from different spiritual traditions to loosen prejudices and open hearts and minds, and thus to ease tensions and conflicts. It has a still more audacious goal: to inspire ways a movement that will "give globalisation a soul" by bringing spirituality into the technocratic and too often sterile discussions of world affairs. Instead of a clash of civilisations the Festival, and Morocco, aspire to a harmony, a music of civilisations."

Sama'a - at the heart of the festival

Marshall went on to note that, "Faouzi Skali, the Festival's inspirer and director, describes the Sama'a tradition as one of the purest forms of prayer and worship in any faith traditions. It is a popular Moroccan and Maghrebian practice, and draws on elements from Arab music and poetry and from the flare of Andalusian style. He points to it as an expression of the Sufi traditions that are a large and vital part of Islam, though they are quite poorly understood in many quarters. Skali, an anthropologist and proud Sufi, argues that the Sufi traditions are truly the heart of Islam, the broader tendency, something to nurture and to celebrate. The Sama'a concert performed in Fes, Skali says, would never be heard in the parts of the Muslim world where the religious atmosphere is more severe. The Sama'a conveys a sense of joy and energy. It is open and driven by love of God, and respect and caring for humankind." (See our review here)

The most contentious programming this year was the inclusion of Icelandic singer Bjork. Her performance had been in doubt due to a throat condition, but on the night, she was in good form.

There is no doubt that the concert divided the audience. Few were indifferent, the fans loved it and the critics did not. Bjork's style made it difficult for her to develop a rapport with the audience until late in the concert, but when she did she received a tumultuous reception. It was a bold step and ultimately one that paid off. (See our review here)

Without doubt the most successful concert this year was unexpected. Joan Baez was always going to be a safe choice but there were those who doubted the wisdom of having her close the festival. They were wrong. The selection of music, the grace of her presence on stage and her intimacy with the capacity audience combined to produce a concert that will be remembered for a long time. From singing in Arabic to her rendition of Jerusalem, she won the audience over totally.

Joan Baez endeared herself to the locals by attending one of the Sufi Nights

The prolonged standing and cheering ovation from the entire crowd during the encores, turned into a party with dancing on and in front of the stage. Ultimately it was a moment that showed just how joyful the Fes Festival can be. (See our review here

Sanam Marvi 

The afternoon concerts at the delightful Batha Museum venue were packed day after day and provided some great moments. Mukhtiyar Ali emotively sang the words of Kabir, Cantica Symphonia delivered flawless and uplifting polyphony, Sanam Marvi's Sufi songs were a hit, as was the Kathak dancing performance from Anuj Mishra and Niha Singh.

Rocío Màrquez

The surprise in the afternoon series was a debut piece; Arabesques: Rocío Màrquez, and Christian Boissel. It was sensational on every level and deserved its prolonged standing ovation.

The three Nights in the Medina were a big hit with the crowds, although sightline problems caused by a fountain and the positioning of camera crews at Riad Mokri does need addressing in future years. The Terra Maïre concert of medieval sacred songs of the Occitan People at Dar Adyel was a standout.


As is always the case at the Fes Festival, the Sufi Nights offered a wide range of Sufi groups and drew big crowds to Dar Tazi.

The Sufi Nights series was a great success in bringing together Moroccans of different economic classes and visitors from around the world. The free concerts at Dar Tazi, along with those at Place Boujloud, allowed locals who could not afford the ticket prices to engage in the festival. The Sufi performances drew local families, young children, teens, and young professionals who came to sit in the garden of Dar Tazi and enjoy the atmosphere. Every evening had a good balance between attentive, engaged listening and relaxed socialising.

The choice of groups for the performances at Dar Tazi was excellent this year. They represented the diversity of Moroccan Sufism and the variety of ways it can be expressed through poetry, chant, and song. At the same time the performances were often very meaningful and personal for both the local and visiting attendees. Many could be seen singing along, clapping, dancing, and during the best performances the divisions between performer and audience, local and visitor seemed to dissolve, at least for a moment.

This year the programme included Tariqa SkalliyyaTariqa Sharqawiyya,  Hamadcha BrotherhoodTariqa Mashishiyyathe Darqawiyya,  the IsawaLa Hadra Chefchaounia and tariqa Wazzaniyya. 

On a lighter note 
The award for entrepreneurial chutzpah has to go to Jess Stephens who decided one of her creations was perfect for Bjork. She not only tracked down Bjork's hotel, but had the piece hand-delivered to her room.

It is from the new Moroccan Bling collection which is more bold and adventurous than ever. Silk threads that are woven around a cord are part of the silk spinning process that eventually becomes a djelaba button. Moroccan Blings new collection can soon be viewed HERE.

Other artistic ventures on the Fringe were the excellent exhibitions by David Packer, Younes Bekkali and Mikou at Dar Tazi, the Seven Types of Terrain show by Michel Biehn and Margaret Lanzetta at Le Jardin des Biehn and the French Institute exhibition of the work by Sara Dolatabadi. However the paintings by amateur artist Leila Iraki were felt by many viewers to be a disappointing use of the prime exhibition space at the Batha Museum.

The View from Fez team personal highlights:

Vanessa Bonnin

It is difficult to choose a favourite performance from a week where there were so many interesting, varied and emotional moments, so instead I am going to give my vote to a broader theme that inspired me the most during the Festival – the women.

This may seem biased towards my own sex and I may be accused of being a feminist, but let me explain why.

The Archie Shepp concert was one favourite, however when I examine the reasons why I enjoyed it I come back to Amina Myers – a spirited, soulful diva whose voice echoed the great African American divas of the past and brought the presence of all who had gone before her into the music.

My two favourite concerts from the Nights in the Medina were also women – Cherifa the Berber poetess, and Terra Maire the mother and daughter who sang Medieval songs from the Occitan. Two completely different performances but both filled with exuberant joy, humility and a connectedness with something deep and ancient that filled the audience with wonder.

Of the afternoon programming at the Batha Museum it is hard to choose, partly because the venue provides such a spectacular setting and closeness to the performers that the bond between them and the audience is always powerful. However the Arabesques concert stands out, partly because of its original and startling marriage of poem and song, but mostly because of Rocio Marquez. Her raw emotion and incredible voice drew me in and was mesmerising.

Then we have the two draw cards of the Festival, Bjork and Joan Baez. While their music is poles apart, their spirit is the same – both women care passionately about the world beyond music. Baez has been a soldier for human rights throughout her career and Bjork, is a heart-on-sleeve environmentalist, creating educational programmes for schools and sharing her love for the planet through her extraordinarily bold Biophilia project. Between them, Bjork and Joan Baez link the past and the future of activism.

Out of the spotlight, the women also shone. From Festival director Zeyba Rahman’s warmth and elegance, to the entrepreneurial energy and joie de vivre of Jess Stephen’s fringe venture ‘In Transit’ and also the many inspiring women in the audience. Watching your reactions, ranging from serenity, wonder, tears, outright joy, and ‘don’t-give-a-damn-who’s-watching’ exuberant dancing, was as much a source of pleasure for me as watching the performers.

So, to all those sisters of the Festival who let their inner-beauty shine, I thank you.

Sandy McCutcheon

Re-enchanting the world might have been a big ask, but this year the Fes Festival certainly re-enchanted Fes. The highlights are difficult because none of the concerts disappointed. Personally I loved the sama'a as well as the voices of Amina Myers, Sanam Marvi and the amazing Rocio Marquez.

Baez and Bjork, were huge concerts, but for empathy, connection with the spirit of the festival and sheer joy, Joan Baez takes the cake.

Suzanna Clarke

Sitting under the centuries old Barbary oak tree in the Batha Museum for the afternoon concerts is always a special experience. This unique venue provided some of the highlights for my time at this year's Fes Festival. Snapshots of high points include Kathak dancer Anuj's flashing feet as he re-created the sound of a galloping horse; the dulcet tones of West African singer Mory Djely Kouyaté teamed with jazz pianist Jean-Philippe Rykiel and the ethereal Cantica Symphonia.

West African singer Mory Djely Kouyaté

While Bab Makina is a challenging venue, being long and narrow with the much of the audience a long way from the performer, the new larger screens either side of the stage made a huge difference for those sitting further back this year. Despite the limitations of the space, seasoned performers who skilfully connected with the audience such as Archie Shepp and Joan Baez, were able to create an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy. Seeing the audience waving the lights of their mobile phones and swaying from side to side as they stood singing Imagine at the Baez concert is an image that will long remain in my memory.

Visual art around the fringe of the Festival, in the form of exhibitions by artists like David Packer and Margaret Lanzetta, was a welcome touch and definitely something to be encouraged and developed in future years.

Artist David Packer

The Nights in the Medina, with their beautiful architectural settings, held their own challenges with space and sight-lines. However, it felt like a treasure hunt to wend your way through the night to discover special performances such as the Vahdat sisters from Iran and the Nour Ensemble. This is also an aspect of the event that is worth developing.

One of the Vahdat sisters

The Festival in the City, too, with many excellent international performers, kept Bab Boujeloud rocking until late into the night, and gave a sense of inclusion to an event that is financially out of the reach of many locals.

Besides the myriad fantastic performances, just to wander the streets during the Festival and encounter visitors from all over the world who have specially come to Fez because of what it offers culturally during this special time of the year is an uplifting and energising experience. Thank you to all those who made it possible!

A photographic thank you to those who helped make this year's festival so great. 
Chief sound engineer Eric Loots - the man with all the backstage gossip! 
Our colleague, photographer Omar Chennafi
The sound crews
Venue cleaning staff
Hassan Zemmouri, the chief protocol officer from the office of the Wali of Fez - a superb facilitator
Zeyba Rahman - a thank you for great presentation as well as energy behind the scenes

Reporting at the Fes Festival was by: Sandy McCutcheon, Vanessa Bonnin, Suzanna Clarke, Vivian Nguyen and Phil Murphy.

Photographs: Vanessa Bonnin, Suzanna Clarke, Sandy McCutcheon, Phil Murphy, Omar Chennafi and Vivian Nguyen.

The View from Fez is an official Media Partner of the Fès Festival of World Sacred Music


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