Saturday, June 15, 2013

Nas al-Ghiwane shine at Fes Festival's Festival in the City

Shadows and light ~ Dominique A and Nass El Ghiwane at Boujloud

Approaching Place Boujloud for the free evening concerts had been a pleasant affair the six previous nights I had attended. I’d enjoyed the gentle ambience of strolling families and wheeling birds in the wide, high walled space, while anticipating matching fine music to mostly unfamiliar names.

This night however felt different; working through a mess of cars and skittering motorbikes, jostling people, and heavy bass blasting down the street, under what sounded like the amplified ghost of Ian Curtis. Apparently tonight’s concert had started on time, and loudly.

Somewhere up front, French indie songwriter Dominique A(né) was performing with two guitars and a drum kit, on a darkened stage.

Dominique A - somewhere in the dark

It was a little disheartening, after worming through the crowd, to find the usual entrance to the ‘press pen’ shut off by reinforced steel fencing. Eventually though, after more crowd worming, chats with various security chaps, and leaving to try again from a different direction, I found a small gate backstage willing to admit me.

Actually, I was relieved to have left for a few minutes. The grinding reverb of the guitars inside the walls had felt like they were my cardiac rhythms in some kind of grunge defibrillation.

Festival publicity had described Dominique A as ‘a poet of the intimate using subtle melodies... always in the shadows.’

As a non-Francophone, I could not appreciate the words, which were sparsely phrased within minimalist melodies. But certainly there were shadows. Indeed, it was not until a few songs in that I realized there was a keyboard in the dark recesses of the stage. Perhaps the black space the musicians were playing in- relieved by rapid thin white flashes- could explain what sounded like 1980’s Casio presets occasionally emerging from what eventually became a sub-Sonic Youth ‘wall of noise’.

Waiting for Nass El Ghiwane

There was no sign of the promised ‘sweet harmony of a wind quintet’. Perhaps they were entirely hidden in the gloom. But really, who cares. Move on. This was not who the surging crowd had come to see.The real drawcard was Morocco’s own- the celebrated, seminal, adored Nass El Ghiwane.

Originating in avant-garde political theater, Nass El Ghiwane are credited as ‘more or less inventing the modern Moroccan popular song’, mixing in contemporary, sometimes political and humanitarian themes to Melhoun melodic poetry; and ‘outside’ instruments to the great rhythmic traditions, such as Gnawa and Sufi, that they are interpreting and developing. The name means “new ghiwanes” referring to a Sufi sect who formerly sang news, religious lore and entertainment for the Berber people.

And then there was light! Nass El Ghiwane take the stage

Like many bands with a long career- their latest album, Baraka, is their 36th since 1973- members have changed over time, as musicians have moved on or passed away. Current lineup includes founders Omar Sayed and Allal Yaala , Chifa Abdelkrim and brothers Rachid and Hamid Batma. A stirring tribute was paid to former members during the evening.

Elias Muhanna, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Brown University, trying to describe their importance in Western terms said: "Nas al-Ghiwane are the Beatles of Morocco, the Rolling Stones of Morocco, the Bob Dylans of Morocco’- intensely famous, innovative and influential".

Writer Joseph Braude called them "perhaps the greatest singing group in the modern history of North Africa,"and it seemed every member of the crowd agreed, singing along from the first bar, and grooving along with them as much as the sardine-can conditions allowed.

Within minutes, photography became near impossible. The lights were on (in fact, the stage lighting was, as usual for these concerts, excellent.) But the front stage ‘press pen’, behind its reinforced steel fencing, was as packed and seething as the rest of the square. Surely not all these pogoing youth, elegant ladies and dancing children were journalists?

This was clearly a ‘must be at’ event for the people of Fes and, judging by the amount of attempted documentation going on, one to show your grandkids you’d been at. Phones, cameras, flashlights, iPads, babies... all were held aloft amidst waving hands.

Singing with a gruff intensity, driven by diverse and hypnotic traditional percussion syncopating across the constantly riffing guembri and banjo, Nas al-Ghiwane more than excited the audience. Human pyramids of boys formed amongst the throng, some bare chested, their t-shirts spinning like the tassels on Gnawa hats.

Human pyramids of boys formed amongst the throng

Not that this was a uni-generational or uni-style crowd. While girls posed and boys jostled to be included in front row shots, one elderly lady became very concerned I may inadvertently photograph her. A kindly policeman loaned her his orange vest to protect herself. There were still plenty of orange vests to go around. Security was serious, with what appeared to be khaki-clad soldiers filing in after midnight to double the front guard in case of pitch invasion.

I began to be glad of the little back gate. And that one of the black suited security chiefs was able to translate what singer Rachid Batma was saying towards the end, that was making the crowd near hysterical with cheers and chants.

"He is asking what is the difference between people, like you and me. And answering himself:
‘There is not a difference, we are all people. Feel good, whoever you are." Cheers, Mr Security Man. Thanks Nass El Ghiwane. And thanks again, Fes Festival and your excellent production teams for the great work you do to bring (mostly) wonderful music to the people.

Wending their way home - at 1.30 am 

Any idea that the Festival is for just the ‘elite’ or ‘the ville nouveau’ was blasted by this night’s concert. Heading home through the Medina at 1.30 am after this free event meant joining a human river flowing down Talaa Sgira; the youth, the grandmas, the couples, the babies, the little Aussie traveller. We were all in it together, going in the same direction, and we felt good.

Text and photographs: Gabe Monson

Festival in the City Final night
Boujloud 10.30
Karim Ziad followed by the legendary Hamid Kasri

Fes Festival Fringe program
Fes Festival Medina Map
Fes Festival Food! 
Fes Festival Site

The View from Fez is an official media partner of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music

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