Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fes Festival of World Sacred Music - another view

Over the years there have been a lot of articles written about the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music all complimentary, but few have captured the Festival spirit as well as this beautifully crafted piece by Salima Yacoubi Soussane. It first appeared back in September on MTV Iggy

The Fez Medina

Tripping Out: Finding Bliss at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music

It’s morning, and you’re listening to the news as you drink your expresso. You think that the world sucks. Like Hiro Nakamura from the TV show Heroes, you wish you were able to teleport yourself to a better world. A place where you could get high on adventure, culture and music… Well then, come to Morocco in June, to the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. With musicians and artists from all over the world, this event is off-the-charts and will transport you to 9 days and 9 nights of discovery, astonishment and just plain fun.

The kingdom of Morocco, one of the oldest in the world, has historically seduced numerous artists. With its Arab, Berber, African and Western influenced traditions, the country has inspired painters like Matisse and Delacroix, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and Beat writers like Paul Bowles and William Burroughs.

Musical adventurers like Jimi Hendrix, Ornette Coleman and the Rolling Stones have been infatuated by Morroco’s mystical rhythms, too, specially the Sufi beats of Gnawa and Joujouka music. Not surprisingly U2 has also had a long history with Morocco. They visited the country in 1998 for their classic album Achtung baby. And more recently, the Medina of Fes (or “Fez”), the old walled city, was the cinematic backdrop for their 2007 video “Magnificent.”

There’s a reason for this fascination with the Medina. In it, the senses open up in a cascade, like a swarm of orange blossoms. Its overcrowded streets are jammed with color-saturated shops. Merchants sell oriental perfumes, spices and djellabas and every imaginable delightful handicraft. The maze of its tight alleys never fail to open up the mind. Isn’t Fes a historic centre for exchanges, both spiritual and cultural?

Certainly, the Fes Festival bears proof of it. “Re-Enchanting the World” was the theme and promise of its 2012 edition. An ambitious goal but one that it surely delivered.

For its 18th year, the festival’s musical program stretched from ancient Sufi chants to the intimate incantations of the Iranian Vahdat sisters, to the poignant vibrato of Joan Baez and Björk’s futurist electro-rhythms.

It should be noted, Björk, the atypical singer who often arises from a dreamlike world, had visited the mystical city in 1998 and has remained a fan ever since. Zeyba Rahman, Director of the Festival for Asia and North America, recalls: “We were in a house near Jamai Palace at a private music jam with Jon Pareles (Chief Popular Music Critic for the New York Times) when we saw this young woman in the doorway. She was wearing a pink tutu and a beaver fur hat —in the middle of the Fassi summer! She also had on retro pink slippers with pom-poms… The music woke her and she got up, followed the sound and arrived at the door. That was incredible!”

Björk was one of several headliners at this year’s event, arguably one of the best vintages of the Festival.

From the diverse programming to the unique settings and passionate audiences, this edition is like a total acid trip, without the acid. It takes you through crazy moments that eventually lead you to new realizations: you blackout in groups, listening to voices from other times. You see mirages in the medina and fall into trance with Sufi music. At the end of this 5-step journey towards re-enchantment, you feel closer to the stranger-cum-spectator sitting next to you, no matter where he’s from. Your emotional fiber is called upon repeatedly. You consider new ideas, experiences and become more aware of your own humanity.

1. Take a Magical Ride Back Into Time in Fes

Upon arrival you climb onto a flying carpet and see Fez’s rooftops run by like a dream. Here “the past is still alive,” says Paul Bowles. But don’t worry, you can still use your iPhone, Blackberry or any other survival device!

The experience of the Medina, the ancient city (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) awaits you. Once you cross its massive medieval gates, you find yourself in tight, sepia lit alleys. The warm and dry wind of the 15th century still blows here. It’s total immersion into another time! A time when Leo Africanus was first discovering the world on the benches of Al Qarawin, the oldest university in the world, when Fes was still the capital of the kingdom.

Then, there’s the festival. All the Fes Festival venues are ancient palaces or riads (historic mansions) within the Medina. Originally Sultan Moulay Abd al-Aziz’s 19th century summer palace, the Dar Batha Museum is the epicenter of the festival. In the morning, there are current affairs centered talks; in the afternoon, performances are presented—both under the museum’s majestic hundred-year-old oak tree.

Festival magic in Fez - Photo: Vanessa Bonnin (The View from Fez)

Bab Al Makina, a monumental gate built in 1886 during the reign of Moulay Al Hassan, is the stage for the 2012 grand opening concert – a stunning homage to poet Omar Khayyam. French movie director Toni Gatlif, who directed the special work, assembled singers from countries bordering the Middle Eastern Highway of the Kings and Central Asian Silk Road for a unique performance. Inspired by Khayyam’s words: Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life—the artistic setting was minimal, yet rich with symbols. The chandeliers that floated on the stage were reminiscent of an opulent reception room. Among them, a cylinder wrapped in a white sheet spinning incessantly, the sheet moving with the wind acts as a nod to the Whirling Dervishes and the Sufi philosophy of the Persian poet. In the audience, the wife of the King Of Morocco, Princess Salma, added magic to the evening. As Gatlif explained to MTV Iggy, “This setting evokes the lives of the Andalusian kings. They used to host private evenings with the best artists of the world.”

2. Treasure hunting

Some evenings of the Festival are like treasure hunts. In the labyrinth of the Medina, you have to find the night’s performance, nestled in one of the many historic riads. Tonight, as you follow the arrows leading to the concert at Dar Al Mokri, you run into children playing football. Beggars float by like ghosts. In the alleys squeezed between high terracotta walls, clouds of incense waft out from dark windows. Veiled women and sinuous men, like models from Calvin Klein ads, linger about. But don’t expect them to give you directions. Great treasures do not reveal themselves so easily. You will have to earn them.

Tripping Out: Finding Bliss at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music
  Photo by Nusrat Durrani

It is the Sufi songs of the Vahdat sisters that you need to seek out this evening. The sound of the “ney” is a good hint to where they might be. Literally translated as “reed” in Persian, this flute weaves its mystical magic around the songs of the Iranian women. Their otherworldly voices seem to come from a forgotten place, possibly because in Iran, women have no right to stage performances, except in private venues. Every time we travel, we are rewarded with a moment of grace. For the festival’s audience, this intoxicating performance might have been it. A moment where the rarely seen, beautiful face of Iran was finally revealed.

Last year’s moment of bliss came with the a capella, sacred and secular, songs by Terra Maire, a mother-daughter duo from southern France singing in the Occitan dialect. On the rooftop of the riad “Le Jardin des Biehn,” under the moon’s warm, golden light, they sang medieval and sacred melodies using primitive instruments. The exceptional range of their powerful yet, soft voices felt like balm for the heart. The audience was transported with their otherworldly voices for a couple of minutes. A thick silence froze the moment until a wave of goosebumps swept across the crowd. Once everyone pulled themselves together, Sandrine (24), a French student sitting next to me, whispered: “This is what I love about the festival. This timeless performance is the very soul of the Fes Festival.”

3. Sufi Trance and the Vanishing of the Ego

In the gardens of Dar Tazi, the Festival headquarters in the heart of the Medina, a diverse crowd flows in for the free Sufi nights program, generally after the evening concert. The gardens are often totally packed with people dancing and clapping along with the Sufi rhythms. Three generations of Fassi families, Parisian students, German professors, English artists, all converge there to lose themselves and bliss out. The ecstatic, trance-inducing Sufi music bridges the gap between East and West. And because Sufism preaches tolerance and openness, it is an easily accessible doorway into Muslim culture. The purpose of Sufi music is to get closer to the Divine through music and dance rituals. There are several Sufi communities or Tariqas that are still in practice and exist in Fes including: the Aissawas, Charkawas, Tijaninias —Youssou N’Dour’s Sufi community, and others. Each night, a different community shares their sacred songs and ritual offerings, a variation on themes of love and devotional surrender.

Sufi Hadra Chefchounia - Photo Phil Murphy (The View from Fez

The repetitive rhythms and pulsating percussion invite our overwhelmed minds to slow down and “free” ourselves through dance. The body starts moving back and forth in a hypnotic fashion until the ego vanishes and rapture takes hold. We start to fly… It is this state of contemplation and a feeling of soaring that we feel, like what the Whirling Dervishes reach when they spin into communion with the Divine. With the right hand pointing at the sky, the left at the ground, their dance is a prayer.

Sufi music from other parts of the globe were also presented during the afternoon shows at Batha. Most memorable was the performance of the revered Mukhtiyar Ali from Rajasthan, India. Singing Sufi poetry by 15th century mystical poet Kabir, his pure and light voice did full justice to Kabir’s verse, transporting us again and again as he sang:

“I went out in search of the worst person
And later, on searching my own soul,
Realised that none could be worse than me
For looking for the worst in others”


“I sing and play, I entertain everyone;
I am unaware of caste or religious barriers”

Mukhtiyar represents the 26th generation of a humble community of Rajasthan’s musicians, which has successfully kept alive the oral tradition of Sufiana kalam or repertoire. This particular form of Sufi music uses powerful words to reach Divine communion, ectasy and total detachment from worldly concerns.

4. Rebellion with Björk and Joan Baez

In another time, space and faithful to her futuristic universe, Björk landed on the main stage of Bab EL Makina with a dress made of electric blue helium balls and a huge orange wig. She was backed by a choir of barefoot young women in robes and an ecletic band. Projections of quirky images of nature set the backdrop, which created a surreal and beautiful environment for her soaring voice.

Björk live in Fez - photo Suzanna Clarke (The View from Fez)

The Icelandic pixie smiled, sang, whispered and endeared herself to her fans in so many ways including the charming way she rolled the ‘Rs’ of “miracles.” Her fans were thrilled. Those who did not know her were dumbfounded. The anthemic finale, “Raise the flag,” urged the audience to raise the flag of independence “higher and higher.” Words that are particularly resonant in the Arab world today.

Joan Baez brought the Festival home in style - Photo Sandy McCutcheon (The View from Fez)

“The Arab Spring is as extraordinary as having a black president,” said Joan Baez the following night. Wearing an elegant black dress and a red scarf, the American folk singer and icon, 70, performed the Festival’s closing concert. Still beautiful and generous, she quickly created a close relationship with the audience. She told the story of each song, evoking its context and its cause. Her set included Bob Dylan’s ”With God on Our Side,” which she ended with John Lennon’s classic “Imagine,” warmly accompanied by the audience, of course. She also urged the youth to take risks because ”for small victories, one has to accept great defeats.” An inspiring thought indeed from someone who has dedicated her career to fighting for peace and equality.

5. Re-Enchantment

At the end of this whole trip, you feel that something has changed inside you.

Backpackers from Hong Kong, intellectuals from Europe and America— they all made the trip to the festival. Hassan, a 35-year old babouche salesman from down the block in the medina, asked his friend Ali to mind his shop in order to attend a show. And Amine, a 24-year old waiter at Café Clock, switched shifts to be able to attend an evening show. Regardless of where anyone was coming from, they all made the pilgrimage to the Festival of World Sacred Music. They knew that they would be moved and enriched by the experience.

Kathak dance: Anuj Mishra and Niha Singh from India - Photo Suzanna Clarke (The View from Fez)

So now you have listened to the meditative songs of musicians from far flung parts of the world. You have met scholars, visionaries and dignitaries from countries you knew nothing about. A much more colorful, nuanced vision of the world has taken shape inside you. Now, foreigners cease to appear abstract. They become people with names, dreams and feelings, just like you.

“I feel relieved,” said an American professor from Connecticut.

‘Relieved of what,’ I asked.

“Well I thought that Morocco was dangerous. All my friends and family were worried for me. You know, we hear so many things about Muslims and Arabs… Now I’d like to invite Moroccan musicians to lecture to my students and to show them another face of the Arab world.”

In the same vein, for Omayyah Louisa Al-Shabab, an American University of Paris alumni, “The Festival is a great opportunity for Westerners and especially the Western youth to get to know the Arab Muslim culture and experience it firsthand.”

Faouzi Skali would be delighted to hear these sentiments. The festival is his brainchild. He sees it as a “spiritual Davos,” where the priority comes back to human values. Skali is also an anthropologist, a Sufi and a fervent optimist. His festival has been honored by the United Nations as “one of seven world heroes for the Dialogue Amongst Civilizations.”

Thus, through its richness, character and ability to awaken awareness, this festival is a beautiful way to bliss. When you return home, your morning coffee tastes slightly different. Now you quietly savor it, a little more assured about the state of the world. Unlike most festivals we frequent these days, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is anchored in spirituality. Its 9 days and 9 nights will make you believe again.

Read more about the 2012 Fes Festival of World Sacred Music here
Fes Festival of World Sacred Music 2013 June 7 - 15



Anonymous said...

The magic of the Fes festival of sacred music is that it allows "westerners" to come closer to the Fassis. The audience at Bab Makina are perhaps not typical of the citizens of the medina, try the Dar Tazi sufi nights for that but their warmth is present and music has no language barriers. I love the festival of sacred music and have been there for several years albeit my circumstances are such that I could only afford the opening night this year but was contented with the Dar Tazi concerts. Next year I shall be living in Fes, inchallah. Are there opportunities to get involved in the running of the festival in return for being able to see the concerts?

Abd Rahman

The View from Fez said...

Salaam Sidi,

Thank you for making such a positive comment. We hope you can be in Fez next year, inshallah.