Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Ramadan in Fez: Celebration and Song

Ramadan can be a tough time for Muslims here in Fez, particularly when it falls this time of year with the longest days and highest temperatures. Ask a Fassi how siyam (fasting) is going and you will get answers like “it’s very difficult with this heat”, but also “though it’s difficult, it’s good for the health.” (see our story here) However, it is also a time for joyous celebration of Islam, family and community, writes Phillip Murphy. 
Muhammed al-Farris

After the Maghreb prayer, now around seven thirty in the evening, the city is completely silent for about an hour as everyone rushes home to break the fast with families and friends. Beginning around eight thirty to nine pm taxi drivers start their engines, the streets begin to fill, and people sit in their favorite cafes ready to socialize until the early hours of the morning. While the day can seem hot, oppressive and sleepy, the evening brings coolness, exuberance, and exhilaration.

This reminds me of a poem from the al-ala (Andalusian music in Fez) repertoire:

Well done oh night! In uniting us
For God’s sake oh night, lengthen and never end
You have done wrong, oh dawn, in separating us
For God’s sake oh dawn, repent and never return

Poems like this one can be interpreted in many ways and as far as I know this poem is not explicitly about Ramadan. Though it does contain a common poetic trope, reflecting a general idea in the Arab and Islamic world, that night is a time for gathering and celebration.

Ramadan Soundscapes in Fez

Celebration is plentiful when the sun goes down here in Fez, and music and poetry are commonly part of the gatherings. One can hear the nafar (long trumpets) echoing through the streets of the medina, drums beating to announce meal times, and voices soaring from homes and concerts singing praises to the Prophet Muhammad.

Ramadan is an especially sacred month and performers tend to reflect and shape this sacred time by giving concerts of samā` wa madīḥ. Samā` wa madīḥ refers to poetry, recited or sung, that focuses on praise and exaltation, usually of the Prophet. I was fortunate to attend two such performances this weekend.

The Brihi Ensemble of Fez

Anis al-Tlimsani hosted a gathering at his home on the out skirts of the Ville Nouvelle of Fez on Friday night. By ten o’clock in the evening his spacious home was filled with people eager to socialize, drink tea, and sing along with the Brihi Ensemble. This famous Moroccan Andalusian group is named after the musician and bandleader Muhammad al-Brihi.

Anis al-Tlimsani center, right

When al-Brihi died in 1940, `Abd al-Karim al-Rayyis took over leadership of al-Brihi’s group and named it after him. Under `Abd al-Karim the Brihi Ensemble became one of the most famous groups in Morocco. After his death in 1996 the present leader of the group, Anis al-`Attar, took over and he continues to lead one of the most important and active ensembles who perform Moroccan Andalusian music.

For the first part of this performance the Brihi Ensemble played the complete first movement from a suite of songs called Nubat Raml al-Maya. For the second part they performed a variety of poems set to Andalusian rhythms and melodies. According to one of the ensemble’s lute players, Muhammad al-Farris, and a few audience members, both sections of the performance are considered samā` wa madīḥ because the poetry in both focuses on praising the Prophet Muhammad, and prayers to God.

Brihi Ensemble led by Anis al-Attar

The audience swayed back in forth in the seats, raised their tea glasses, and sang along loud enough that they could be heard along with the amplified ensemble. When the group finished the first set, after two hours of music, the audience began to sing the next movement of the suite, and carried on while the musicians took a much-needed break to drink tea and eat. The second half of the performance was even more energized. The audience continued to participate and by the end everyone was standing, some swaying to the rhythms, and all singing and rhythmically chanting “ALLAH” over and over. By two am everyone was in great spirits, wide awake, and ready to return home for a meal before the morning prayer and the start of another day of fasting.

Group as-Safa wa al-Marwa

On Saturday night I went to see a group of young munshidin (vocalists who perform Islamic poetry and song) who gave a recital at the `Abd al-`Aziz ben Idriss Cultural and Social Center in my neighborhood of Rcif in the Fez medina. This group of young men, all in their teens and early twenties, study samā` wa madīḥ with Haj Muhammad Bennis  who is one of the most important singers and teachers here in Fez.

Amin Alawi left Ayyoub al-Harishi right

The young Fassi Amin al-Alawi acts as leader for this group. He sat in center of the stage and displayed his wonderful vocal skills and knowledge of poetry as his voice soared during may solo passages. During a break Amin and the others in the group were happy to explain some of the poetry in their repertoire. For example they described The Burda (The Poem of the Cloak) by Imam al-Busiri, which describes how the Prophet came to the poet in a dream, bestowed his cloak on him and healed him of his illness.

The audience for this performance consisted mainly of local youngsters and families who where there to enjoy the music and cheer on their friends and loved ones. This concert also went into the early morning, and at two am, after a great and energized performance, the audience filtered out into the crowded and bustling streets of Rcif.

group as-Safa wa-Marwa 

Though days during Ramadan can seem heavy, hot and lethargic, nighttime is the right time. It can be a wonderful time to experience the celebratory nature of Islam and community in Fez. I look forward to more experiences like these in the remaining nights of the month of Ramadan.

Photographs and story: Phillip Murphy


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