Arriving at Boujloud square for the start of this free evening concert as part of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music's Festival in the City programme, to find only a small crowd in the wide open space, gave little indication of the wonderful evening to come. Gabe Monson reports
However, as a melodic piano announced award-winning Lebanese singer Abeer Nehme’s arrival on stage, the audience seemed to magically materialize and remained charmed throughout her performance. Abeer captured their attention from the start, her red gown as elegant as her clear voice and gracious stage manner.
Musicologist as well as singer, Abeer is internationally renowned as an ‘All Styles Specialist’ for her knowledge and interpretion of Oriental modal styles, including Tarab and Lebanese Rahbani, Syriac Maronite, orthodox, and Byzantine traditions, as well as Western operatic and modern styles.
In addition to her recording numerous albums, and performing at international festivals and fundraising events around the world, Abeer has even honoured the canonization of saints at the Vatican.
The performance she offered the people of Fes, accompanied by qanun, keyboard, tambour, guitar and violin, clearly demonstrated why Abeer occupies such an honoured place in contemporary, as well as traditional music.
Questioned as to why the primarily young audience was so enthusiastic, with sections of the audience chanting ‘chaabi, chaabi’- more, more!’ between songs, music lover Hamid Chikir , who had travelled from Casablanca to Fes for the Festival, explained ‘She is singing poetic love songs in Lebanese Arabic, close to classical Arabic. We don’t know all the songs she is singing, though some are famous. But every word she sings sounds so beautiful, delicious.’
There was a rumour in the crowd that Abeer had been married that day... and her singing for the people was her celebratory ‘party’. Whether or not this is true, Abeer certainly conveyed a sense of celebrating love and joy in her voice and delivery; she is truly a singer of heart as well as supreme skill.
Leading a twenty member international orchestra, Fes musical master Ali Alaoui continued the evening with an extraordinary tribute to the theme of the 19th Sacred Music Festival, ‘Fes, l’Andalouse’.
The set opened gently with a young boy reciting a poem about the beauty of Fes, then burst into an energetic song on the same theme that had the audience immediately clapping, moving and cheering. This sense of joy continued throughout the solid set which continued till well after midnight.
Songs were ably delivered by the glittering female chanteuse, Izdihar, backed by a duo of hand-clapping singers, keyboard, and a string section of double bass, violins, cello, oud and guitar. Each song was highlighted by brilliant solos, most notably from the violin and saxophone.
The rhythm section, almost half of this this cohesive and diverse orchestra, itself constituted a celebration of global music.
Percussion ranged from Ali’s driving lead from his centre stage position, playing darabuka and cahon, through drum kit, congas and frame drum to the charismatic presence of five gloriously red gowned Issawa drummers from Fes. These masters ended the set by emerging from their side position to fill the front stage with a blaze of colour and movement.
This night in Boujloud Sqare was indeed a glorious tribute to the spirit of music, from the simplicity of voice, to the joyful meeting of maestros from diverse continents and traditions, offered to the people in celebration.
Text and photographs: Gabe Monson