Thursday, June 19, 2014

Fes Festival's Final "Nights in the Medina" Saved the Best for Last

Nouhaila El Kalai at Dar Adiyel

At only 13 years of age, Nouhaila El Kalai is a teenage singing sensation who is ensuring Morocco's precious musical heritage continues for at least another generation. Stephanie Kennedy was at Dar Adiyel for The View from Fez

Nouhaila - photo Stephanie Kennedy

The teenager sings what is described as true poetic art, the songs of Melhoun. It's the most elaborate form of poetry that exists in Moroccan Arabic and it's the language of the artisans of the medinas. It was traditionally sung by the tanners, bakers, coppersmiths and other tradesmen and traces its roots back to the 15th Century.  The origin of Melhoun is found in the Tafilalet in the south east of Morocco, from where it migrated to Marrakech, Meknes and Fes.

A majority of the musicians were women - photo: Joel Dowling

Today Melhoun is a typical Moroccan genre where many elements of literature and the Moroccan arts converge and are underpinned by the rhythms of Andalusian music and popular melodies.  The songs are poems about everyday life, love and anecdotes.

It a style not usually associated with teenagers but Nouhaila started singing when she was two years old and her mother, Shedira a singer taught her daughter this traditional Moroccan style of music. Nouhaila told The View From Fes "it's easy to sing Melhoun, it comes from my heart." It's clearly a family affair with Nouhaila's younger sister, 11 year old Dikra, singing as part of the performance, while two other sisters were in the audience.

Nouhaila's younger sister, 11 year old Dikra

The labyrinth of the Fez medina resounded with the sweet sound of this teens poems of love and tales. Nouhaila did justice to Morocco's musical heritage, her performance was outstanding. The teenager sings with a mystical beauty and the audience were on their feet dancing, clapping and singing throughout the concert.  Nouhaila told The View from Fez "it was wonderful to see the crowd enjoy my performance."

Photo: Joel Dowling

The patriarch of the family, father Abdellatif was also thrilled with the audience reaction. "It was an honour to see foreigners besides Moroccans applaud my daughter. For me that moved me deeply and it gives me the courage to help my daughter to pursue her singing career."

A young girl with "a big heart" - photo: Joel Dowling 

Audience reaction

Nadine from Dubai told The View from Fez that she loved being taken back into the old Arabic traditions of story-telling through this music of the Melhoun. The melodic shifts in the music and the different styles of the solo verses were beautifully accomplished by this young singer.

Youssef from Fez said that Nouhalia was perfect tonight- a musical genius. The Melhoun is a difficult style of poetry to sing. It comes from Fez and her songs were about the beauty of Fez and its women.

Odile and Ghassan came from Lebanon to Fez for this festival for the first time.
They were amazed that this slim young girl could gather up this room full of people with her voice and lift us all to another level. It was sensational!

"It's magical to see this girl with a big heart for such a young age." Raquel Bitton, San Francisco

Text: Stephanie Kennedy with additional material from Larry Marshall
Photographs: Joel Dowling, Stephanie Kennedy 

Mor Karbasi at the Sidi Ben Youssef Cultural Centre

The young singer Mor Karbasi presented a brilliantly impassioned set of Moroccan Sephardic songs that captivated a large audience at the Sidi Ben Youssef Cultural Centre.  Sandy McCutcheon reports...

The concert started with an introduction from her four musicians - a multicultural mix that included two Englishmen, a Spaniard and an Israeli. A few minutes later Karbasi walked onto the stage. She is a slim woman whose slight build belied the power of her voice. "These are Moroccan songs," she said. "I have come home to sing my songs. It is their home too."

Mor Karbasi is of Moroccan origin, born in Jerusalem, and now based in Seville after five years in London.

Her focus has been on Ladino or Sephardic - the ancient language and music of the exiled Jews of Spain. However, she writes original material, as well as singing traditional songs. Listening to her it is easy to understand why she has been compared to such singers as the Portuguese Fado singer Mariza. Yet she has an individual style that is all her own.

The Sephardic melodies began slowly with soothing guitar, a heartbeat double bass and a mournful cello.  As Mor Karbasi begins to sing gentleness of her tone is beguiling, but then, with the addition of percussion and a change of tempo, the audience are treated to a dazzling display of vocal agility as she sings and dances.

Tonight's performance was a display of her versatility. "This is a song for my beautiful little Yasmin," she says and treats us to a lullaby.

"This next song is as beautiful as a rose, yet it has thorns," she says softly. She is not wrong as the mood swings from tranquility to a tempestuous foot stamping and the fiery movements of flamenco ... and back again. It is enthralling stuff.

Karbasi flicks back her hair and her body becomes her instrument as she expresses her passion using her arms and hands to gesture and claw at the air. It is a performance that has the audience giving her a standing ovation and begging for more.

Some of the songs in her repertoire may be more than 500 years old yet Mor Karbasi makes them belong here and now. This granddaughter of a Moroccan rabbi did indeed bring the songs home and those lucky enough to be in the audience welcomed them.

Text & photographs: Sandy McCutcheon

Zakir Hussain at the Batha Museum

When Zakir Hussain, the master of the Indian tabla took to the stage at the Batha Museum, Vanessa Bonnin was on hand to report on a transcendental performance

The crowd at Musee Batha knew they were in for a treat tonight with Zakir Hussain, India’s foremost tabla musician, and Rakesh Chaurasia, the new master of the bansuri flute. Hussain has literally transcended the art of tabla and he unleashed a concert that was a transcendental experience for all.

Hussain and Chaurasia quietly entered the stage and the first indication that this was going to be something a little modern was that an iPod was plugged into a dock, playing an ambient backing track. The deep ‘wooaw wooaw’ was followed by a long, low note on the bansuri flute, that hung in the air and then wafted away with the breeze. A melody began, like a thousand sighs, which in turn brought a collective sigh from the audience as they relaxed and were transported to another plane.

Hussain sits completely still throughout the introduction, his eyes closed in meditation with the music. Then a series of trills from the flute, like bird song, wakes Hussain and he slowly caresses the skin of the tabla drums as if gently waking them too. Dum, dum, dum dum dum. The first notes ring out with gentle finger taps followed by moans as the heel of his hand slides over the surface of the drum. Nodding his head in time with the rhythm, Hussain seems at times like he’s in a trance, then he emerges with a smile, his eyes widening with child-like pleasure.

During faster passages, Hussain keeps the beat in his throat and mouth, his tongue clicking and lips moving as if the whole picture is in his head and is emerging not only through his hands but his whole body.

Sridhar Partasarati

Other musicians join the stage, Sridhar Partasarati a mridangam player and then Sabir Khan on the sarangi, seamlessly joining the rhythm and adding another layer to the building music. The concept of individual tracks does not exist here, there is just one continuous piece of music that grows, the only pause after a period of intensity crescendos and the musicians break momentarily to smile, acknowledge each other, the audience applauds briefly, then they continue.

Sabir Khan

Each musician also takes their turn, riffing and playing with the melody, passing it back and forth between them. The tabla on it’s own is also sublime however – tabla drums when played like this are not just percussion instruments but a whole orchestra of sounds.

A kathak dancer joins the performance and she speaks to the audience for the first time: “We speak when we dance,” she said. “Indian classical music is about union, joy, release, salvation. Zakir does not know what I’m going to dance – although he knows everything! Mind, body, breath, heart, bells, beat, music – we try for that union.”

She dances a story about Lord Krishna and a woman collecting water from a river, she dances a story about a peacock celebrating after rain and then demonstrates classical Moghul ‘walks’ from the court in a dazzling display of precise but fluid movements.

The end of the concert is a complete break from the classical, when the musicians begin their final flourishes and surprise and delights the audience with snatches of music from James Bond, Axel F, Mozart and a mobile phone ring-tone. As a final jest, this throws into focus just how talented and unique these musicians are.

A charismatic magician in the alchemy of sound, Zakir Hussain has revolutionised the art of tabla and he plays as if he were riding the heavens – tonight the audience rode the heavens with him.

Zakir Hussain, tabla and percussion
Rakesh Chaurasia, bamboo bansuri flute
Sabir Khan, sarangi (short-necked stringed instrument)
Sridhar Partasarati, mridangam (double-sided drum)

Text and photographs: Vanessa Bonnin

Fes Festival ~ Thursday June 19

Jnan Sbil Garden 4pm: Amina Ben Souda

Batha Museum 4pm: Gypsies of Provence

Bab Boujloud Square 6.30pm: Raza Khan/Abidat Rma

Bab al Makina 9pm: Voices of  sama'a Mohammed Briouel

Sufi Night at Dar Tazi 11pm:  Zaouia Harrakia from Rabat

Weather:  Cool and cloudy  - Max 29 degrees Celsius (84.2 Fahrenheit) 

Fez Medina Map

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

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