The opening night of the 19th Fes Festival of World Sacred Music was celebrated in spectacular style with the premiere of an artistic and musical work created especially for the Festival. Entitled Love is My Religion and directed by flamenco dancer and choreographer Andrés Marín, the inaugural gala was a poetic evocation of the music and dance of Andalusia, in keeping with this year’s Festival theme - Fes: Reflections of Andalusia.
|Andres Marin - taut and birdlike|
Premiere of the artistic and musical work Love Is My Religion
Music and text coordination: Abdellah Ouazzani
Musical composition: Abdeslam Khaloufi
Directed by Andres Marin
|Bab Al Makina - on a chilly night in Fez|
The opening night was a glamorous if unusually chilly affair. Suited bankers and diplomats rubbed shoulders with the sensibly djellaba-clad who looked warm and smug. The Bab al Makina venue’s ochre walls were dramatically floodlit right to their crenellations.
Once the capacity audience had packed and warmly greeted Princess Lalla Salma, the concert began. Fortunately the cold wind that picked up did not cause sound problems but did cause many to regret not bringing something a little warmer to wear. It was a mark of how engaging the performance was that there were many times when the cold weather was simply forgotten.
|Princess Lalla Salma|
There was no doubt this was an ambitious undertaking. As Festival Director, Faouzi Skali, nicely understated, "What is very interesting is to have this incredible patchwork of songs from the Middle Atlas, the Rif, Arab and Andalusian traditions and the songs of Samaa (breath)."
What is also remarkable about the venture was the time frame for its conception and production. At a pre-concert press conference Andres Marin's producer, Daniela Lazary, pointed out, "We were approached about creating this show last December, so it has only been six months. We were in charge of the flamenco component, choosing the artists and putting that together. The Moroccan component was done separately The first full ensemble rehearsals started just one week ago." But she had faith that Marin could make it happen. "He has a vision of the whole stage. When he creates his shows it is global - there are a lot of people on stage and he brings them together."
The show hosted performances by Andrés Marín, Carmen Linares, Bahaa Ronda, La Macanita, Cherifa, Françoise Atlan, and more than thirty Arabo-Andalusian, Sufi, Amazigh and Spanish flamenco artists.
Skali said the title and main theme of the work could also have been “Love in all its forms".
“The work relates the story of Andalusia in the 8th-15th centuries,” he said. “The character Nizam (also known as Harmony) moves between the world of dreams and reality to ask Andalusia and its wise men about the quest to conquer Love. Andalusia was full of ideological and religious ideas that vacillated between the Islam of culture and spirituality and the Islam of dry, legal dogma.”
"For me it is an honour to be here. I come from a family of flamenco artists so I really respect the tradition of flamenco, but my work is very open minded. I made the staging to create something pure, because it's important to integrate my form with this diverse music." ~ Andres Marin (director)
The performance was broken up into five sequences
The first sequence telling the story of the birth of Islamic Andalusia in the 8th century - a civilization rich in cultural exchange - was shown on stage by the presence of the three elements of this new Andalusia: Arab, Amazigh and Iberian.
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.
The fusion of music and culture produced by the performances that followed was harmonious, accessible and at times challenging.
As Amazigh singer Cherifa 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.
In a moment of theatricality, white robed drummers appeared between the parapets above the stage. On the stage below the Moroccan musicians - dressed classically and impeccably in pristine white robes, yellow babouche and red fez - provided the soundtrack for the piece with Cello, violins held vertically, oud, drums, ney (flute).
The second sequence depicted Islamic Andalusia of the 11th century, in the grip of religious severity.
Faouzi Skali explains: “The later epoch of the Almoravids saw a particularly significant act of oppression with the public burning in Cordoba and Marrakech of the works of the great mystic and theologian Al Ghazâlî, who died in 1111.” When Andalusia was torn apart by the wars between the Taifas (independent Muslim districts), strict ideology was imposed and the great philosophical and scientific teachings were suppressed. The work of Al Ghazali, The Revival of the Religious Sciences, was burned.
|Amargura - an expression of desolation|
This sequence was illustrated musically by two strong tempos, the Amargura, a traditional Spanish song that is an expression of desolation performed by Javier Delgado and Antonio Coronel, and the Riffian tempo as demonstrated by Ahmed Boutaleb, accompanying on the ney (flute).
The third sequence showed the Andalusia of the Almohads (12th century) rising from the ashes and becoming a cultural breeding ground. “The Islam of spiritual Love gained in importance and was widely disseminated by the teachings of Sufism, by its men and women, its belief system and its poetry,” Faouzi Skali explained.
“Fertile ground was found in this western outpost of Islam where the conjoining of science, philosophy and spirituality could be nourished, and the profound dialogue between religions and cultures could be fed.”
This central part of the performance was a veritable showcase of talent and proved popular with the crowd.
Love songs sung between Marouane Hajji and Zined Afilal were accentuated by the gestures of her hands, her electric purple fingernails twinkling as her movements and voice expressed the poetic love story of the King of Granada and the poetess Hafsa.
The Amin Doubi Andalusia Ensemble’s voices soared to the heavens, proclaiming ‘Allah w Ahkbar’, prompting spontaneous handclaps from the Moroccans in the audience. The Ensemble, Haj Mohamed Bajeddoub, Abderrahim Souiri, Abdelfattah Bennis, Saad Temssamani and Ahmed Marbouh, set such an infectious rhythm with their singing that audience members clapped along while a vigorous violin accompaniment looked at risk of starting a fire with the friction between bow and strings. Their radiant singing culminated with the declaration ‘Marhaba’ (welcome), their arms flung wide and the crowd applauding their approval.
The passion, longing and agony of love was beautifully illustrated by Carmen Linares, her throaty voice against a blood red background, eyes closed and fists clenched. ‘Mi corazone’ she sang, clutching her heart. Again, this performance was accentuated by the movement of hands, sometimes brought together in prayer, sometimes clutching her abdomen, sometimes making a slow, rhythmic clap.
|Tomasa la Macanita|
She was joined on stage by Tomasa la Macanita, her resplendent purple dress forming a dramatic foil to Linares’ ruffled skirt in orange and brown. The singers commenced an interplay that was more of a duel than a duet, each competing to express greater suffering.
Andres Marin, dressed soberly in black, then formed a triangle with the singers, who gave way to his flamenco dance performance.
With a knack for the dramatic, he raised himself on pointed toe; back arched, chest out and arms above his head like the antlers of a rutting stag. A long pause then he broke the pose into a flurry of movement, his feet tapping an accelerated heartbeat on the floor. It was a transfixing performance.
“Nizam guides us on the voyage towards this spiritual Love, all the while asking history and mankind about the meaning of this quest.,” Faouzi Skali said. “This is the Love of the Almohad Prince Abu Saïd for the poetess Hafsa, that tormented passion engendered by flamenco song, or the mystical Love that is expressed in each of the three Abrahamic faiths.”
The fourth sequence portrayed Andalusia and its three cultures and religions. The theme was how intercultural and interfaith dialogue is a source of inspiration for artists, poets and thinkers across the world.
The sequence showed how the arts spread and were fulfilled, Andalusian gardens took on their most beautiful forms and one could almost hear the gentle murmur of water in Andalusian courtyards.
The costumes of the three female performers in this sequence perfectly matched the theme – Francoise Atlan, her melodic voice soaring and dipping, wore a rose ring on her finger like the blooms in the garden.
Tomasa la Macanita took to the stage again, as an animation of the creation of an Andalusian garden was shown on the screens, trees emerging, flowers blooming and white blossom drifting across it.
Bahaa Ronda’s robes were embroidered with colourful flowers, echoing the floral blooms on the screens. Her voice was joyful and uplifting, a beatific expression on her face as she trilled with the accompanying ney.
The three woman finished by clasping hands, symbolising the intercultural and interfaith dialogue between the three cultures and religions of Andalusia.
The fifth and final sequence showed ‘Spiritual Andalusia’. At the end of the journey, across the music and the poetry, Nizam at last came to speak to Ibn Arabî, to inspire in him the ultimate secret of Love: that of the annihilation of the self.
|The joyful sound of sama'a|
Twenty-five white robed and turbaned sama’a singers filed onto the stage for the final sequence. Sitting cross-legged, they began to nod in unison, their voices harmonising to create a continuous sound like a long exhalation of breath.
The singers' contribution was the perfect way to conclude what had been one of the best opening nights the Fes Festival. The singers moved to chanting, which gradually sped up in time with the beat of a drum, building to a crescendo of exultation. The final word was had by a figure between the parapets, spotlighted as he proclaimed once more ‘Allah w Akbar!’ It was the perfect end to a great evening.
|The final words - ‘Allah w Akbar!’|
Some great masters and Sufi sages lived in Andalusia, one of whom was Ibn Arabi, also known as ach-Cheikh al Akhbar. He was a theologian, judge, poet, metaphysician and author of hundreds of works. He dedicated one work, The Interpreter of Desires, to a woman called Nizam (meaning Harmony), talking to her of religion, spirituality and the quest for direction. To illustrate this, in one breath, the madihiines (Sama’a singers) sang of this dissolving into divine love.
A white-blazed gazelle
is an amazing sight,
Pasture between breastbones and innards.
O marvel, a garden among the flames!
My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Torah,
The scrolls of the Qur’an.
I profess the religion of love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is the belief,
The faith I keep.
Extract from Turjman al Ashwaq, The Interpreter of Desires - Ibn ‘Arabi
Or, as Rumî, that other poet enthralled by divine Love, said, “I was raw, I was then cooked, and now I am burned!”
Other musicians, singers and dancers include: Salvador Gutierrez (guitar), Javier Delgado (clarinet), Antonio Coronel (percussion), David Marin, Pedro Esparza, Christina Hall and Jose Valencia.
"This is the third original creation for the Festival. It's always a real adventure to make a new creation, it's very exciting. It's easy to just programme a concert, but this is something quite different. It gives a sense to all our work, as it's linked to the theme and we have the chance to explain what is behind that. This also represents Fes - the capacity of recreating and telling a story through art and music. I hope it will be a big success." ~ Faouzi Skali
And the audience reaction?
|Rachel Hasnaoui from Washington and Saida Msefer from Fez|
Marta, France "The highlight for me was the flamenco, Andres Marin was incredible. The evening was a good mixture of acts. And the venue - when I walked into Bab Al Makina and the performance begins, I had chills up & down my arms: the atmosphere at this venue - wow."
Thomas, America "The coherence of the acts and the power, which was emblematic of the overarching theme - that was spectacular. The first act where the three women sang together … and the coherence and unity were a highlight"
Regina, exchange student, Rabat "The performance tonight was a beautiful blending of cultures. It was an amazing display. Also the crowd joining in and clapping along to the songs - you really feel a deep sense of community here. I really enjoyed it."
COMING UP AT THE FES FESTIVAL - Saturday June 8th:
Batha Museum 4pm
Nomadic Voices of the Steppes and the Mountains - Sardinia – Mongolia
Cuncordu E Tenore de Orosei and singers Ts Tsogtgerel and N Ganzorig of Mongolia
The songs of Sardinian tenors meet the diphonic Mongolian chant khöömii
Bab Al Makina 9pm
Istanbul The Golden Gate - Greece – Turkey
A musical journey from Constantinople to Istanbul, Artistic direction - Kyriakos Kalaitzidis
En Chordais Ensemble and the Byzantine Orthodox Choir of St Jean de Damas
Mevlevi whirling dervishes directed by Necip Gulses
Halil Necipoglu - voice
Fahrettin Yarkin - percussion
Volkan Yilmaz - ney (flute)
Fes Festival program
Fes Festival Medina Map
Fes Festival Food!
Fes Festival Site
Text: Vanessa Bonnin, Sandy McCutcheon,Stephanie Clifford-Smith, Natasha Christov
Photos: Suzanna Clarke, Vanessa Bonnin, Sandy McCutcheon