The 19th edition of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is over. Here is a retrospective look at what many are describing as one of the best festivals so far. Picking favourites and highlights is often a difficult task, but this year audiences and reviewers alike had very similar choices.
The opening night spectacle (see review here) was the presentation of the premiere of Love Is My Religion, which is best described as Andalusia recreated through poetry, dance and music. It was everything an opening night performance should be and one of the best to date.
The performance, directed by Andrés Marín, featured more than thirty Arabo-Andalusian, Sufi, Amazigh and Spanish flamenco artists and included: Andrés Marín, dance, Carmen Linares, vocals, Amina Alaoui, vocals, Cherifa, vocals and Samira Kaderi, vocals. The music co-ordination was by Aziz Al Achab.
Right from the beginning, with the Andres Marin's display of passionate flamenco, the audience knew they were in for something special. Marin, unaccompanied, moved across the stage, taut and birdlike. Soon he was joined by a haunting clarinet until the piece built ultimately to include ouds, drums and cellos. He moved with core muscles braced and back arched, his heels mimicking the clatter of horse’s hooves.
However, the highlight for many was the appearance of Amazigh singer Cherifa (pictured above). As she entered the stage, flanked by Arab artist Bahaa Ronda and Spanish singer Carmen Linares, some of the crowd broke into ululations of appreciation. Cherifa opened her mouth and the energy in the air crackled, her deeply evocative voice raising goosebumps on one’s skin. Cherifa's command of her art produced an eerily primal sound that seemed both ancient and timeless.
|Sufi Nights with the Hamadcha Brotherhood|
Along with Cherifa's opening night performance the most widely talked about concerts were those by Paco de Lucía, the Mongolian Sardinian Fusion, El Gusto, Fado singer Ana Moura and Patti Smith. Among the local Moroccans, the Assala Nasri's concert was a huge hit. At the Sufi Nights at Dar Tazi, the local Hamadcha Brotherhood were overwhelming favourites.
The free concerts in the Festival in the City series was again extremely popular, with favourites being (unsurprisingly) the Hamadcha and Dj ClicK and, Nass L'Ghiwan and Hamid el Kasri.
Paco de Lucía's appearance was a highlight in many ways, not just the maestro's extraordinarily passionate guitar work, but also due to the superb performances by singer Juan Rafael Cortés Santiago, known as Duquende and flamenco dancer Antonio Fernández Montoya, known as “Farruco”. (See review here)
There were many performances at the festival this year that combined music from different traditions. Some, like the Indian/baroque concert were only mildly successful, but the standout was the afternoon at the Batha museum that featured the polyphonic work of the Sardinian Cuncordu E Tenore de Orosei and diphonic Mongolian khöömii chanting from singers Ts Tsogtgerel and Nergui Ganzorig of Mongolia.
At first glance the pairing looked like a recipe for disaster, but the reality was wonderful. It was, as one reviewer put it, as if the tectonic plates had shifted. Asia's Altai and Gobi Desert crashed into the mountains of Sardinia, producing a culture shock with Fez at the epicentre.
The Mongolians remarkable ability to depict landscape was matched by the Sardinians. The Mongolians evoked the sound of horses galloping over the windswept steppes while the Sardinians polyphony took the audience soaring over peaks, plateaus and into valleys. Their crystal clear harmonies combined to produce a soudscape greater than its individual parts. Then, when they came together in a huddle, the Mongolian overtone chanting became the solid drone base for a new landscape of steppes and, somewhere in the musical distance, the mountain peaks. Unforgettable. (See review here)
Probably one of ther most poignant moments in the festival was when, with a tear running down her cheek, Aïcha Redouane sang (pictured above) for the first time in her own language (Amazigh) in her own country.
And then, of course there was the triumph that was Patti. (See our review here)
The programming of this festival was seen by most people as being an extremely good mix of music and culture with virtually no exceptions. The Nights in the Medina evenings worked well apart from the usual complaints about the bad sight-lines at Dar Mokri. Hopefully a better venue can be found for the next festival. Security and signage was more than adequate.
The Sufi Nights were very well attended as were the Festival in the City events.
|A village in the Upper Nile comes to life at Batha|
Congratulations to Festival Director Faouzi Skali and Artistic Director Alain Weber. Weber also deserves congratulations for his production of the extraordinary performance of "At the Heart of the Nile" by Sheikh Hamid Hossein Ahmad and Sheikh Ghanan from the village of Deir in the Upper Nile.
The pre-festival organisation this year was far better organised, with information available well in advance. For most journalists the often last minute confusion over press passes was gone, replaced with a smooth and efficient system. Later in the festival some members of the press did experience a few problems. However, tribute has to be paid to Spirit of Fes Foundation Press Officer Eziza Sid'Ahmed.
Set against this good preparatory work was the once again over zealous attitude of security personnel who seemed to have little appreciation that the international journalists had a job to do and that their reporting is a key to the success of future festivals. It may be worthwhile for the festival organisers to consider doing what many other festivals do and hold "friendliness" training sessions for security so that their attitude is more about how they can help you rather than hinder.
Another source of complaint was the location of the media centre. Having it out at the Zalagh Parc Hotel far from where people were gathered for concerts, was simply wrong. Hopefully the same mistake will not be repeated next year. Having a press centre either at or near Dar Tazi would be far more logical.
The overbooking of venues needs urgent attention as the crush of people at both major venues was on several evenings,way over capacity to the point where the situation was potentially dangerous. The availability of hundreds of cheap "sponsors' tickets" being sold outside the Bab Al Makina also needs curtailing.
Thanks to Helen Ranger, the English language translations on line were of immense value to visitors and journalists alike. However, the festival still needs to come to terms with the fact that English is either the first or second language of a large number of visitors to the festival and that handing out information in French alone is of limited value. As a Swedish visitor told The View from Fez, "We don't expect a Swedish translation, but English is our second language and if the festival expects to be appreciated it must provide far more material in English."
At one event half the audience left after discovering that no English translator was on hand.
At the forum sessions at the Batha Museum, the English language translators were a mixed bunch. Some did a superb job while others were barely comprehensible.
|Gurus of lighting and sound - Christophe Olivier and Chris Ekers|
This year the lighting and sound were in the capable hands of Christophe Olivier and Chris Ekers respectively whose sterling work enhanced all the concerts. Each year the technical demands of musicians grow in complexity and as Chris Ekers pointed out they are now at the upper limits of what their equipment can deliver. In one case this year an extra monitor desk was needed to be brought in for El Gusto.
Chris Ekers made the observation that the festival has become more mainstream. His highlights? "Mongolians and Sardinians, the Upper Nile Egyptians were fabulous. Assri was good but commercial and walked off stage at the end and the band had to come to a grinding halt! Plano at the last Batha concert was superb. The fact so many concerts were fusions of cultures is a good sign. Ana Moura had a fabulous voice but not great stagecraft."
The View from Fez Team have their say
This year The View from Fez was fortunate to have to services of a talented team of writers and photographers: Vanessa Bonnin, Suzanna Clarke, Natasha Christov, Gabe Monson, Stephanie Clifford-Smith, Nouri Verghese, and Inga Meladze.
As a first time visitor to the festival the overall experience has been great. The standard of the acts was remarkable and the sound at every venue spot on. Highlights included the lovely fado singer Ana Moura in the Musee Bartha, the venue dimly lit to emulate a fado house. The final concert, Patti Smith, at the Bab al Makina was brilliant because, fan or not, she’s an icon who performed graciously and gave it her all.
Many performances were sheer fun for both audiences and performers and these were favourites. Coubane Mint Ely Warakane from Mauritania and Lo Còr de la Plana from Marseilles spring immediately to mind but off the scale in the fun stakes was the Ladysmith Chicago Gospel Experience. Nothing’s going to get this atheist turning to God but, Jesus, that style of Christian worship is a blast!
Lowlights can mostly be tracked to festival admin and over zealous security. A scheduling clash saw quite a few people walk out of the Samira Kadiri concert to get to their next gig, the mini exodus beyond awkward in a venue as small as Dar Mokri.
Cameramen yakking at the Musee Batha during the Upper Nile Sufi night made it impossible for those at the back to hear the act. And security thinking their job was to make it as tough as possible to get into venues for the first few nights of the festival was frankly a pain. But, hey, on balance the gripes were small potatoes in the eight days that were a fabulous Fez festival.
Flamenco sensation Andres Marin and Moroccan singer Cherifa, both performing at the Opening Concert, were definite Festival highlights; Marin's precision in the execution of complex flamenco movements was astounding, and Cherifa's earthy vocals simply incomparable. Anthropologically, Syrian popstar Assala Nasri's concert at an overbooked Bab Al Makina was eye-opening, with glamoured-up locals arriving in droves to belt out Nasri's hits.
One major gripe at this year's Festival was its embarrassingly poor organisation. Overbooked venues left ticket-holders unable to attend, time and venue changes barely publicised left performers without an audience, and disorganised security meant attendees were at times confined to an area only to be banished from it.
In addition, it is worth mentioning the lack of world focus at this "world music" festival. Concert synopses, workshop lectures and major press conferences were all in French, ostracising a large contingent of foreign visitors and locals (the two main languages spoken in Fes are Darija and Fusha).
Thankfully, the free concerts were another story. A definite highlight was southern Moroccan group Tariqa Hassania had the audience on their feet dancing, clapping and singing to the world language; music.
Writing and photographing the free evening concerts at Place Boujloud led to some different perspectives than in my previous media role at the Fes Festival, recording sound.
I began to pay more attention to what I saw, as well as what I heard. Tired from late nights and deadlines I became more sensitive to how the environment of the events, as well as the music, could invigorate or irritate, inspire or sooth.
|Hamid el Kasri|
My week was bookended with invigoration. Firstly by the warmth of Mauritanian griot (storyteller) Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane at the Batha Museum, supported by her ‘blue birds from heaven’ singers and sensitive male musicians. Finally, by the brilliantly arranged high energy Gnawa-jazz fusion group led by Karim Ziad and Hamid Kasri at Place Boujloud.
Batha Museum itself was a soothing highlight, particularly one restorative afternoon mid-Festival, lying under the ancient wood and cascading foliage of its centrepiece tree drifting to the delicate music of Fado singer Ana Moura’s band.
Lebanese chanteuse Abeer Nehme was inspiringly graceful both in voice and manner; Ali Alaoui’s Andalucian orchestra inspired smiles and dance.
What was irritating to me may have been wonderful for others, so I’ll leave those bits of grit behind and instead congratulate the often unsung heroes of events- the sound and lighting crews. Their work in the challenging space of Boujloud was outstanding; clearly mixing diverse instruments and creatively shaping tableaux of shifting colour, texture and movement within the cavernous stage.
There were many highlights for me this year, and they all stemmed from the brave and innovative collaborations between musicians and performers.
It seemed that every second performance was a premiere, or a new fusion that brought together diverse styles that when combined produced something even greater than the sum of their parts.
The first time this grabbed me was the Sardinian tenors singing with the Mongolians - a delightful and joyous performance. Then, the addition of a stupendous young flamenco dancer to the Paco de Lucia show - de Lucia was a marvel but it was Farruco who we were all still talking about a week later.
|Mind blowing gospel!|
Birds on a Wire - the new collaboration between Rosemary Standley and Dom La Nena - was another marvellous performance infused with talent and humour, and then the feel-good tour de force of the Ladysmith Chicago Gospel experience who blew my mind with their energy and enthusiasm.
|Patti Smith in Fez - the ultimate concert|
Patti Smith's concert was the ultimate for me - a full-on rock concert in Fes! - but again, it was the collaboration between her and the audience that made this performance so special. The crowd plays a huge role in the success of a show and this was poignantly demonstrated when the people of Fes stood up and responded to Patti's powerful call for freedom.
|Thanks to our guest contributors Inga Meladze and Nouri Verghese who covered the Sufi Nights|
The next Fes Festival of World Sacred Music will be held between June 13 to 21, 2014. Let us know who you would like to see perform.
We hope to see you there.
Photographs: Suzanna Clarke, Vanessa Bonnin, Gabe Monson, Natasha Christov, Inga Meladze, Sandy McCutcheon
The View from Fez is an official Media Partner of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music