Friday, June 14, 2013

The Fez Hamadcha at Fes Festival of World Sacred Music Sufi Nights - Review

The Hamadcha Brotherhood bring local vibrancy and life to the Dar Tazi Sufi Nights

The Hamadacha Brotherhood has historically been prominent among the popular classes and today remains in this role alongside the Gnawa and Aïssawa. Though the Hamadcha have followers across Morocco, they are concentrated in and around Fez, Zerhoune and Meknes.

Founded by Sidi Ali Ben Hamoudch in the seventeenth century, the Brotherhood became known for its hypnotic melodies and the prominence it gives to ritual, believing in the power of curative music. Legend has it that Ben Hamdouch, a contemporary of the sultan Moulay Ismail, came from the lands of modern-day Syria to Zerhoune, near Meknes, where he gave himself to a lifetime of prayer and reflection. Every year on the anniversary of the prophet’s death many Moroccans, in a move that would cause friction with more dogmatic Muslims around the world, travel to saintly tombs such as that of Ben Hamdouch in order to access the baraka (divine blessing) believed to permeate such sites.

Baraka was a word on the lips of Frédéric Calmès, a young anthropologist, when he spoke at the Sufi Festival in Fez earlier this year. Having come to carry out ethnographic work in the 2000s, Calmès recalled that the generation of anthropologists arriving in Morocco in the 1970s were met by Moroccans incredulous of the desire of their European counterparts to study old village and rural tribal patterns when the country was in the throes of modernization. Yet this modernization has taken a toll on many forms of popular expression, none more so than the Hamadcha, who by the late 1970s had no more than a few dozen practicing members in Fez.

Frédéric Calmès

Calmès, who performed in a prominent role last night as has become customary, began working alongside Aderrahim Amarana Marrakchi, the leader of the Fez Hamadcha, in order to revive the group in the local area. This has meant drawing on Hamdouchi musical traditions in order to package a performance that is an attack on the senses in an attempt to confer baraka on the audience.

Unlike many Brotherhoods, then, the Hamadcha are at the same time performers who rely on the stage for their survival as well as a prayer group following the rituals, customs and ways of their founder. They opened last night with a tried and tested pattern of calls from the nafir (a cylindrical, long and narrow trumpet) that emanated from the darkness behind the audience, before a procession of candles held by the members of Australian choir Timbre Flaws, snaked its way to the stage through the crowd followed by drummers and trumpeters.

Frédéric Calmès takes the incense to the crowd

This was clearly the highest form of pageantry that Dar Tazi had seen so far this week. With the beat of the drums already rising to a steady fever pitch, a riot of colours present in the billowing robes of performers standing a few feet from the audience, the smell of incense pouring over the heads of the crowd, some of the men started the exuberant trance dance, bobbing their heads and quickly gyrating their bodies. This was some start.

The men banged the life into the drums, the nafirs screeching, the audience clapped, shouted, screamed Allah every 4 rapid beats as the already aggressive swaying of some young boys gripped the audience, the effect enhanced by the balmy evening and the packed crowd.

The perfomers then moved on to the stage. It became immediately clear that they had devised a sophisticated arrangement. Gone were the straight-forward unisons of some of the previous nights and on the schedule were polyphonic vocal arrangements which saw one melody taken by a solo voice and another by several singers whose persistent variations on the names of God became a spellbinding incantation. Matching this was a contrapuntal set of claps on the off-beat which added to the texture.

Abderrahim Amrani Marrakchi - a consumate performer

What became apparent as the night went on was the Hamadchas’ mastery of pace. They were able to successfully set the mood and ambience of each movement, manipulating audience responses so that we were taken from quick flights to subdued descents in our emotional responses. Abderrahim Amrani Marrakchi, the group’s leader, was a consummate performer and leader, directing his brothers on stage as well as the audience at will.

A sense of performance - Amrani Marrakchi takes centre stage

It was this sense of performance that came across as somewhat contrived at times, however. Though much of the audience seemed thrilled with the offering, a 10 minute interlude of drumbeats during which Calmès and Marrakchi danced facing each other appeared rehearsed. This is a difficult gripe with the kind of performance that needs to be self-conscious enough to move its audience to a feeling of ecstasy at each appearance, but the best kind of sufi concerts are able to produce an effect on both spectator and perfomer. Otherwise we become trapped in the mundane offerings stripped of life to be found on ganawa tours next to seaside towns put on by paid actors.

This was not the case last night, but it is a danger that comes when such music becomes only a performance and not a form of prayer in itself. That this did not occur was evidenced by the rapture of much of audience who were genuinely moved, most of them who came to their feet on several occasions, swaying, chanting, and clapping along. The benedir (a boxed guitar) made an admirable appearance amongst all of this, playing off minor scales that paralleled the whirling hands of many of the audience.

Hamadcha, the next generation

It was also touching to see the participation of one of the young boys, seated to the far right of the stage, who is the next generation of the Hamadcha. Those involved in the group have worked hard to encourage younger members whose artwork can currently be seen hanging on the walls of Café Clock in an exhibition entitled Ruh (Spirit).

This local aspect seems to be one of which some festival goers are sadly unaware. In an international event such as this it is sometimes easy to forget the vibrancy and life that comes to a group performing on home turf and to gloss over their links to the city. Whilst much of the Ville Nouvelle crowd gathered at Bab Makina last and proceeded to spend the night chatting amongst themselves or on Facebook, at Dar Tazi the Hamadcha’s relationship to Fez provided a spectacle that is part of the lifeblood of the city.

Text: Nouri Verghese - MPhil Candidate at Oxford University
Photographs: Inga Meladze

Tonight : Sufi Nights at Dar Tazi
Tariqa Al Ajibia (Tangier) 11pm

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