Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Marouane Hajji - a star at Fes Festival Sufi Nights

A couple of years ago The View from Fez described Marouane Hajji as a "rising star". Now that that star has well and truly risen.  Marouane Hajji, born in Fez in 1987, is a violinist and Sufi singer with considerable charisma. 

Hajji began singing at the age of five, studying under the tutelage of Sheikh Haj Mohammed Bennis, at the Mederssa Rachidite in Ras Echarratine and with teachers at the Fez Conservatory of Music. 

In 1998, he won first place in a competition held at the National Festival of Singers in Fez for his ability to captivate an audience, the power of his voice and originality of his performance - all qualities that were clearly evident in his performance tonight as part of the Fes Festival Sufi Nights, as Nouri Verghese reports

"Omitting to see Marouane Hajji at the Festival of Sacred Music in Fez would be like a trip to the Louvre without seeing the Mona Lisa."

The Concert

Omitting to see Marouane Hajji at the Festival of Sacred Music in Fez would be like a trip to the Louvre without seeing the Mona Lisa. Hajji, a 26 year old native of Fez, certainly knows how to pull a crowd. Last night Dar Tazi was full to the rafters, with the audience tightly packed in, sitting on the floor and many more standing, dancing, and shaking around the sides.

Hajji was singing with his group the Ikhwan al-Fann (Art Brothers), made up of nine musicians. Immediately striking at this Sufi night was that neither Hajji nor his group is representative of a particular Tariqa (Brotherhood). They are closer in form to a modern band.

The seemingly endless variety of Sufi practice has come about through the movement’s ability to adapt to new contexts. The Ikhwan al-Fann are no different, responding in part to the commodification of culture that sees the spiritual move from the zawiya to the stage.

In contrast to the Western experience, however, in which much spiritual music has been largely stripped of its explicit relation to God, last night’s audience was clearly responsive to the religiously charged atmosphere of the night.

Whilst the Batha Museum next door had been packed full of a mix of European and Moroccan spectators, Dar Tazi’s audience was predominantly local and many amongst the smattering of Englishmen and Frenchmen, such as the owner of Café Clock, hail from the ex-pat community.

This is because Hajji is not well known in Europe. Amongst the locals, however, he is akin to a popstar, having taken to the stage in a long, knee-length black jacket studded with silver that was closer in style to last Sunday’s flamenco performers than to any of the Tariqas we have seen perform so far.

From the off Hajji filled the open-air venue with a plaintive shout suspended between two worlds, at once calling, singing, and chanting a series of seven Allah’s each held and stretched out across time whilst making up an electrifying crescendo. Here Hajji’s vibrato gave his voice a seemingly endless texture and his virtuoso control immediately prompted the enthusiastic applause of the audience, who knew they were in for a good night.

Many of this audience were in their twenties or younger. They began to clap along to the instantly catchy music. The Ikhwan al-Fann are foremost musicians with a repertoire as well as religious men communing with the Unseen. Unlike the previous night, therefore, Hajji stuck to a very small number of repeated invocations that had the crowd involved across the night.

Beginning with a chorus of Allah Allah ya Mawlana, Hajji freely moved between his own verses and back to the chorus, holding out the microphone to the audience who enthusiastically filled the space with a wall of sound in response. Despite the repetition of the lyrics, the endless musical variation, which lived up to the charisma of the main singer, provided a necessary counterpart.

Across the night Hajji took 5 short interludes between the musical performance to chat with the crowd with a lightness of touch and clear charisma that will surely seal his place in the future of this genre. After wishing everyone a happy upcoming Ramadan, the shape of each suite to come was set up: after playing briefly together in unison, one instrument would be allowed its chance to shine. Whether the viola, oud or ney (flute popular in Arabic music), each solicited applause from the audience. Last night the ney solos were most successful, mirroring Hajji’s rapid rise and fall in scale, the high and breezy pitch providing a counterpoint to the richness of the munshid’s voice. The musicians would then move back into unison before finally the voice was brought in.

Whilst much of the evening was fast-paced and colourful, characterised by call and response with the audience, spontaneous celebratory shouts and indeed some virtuoso clapping techniques by some of the audience members (!), the group was also able to play off slow rhythms.

After a shout out to various cities across Morocco and France the last two movements were kicked off by a funeral march drumbeat, the heavy and deliberate percussion encasing each intonation of the Shahada (testament of faith) as if to bear witness to its very meaning: for a brief moment, nothing would exist outside of this phrase, musically or otherwise.

This percussion pace saw the first group of four men rise up from amongst the crowd seated on the floor and begin to sway, throatily intoning haq (truth/reality) which each rise and fall. Soon after other groups of younger boys were standing and the music then raised to a fever pitch.

Once the performance had ended the audience rose to its feet in applause. Sensing the genuine outpouring of emotion, Hajji quite rightly decided to suggest an encore. Jumping down off the stage, he was swarmed by those around him whilst the camera man tried to film from above. The rest of us had hands flying in the air and bodies swaying in time.

Last night Marouane Hajji rose to the challenge of the city of his birth, delivering the mix of performance and spirituality which he so powerfully evoked on the stage. His blend of religious training and stage presence is not the future of Sufi practice. Occupying one niche of the movement, however, Hajji will certainly be an effective communicator of the value of religious experience outside of the mosque and the zawiya.

Text Nouri Verghese - MPhil Candidate at Oxford University 
Photograph: Sandy McCutcheon

Coming up at the Fes Festival Sufi Nights at Dar Tazi

Thursday June the 13th : Tariqa Hamadcha of Fes

Along with the Gnawa and the Aïssawa, the Hamadcha are one of the three most important so-called ‘popular’ Sufi brotherhoods in Morocco. The Hamadcha brotherhood was founded by Saint Sidi Ali Ben Hamdouch in the seventeenth century, and has become famous through the originality of its repertoire, its spellbinding dances, and the trance-therapy skills of its members.

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