The weather was a perfect 26 degrees Celsius and the air was heavy with the heady scent of orange blossom. It was a day when simply being alive was a plus - but to top that, it was the first day of the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture.
For the last two days the Medina of Fez has been buzzing with a marked increase in tourists arriving for the festival. As one happy trader told The View from Fez, "You have to love the Sufis because they attract so many people to the city".
The first official function was the opening address by the man with the drive and vision that has made the festival an international success - Faouzi Skali (pictured above). Skali, who often looks understandably fraught before the his other great creation, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, was on this occasion, remarkably relaxed and affable.
After a formal welcome to the capacity crowd at the beautiful Batha Museum venue, the dikr (prayers) were beautifully performed by Haj Mohamed Bennis (pictured below) and members of the Fez Tijaniyya Brotherhood.
As Faouzi Skali introduced some of the speakers who will be presenting at the round table discussions each day, it became evident that the venue was not packed with an audience but rather a smorgasbord of intellect and culture. This notion was referred to by many of the speakers who remarked on the extraordinary diversity of Sufi culture and its geographic spread from the Middle East to Africa, USA and Europe. The speakers reflected that diversity with a broad sweep of nationalities that ranged from a Nigerian writer to a Sufi scholar from Jerusalem. All were happy to be in Fez, a city, described by one speaker as "a universal and eternal".
|Faouzi Skali introducing the presenters|
The one negative (as in previous years) was that the organisers still have not shaken free of the the Francophone bonds and realised that their audience also contains a large Anglophone contingent. As one Italian visitor remarked, "English is my second language and the universal language and I am sorry, but everyone speaking just in French with no translation is out of touch with the reality of their audience". Again the programme was not available in English.
THE EVENING CONCERT
|"I am a child of the universe..." -Moultaqa Salam|
There was a certain amount of confusion with the opening night concert due to two different times being advertised. Fortunately a large number of local people had the correct starting time and so the 8.30 start was well attended. The visitors from Europe and Australia who had only had the provisional information were disappointed to have arrived for a start at 9pm. In fact the official press kit also had incorrect starting times for the evening concerts
The second confusion was more serious. Few people in the audience knew who the names of the performers. The programme simply said "Muwashahat soufie de Syrie, Takht Attourath & Hamam Khayri" Local photographers and musicians were similarly bemused and responded to enquiries by saying they thought they were two groups of Syrians from Toulouse! Members of a local Moroccan Sufi group resorted to asking The View from Fez team, who the performers were and all we could do was refer them to the programme! A Moroccan TV journalist said he thought they were called "Group Salaam". A note to the organisers: a programme should contain detailed information about performers.
|The crowd rose to their feet for the first group's performance|
The confusion aside, the first group, an eight member ensemble included two fiddle players, an oud, double bass and three percusionists. The singer, although not introduced to the audience, was talented and captured the crowd and sang superbly. Her breaking into English for "I am a child of the universe. I have been here before and will be again" was appreciated by the large Anglophone contingent. The group was finally introduced at the end of their set and the singer turned out to be the talented Moultaqa Salam..
The second ensemble comprised twenty-three musicians and although competent did not rise to the occasion. It was, as a local Moroccan woman described it, "More a political gesture towards the suffering in Syria than a Sufi musical event." We can only agree.
Opening nights are important as they set the tone for what is to come. The crowd was appreciative but muted and one wonders if a spirited performance by the Fez Tijaniyya, or the stunning repertoire of the Tariqa Siqilliyya would not have been a better choice.
Sunday begins with the round table discussion at 10 am at the Batha Museum.
The 4 pm concert at the Batha Museum is Ihsan Rmiki (with the group Zaman).
The evening concert at 8.30 is a highlight - three Sufi Brotherhoods appearing together - Tariqa Wazzaniyya, Tariqa Saqilliyya and Tariqa Harraqiyya.
Photographs and text: Sandy McCutcheon and Suzanna Clarke for The View from Fez
See our full Sufi Festival coverage