Sunday, July 14, 2013

Volubilis International Festival ~ A gem of an event, small but perfectly formed

The Volubilis International Festival, Meknes July 3-8, seems to take place under the radar of the ‘cultural tourism’ circuit. Virtually no foreign visitors were in evidence at this 14th edition. Gabe Monson, from The View from Fez,  felt privileged to be there and offers her take on the highlights.

Local audiences embraced Volubilis Festival’s six nights of Moroccan and world music, with good reason. The program was free, diverse and well chosen. Local acts ranged from sing-along favourites and established genres to rising ‘New Scene’ groups. Stage, sound and lighting production was excellent. Security was friendly, the atmosphere relaxed in both the riverside Jardin Lahboul, and the bustling Place Lahdim, by the landmark Bab Mansour

International theatrical troupes included Turkish Folklor Kuruma and the gloriously costumed acrobatic Peking Opera of Heilongjiang, touring Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Peking Opera of Heilongjiang

As well as music from Guadelope, Peru, Spain, Poland and France, Africa was well represented. Paille (Martinique) provided contemporary dancehall sounds, while Ivory Coast group N’GOHA OBV opened their set at the level where most groups aim to climax. If Place Lahdim had a roof, they surely would have lifted it off.

During their set I wondered for a moment how the long established Moroccan folkloric group Izenzaren Iggout, waiting in the wings, were feeling, listening to the riotous act they were to follow.

However, Moroccans love their own, and within a few bars, the audience was as enthusiastic for their poetic Amazigh songs as they had been the night before for Cheb Kader’s urban Rai, his challenging lyrics laced with funky guitar riffs and delicious fiddle.

The program became more focused on Moroccan music towards the end of the week, spiced with exuberant Spanish flamenco and fusion jazz.

Maria Angeles Gabaldon

Indeed, the Festival, organised by the Ministry of Culture in partnership with the region Meknès-Tafilalet, provided a great showcase of Moroccan music across the regions and generations. It was clear from the audience responses that traditional forms continue their relevance and appeal, as superb musicians play creatively with lyrics and diverse instrumentation.

Jil el Maana combined Southern Gnawa rhythms with melhoun poetic quatrains. New York based SSAHHA, led by Moroccan born jazz pianist Amino Belyamani, featured perhaps the most unusual instrumental combination of the Festival, or maybe any festival. A traditional Gnawa guimbri sat alongside a grand piano, tuned to the quarter tones needed to mesh with an (electric) oud.

Moroccan born jazz pianist Amino Belyamani

Saturday night saw rising ‘New Style’ groups in a packed Place Lahdim. Amazigh language band Fuzz Anaruz (Fusion Hope) from Khemisset supported Heat Spirit from El Jadida. These articulate young performers shone a light on contemporary issues with clearly written songs going directly to the experience of their young audience.

The crowd roared along with Heat Spirit’s current single Boustane Jamil. As lead singer Soukaina FAHSI explained; ‘This song is about the difference between the version of the world we are told in school- get good marks, and everything will be OK -and the reality of life; that it is such a struggle.’

Soukaina is a girl to watch in the future, her confidence and stage presence way outshining the limited opportunities that these young groups get to perform live. Indeed, these young bands and musicians deserve a separate article, which will follow on The View From Fes shortly.

Soukaina is a girl to watch

On the last night, Fatima Zahraa Laaroussi’s set of well known, operatically ornamented love songs was delivered with a sense of generous joy. She sang like the cat who’d got the cream. And truly any singer who can front a capacity audience and the Meknes Orchestra, (including five male backing singers, five percussionists and a four piece string section) so warmly, while looking so good in a little black caftan, and rousing whole areas of youth to football-style chanting, deserves to enjoy herself.

Fatima Zahraa Laaroussi

But the real finale was yet to come.

A little confused by the program booklet (which runs backwards in non-English) thought the night was over, the orchestra just a little slow to leave, when suddenly the lights strobed, the audience went berserk and pop superstar Saad Lamjarred bounded onto the stage.

A cross between Bruce Springsteen and a Jet from West Side Story, this man has the action. Oh yeah, the boy can play. The son of famous performer parents, with the energy of a soccer player and the smile of a corsair, charisma pours from his pores.

pop superstar Saad Lamjarred

He strutted, leaped, joked and teased the crowd, encouraging people to come forward, even onstage. He kissed babies and young men, danced with ladies and reassured the sudden line of burly security; It’s OK, it’s OK. He was the Boss.

Afaf Razouki, summed up the Volubilis festival in Le Matin with: ‘This opening on the world confirms the will of the organisers to reinforce the values of exchange, tolerance and friendliness, while celebrating the art of living in ancestral and warm-hearted Morocco.’

I would sum it up by quoting Saad Lamjarred’s opening stage line: ‘I’m so glad to be here’. So was I. Now, you know about this little gem of a Festival too. Next year, be there. I will.

Text and photographs: Gabe Monson
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