Monday, May 25, 2015

Fes Festival ~ Day Four ~ Review

The fourth day of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music began as a mopping up exercise following the torrential downpour on Sunday. With the weather improving and the sun shining, the Festival presented a day of music from Mali, India, Portugal, Burkina Faso, USA, Cuba and France and Moroccan Sufi music. It was a good day to be in Fez
Forum: Linguistic pluralism in Africa

Today's theme was "under-explored"

At this morning's Forum, on decidedly soggy seats, but thankfully under an increasingly fierce sun, the discussion was intended to explore linguistic pluralism, something shared by all African countries. According to one of the speakers, Henri Lopès, former Congolese Prime Minister and currently a Congolese diplomat, half of all world languages (around 3,000) are present in Africa. Of these, a staggering 90% of them are neither written nor transcribed. "This means that Africa's one billion inhabitants - in contrast to China's 1.3 billion - have no common written or read language." he said.

Such a potentially interesting theme was sadly under-explored by today's speakers. With the notable exception of two speakers, the podium speeches focused on theory, academic research and literature. Mr. Lopès recounted his own experience of trying to establish a lingua franca in the newly independent Republic of the Congo as Director General of Education, where over 40 languages are spoken, but essentially only the colonial language, French, is written.

Omar Berrada

Omar Berrada, Moroccan, former engineer and now engaged in various functions in the arts, gave a short but pertinent overview of Morocco's difficult relationship with its African heritage and its multi-ethnic present, through the medium of Gnaoua music and examples of the multilingual elements of Gnaoua song texts, the origins of which are often long lost.

The discussion would have been more meaningful were there a linguist on the panel, or even one woman! Quite apart from only brushing the surface of African linguistic diversity, the debate - as led by the panel - could have touched on some current and relevant issues in Morocco, such as the discussion of English vs. French in education and government and the campaign for greater recognition of Amazigh languages, as reflected in the revised constitution. Both were touched upon, but only fleetingly. Audience members questioned the lack of focus on the topic and why was there no Gnaoui on the panel, or a representative of the Moroccan Education Minister, Mr. Lahcen Daoudi, a strong advocate for greater tuition in English?

This year, the Forum has deliberately invited students from Moroccan universities to participate. We spoke to some of them, who were reluctant to give their names. They felt that the panel's set pieces, exclusively in French and at a linguistic level above the average francophone's ability, were insufficiently interactive. They would have welcomed contributions in English or at a simpler level of comprehension. They also criticised the fact that there were no panellists from sub-Saharan Africa who were based in their native countries (rather than in Europe) - the presence of such speakers would have lent a completely different perspective.

Tuesday's Forum will cover "Hassan Al Wazzan (Leo Africanus): Portraying Africa". We will see tomorrow how the panellists explore this historical figure and the relevance of his work for Africa in the 21st century.

Some audience members questioned the "lack of focus"

Batha Museum Afternoon Concert

This afternoon's concert showcased what the Fes Festival does best - bringing together diverse musicians from different cultural backgrounds and creating collaborations that take both types of music to a new level. A three part concert, the audience were treated to individual performances by Ballake Sissoko and Debashish Bhattacharya, then a triumphant third act with both musicians on stage.

Sissoko - one of Mali's greatest masters of the kora (a West African 21-stringed harp) - entered the stage as modestly as his reputation suggested. A man of few words, he prefers to speak through his music. And the audience were more than willing to listen. His long fingers gripped two carved wooden handles on either side of the kora’s neck, plucking the strings using only his first finger and thumb, effectively playing 21 strings with only four fingers.

The captivating music quickly cast a spell on both the audience and Sissoko, who played with his eyes shut tight as if in a trance, occasionally nodding and shaking his head with the flourishes in the melody. The first songs' reverie was quickly broken by loud cheers and clapping from a group of Malians in the audience, their pride evident like a home crowd cheering on their team.

The sound of the kora is quite extraordinary, the number of strings allowing for a repetitive bass note underneath a flurry of harp-like harmonies over the top. It has often been described as having a ‘crystalline’ quality and while Sissoko’s music is steeped in ancient West African traditions, he is not afraid to innovate and combine his sound with other instruments from around the world. “Cultural exchange feeds music” is his mantra and this is what we witnessed.

Bhattacharya entered the stage and embraced Sissoko, the first sign of the warm relationship we were to see played out on stage later. He then picked up his famous guitar and held it out to the audience without a word, allowing us to acknowledge the instrument. The Hindustani slide guitar is his creation and pairs his first love — a Hawaiian lap steel guitar, a gift from his father when he was only three — and the sounds of India.

“It’s a great honour for me to be here among you at the beautiful Fes Festival,” the far more verbose Bhattacharya began. “I would like to thank all the musicians here today, and I would also like to thank myself for being involved,” he joked. “We also need to thank the sound technicians, when I arrived here this morning the place was full of water and they have worked tirelessly all day to prepare this stage. I can talk for hours but I will now play you some ragas, accompanied by the tabla, and you will hear some interplay - like Barcelona versus Real Madrid!”

He commenced playing the Chaturangui guitar, his left hand holding a pink stone shaped like an egg which he slid up and down the strings on the neck of the guitar, his right hand wearing a plectrum on both thumb and forefinger and his fingers flying at great speed, supported by his pinky which rested on the guitar. So many layers of sound emerged that it seemed like multiple instruments are being played together like a small orchestra. The slide of the strings evoked a haunting cry, like a woman singing of a lost love.

The duets with the tabla were also extraordinary, both musicians riffing, picking up each others beats, back and forth, building to a frenetic crescendo, their fingers blurred over the instruments. Eyes squeezed shut, they gestured to the sky and the gods and finished with palms pressed together in a ‘namaste’ to the crowd.

“The maestro is on stage!” Bhattacharya exclaimed as Sissoko joined them. “He is the perfect person for this festival, as he is a person of heart and his music is from his soul.” All three musicians proceeded to retune their instruments to be in perfect harmony and then launched straight into a truly transportive musical journey. Soaring soundscapes were created from repeated melodies between the kora and the guitar, the pace pushed further and further by the tabla. The pleasure in creating wonderful music was evident on the musicians faces, smiles lighting up after a particularly good harmony or solo. The music was full of joy, you could feel the beat of the tabla in your stomach, hear the wail of the guitar in your heart and take the song of the kora into your soul.

“This song is a prayer for all the people who live in this world peacefully and happily with joy and with love,” Bhattacharya said before the final piece. And after such an uplifting performance the audience certainly felt in complete harmony with that sentiment.

Audience reaction: “I think the first song on the kora was almost like Pink Floyd, it had a little psychedelic quality. I liked when they were all playing together, jamming off each other. And the drummer was freaking awesome, he overflowed with an honest enthusiasm.” Oliver Truesdale-Jutras, Ottawa, Canada. First time Festival goer.

Nights in the Medina Part 1

Dar Adiyel - Eduardo Ramos

Specialising in 13th century Arab and Sephardic music, Eduardo Ramos is one of the most well-known artists in Iberian medieval music, which was reflected in the beyond capacity crowd at Dar Adiyel this evening. The organisers took the unusual step of seating the overflowing audience members behind the performers.

Despite the lack of space, Dar Adiyel was the perfect venue for this type of music, it’s medieval tones in complete harmony with the ornate Arabic setting. Indeed, if it were not for the modern equipment we could have been back in the 13th century - a half moon rising over the picturesque scene, the same ancient moon that has witnessed many generations of people playing this music.

Ramos has brought his Portuguese and Spanish medieval music into the present however, and the accompaniment of a djembe drum with his skilled oud playing gave a more contemporary feel to the pieces. The audience picked up on the beat and there was much tapping of feet and enthusiastic clapping along with the music.

Ramos himself was also a figure in motion, and although seated, his constantly flying fingers and knees jiggling in time showed the music flowing through him. His rich, melodic voice came from deep within and the quavering quality to it was produced by him shaking his upper body and shoulders whilst singing.

The proximity of the crowd to the stage in this small venue allows for great involvement - a solo of a high-pitched sliding scale of notes prompted spontaneous applause and rhythmic clapping and his last number ‘Salaam Alekum’ had the whole crowd singing and in a festive mood as they melted out into the medieval night-time medina in search of other musical delights throughout the evening.

Sidi Mohamed Ben Youssef Cultural Complex - Masks of the Moon – Bwaba Ritual

An extraordinary magical ritual from the griot village of Baraba in Burkina Faso

This inspirational ritual is both ancient and contemporary and is an expression of all that is magical about Africa. The sumbo poa or white masks are also called ‘masks of fabric’ belong to the griots of Bereba. These griots are masters of the spoken word, faithful guardians of the oral tradition, trusted keepers of ancestral customs and musicians for all occasions: the griots are responsible for all music in the Bwaba community.

The masks are made of fabric with crests that are richly decorated with cowrie shells, and are only brought out at full moon. They seem connected to some cosmic force beyond us.

When wearing a mask, the griot becomes an incarnation of the god Do. As soon as he puts on the white costume, he ceases to be human: all his relationships with family and friends are suspended. The word – symbol of the human condition – no longer belongs to him. He can hear nothing but the cry of Do and therefore no one else can speak to him. As part of the divinity’s power, he is not responsible for his actions and everything is allowed him.

The appearance of the masks brings joy and unleashes physical excess, anarchic dance and uncoordinated movements, and has emotional affects such as great enthusiasm and over-excitement, all characteristics of the celebration that would mark the return to earth of the god Do.

Some of the masks represent animals (zebra, cockerel, chicken, leopard), while others are responsible for security so that the performance goes smoothly.

The performance in the intimate courtyard of the Cultural Complex was an exhilarating display of ancient the ritual and drumming. The audience was close up and with the addition this year of a small amount of tiered stand seating, everyone had a good view. A proper dance floor had been installed for the performance. Lighting was predominantly blue and open white, giving a lunar pallor to the interior of the courtyard.

The presentation was theatrical, beginning with a cowbell ringing and wailing of women from off stage. Then a tethered moon-masked man ran on stage, followed by another drummer and a xylophone player who between them established a steady rhythm before being joined by a third drummer. The wailing rose in intensity as the first two moon mask performers arrived shaking and shivering violently, with their solid ankle bells creating a jangling cacophony.

White costumes with black markings giving them the appearance of the living dead

The tempo increased and the dancers movements became wild and erratic. Their headpieces, with rope for hair. came into play with a display of head thrashing that rivalled that done by Moroccan women during a hadra trance dance. The drumming was relentless and exhilarating.

Then it was the turn of the women, three of whom sang while circulating the performance area. Then two more moon masked performers arrived - older and more experienced that while they did many of the same moves they did them a a far greater pace - breathtaking.

A child dancer appeared, nestled like a baby on the back of a parent. Yet when he was put down he performed with the same mind numbing speed and intensity. It was a wonderful display of a ritual few in the audience have seen before or even heard of. A great evening.

Batha Museum – Marassa Premiere - Omar Sosa and Urban Tap

Every inch of Omar Sosa oozes creativity. As he arrived on stage in flowing white robes and his statement specs (although without his signature prayer cap), he looked like some kind of spiritual leader. Sosa has previously described his music as an "expression of humanism and Santería" and tonight's first piece, under the great Barbary Oak of the Musée Batha gardens and against the backdrop of visuals by VJ Naj (Jean de Boysson), was an homage to Changó, who for Cubans is the orisha god of drumming, dancing and leadership.

But tonight, Sosa was the leader. With urban tap genius Tamango, and percussionist Gustavo Ovalles, he maintained an intimate chemistry and communication that suggested perhaps that the whole event was improvised. Sosa's piano and keyboards led the way, as Tamango tapped out the 5-beat clave rhythm of the second, salsa-inspired second track and Ovalles accompanied on güiro and congas. No sooner had we arrived in Cuba, though, we left and headed back to Africa, via a brief flirtation with the 1930s New York jazz scene. Tamango's costumes, however, were reminiscent of voodoo rituals and for later pieces, he appeared onstage wearing African masks, finally performing the sandbox shuffle which had so impressed the audience during the Festival opening night.


Tonight's spectacle, a magical combination of music, spoken word, images and dance, called Création Marassa (after the divine twins of Voodoo), was a special collaboration for the Fes Sacred Music Festival. Between them, these outstanding artists took the audience from deepest Africa across the Caribbean and brought us safely back again to Fes.

Dar Adiyel – The Royal Art of the Kora directed by Ballaké Sissoko

The 10:30pm concert at Dar Adiyel was another opportunity to see Ballaké Sissoko, kora master. This time, as at the Festival opening, he was on stage with 10 koras in total, including 8 students of the National Institute of Arts in Bamako. "My son doesn't play kora," Sissoko lamented, but it seemed that the future of Mali's indomitable musical lineage is in good hands. The students are taught by Sissoko's cousin, Didier, who was also present, keeping an eye on his young protégés.

Four vocalists - from the eminent Malian musical families Kouyaté and Diabaté - accompanied the koras on a number of tracks, including possibly the best known piece written for kora, the traditional Debe, best known from the In the Heart of the Moon collaboration between Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré. Bringing the long heritage of the kora right up to date, the final piece was a composition by one of the students. Humbly, the master and teacher, Didier, said "I'll try to play along."

Listening to the kora is like meditating beside a trickling fountain in a Fassi riad. Tonight's venue, the former home of the Adiyel family and now an academy for the preservation of Moroccan Andalusian music rose tall like a cathedral behind the musicians. What better venue or better performance to remind us of the intimate links between Morocco and Mali at this year's Sacred Music Festival, dedicated to Africa?

Sufi Night

The Sufi Night at Dar Tazi was only half full, which was surprising given that Isawa were performing. Along with the Hamadcha, who will close the festival Sufi Nights on Saturday, they are one of the most famous and popular Sufi groups.

The brotherhood (tariqa) of the Isawa (Aïssawa) is a mystical-religious order founded in Meknes in Morocco by Muhammad Ben Aissa (1465-1526 ), nicknamed the "Perfect Master" (Shaykh al-Kamil) and originating in the town of Taroudant. From a clearly orthodox origin, the brotherhood of Aïssâwa has become a complex social phenomenon at the turn of the sacred and the profane, private and public and scholarly and popular cultures.

The Aïssâwa are famous throughout the Arab world for their spiritual music characterised by the use of the oboe-like ghaita  (pictured above), collective singing of religious hymns accompanied by an orchestra of percussion using polyrhythmic elements.

Their complex ritual, which features symbolic dances causing students to trance, takes place firstly in the private sphere in domestic parties organised at the request of individuals (lîla-s), and, second, in the public sphere during the celebrations of fiestas (the moussem-s, which are also pilgrimages) and tourist festivities (folk performances) or religious (Ramadan, Mawlid or birth of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad ) organised by the Moroccan and Algerian States.

At Dar Tazi they were in fine form, producing a solid wall of sound that swept the audience up. For the local Moroccan followers of the Brotherhood it was a joyous occasion - for the visitors for whom it was a first time experience it was, as one young American told The View From Fez, "It was awesome". He was right.

The Buzz ~ Audience feedback with Fatima Matousse

Each day at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, we take time to talk with festival goers and find out what people find exciting - and what they think needs improvement. 

Today we talked to various Moroccan students who attended the morning forum. They requested that The View From Fez not  mention their names or their university. However, here's what they had to say:

• “If only the panel was in English, I would have benefited much more. It is not that I do not understand French language, but I think that some of the panelists used very high academic French, which makes it hard for locals to understand and access. If only the language used was simpler and not only addressed to the elite.”

• “The presentation about how the arts convey pluralism was very shallow, it did not go deep and the argument of the panelist was not supported by various examples. The examples that were given did not mirror the underground art for example.”

• “I expected that the forum would be more interactive - most of the panelists read from novels, and papers and did not make an eye contact with the audience. I think that the audience should be able to intervene from the very beginning to ensure the exchange between the two.”

• “I feel that students are not involved in the debate, most of the audience is composed of foreigners and the Moroccan elite.”

Hélène Quiuiou(USA): a student from Colombia University, New York, Department of 'Translation and Languages' raised the important issues of code-mixing and code-switching (speakers mixing elements of different languages), which is very current across Africa and can be heard on a daily basis in Morocco, but which was barely mentioned by the forum participants.

“I liked that the panelists belong to diverse backgrounds; they were philosophers, writers, diplomats and artists. This mixture enriches the debate and establishes a link between all the fields,” Hélène said. “My criticism of the panel was the absence of correlation between languages; I felt that the speakers tackled the languages co-existing in various societies as separate entities. There was not a much deeper dwelling on the fact that languages are heavily connected. And that multilingual countries and societies use code-mixing and code-switching all the time.”

Text: Sandy McCutcheon, Vanessa Bonnin, Lynn Sheppard, Fatima Matousse
Photographs: Suzanna Clarke, Vanessa Bonnin, Sandy McCutcheon
Additional translation and research: Helen Ranger

Tomorrow at the Fes Festival

Weather: Sunny with a top temperature of 27 Celsius - a low at night of 12
9 am - Batha Museum - Forum - Hassan Al Wazzan (Leo Africanus) portraying Africa
4.30 pm - Batha Museum - Roberto Fonseca (Cuba) and Fatoumata Diawara (Mali)
8.30 pm and 10.30 pm - Free Festival in the City - Bab Boujloud - Cheb Bilal and Said Berrada

Night in the Medina II
8 pm Dar Adiyel - Li Diaguo on pipa, cello and beatbox (China)
8 pm Sidi Mohamed Ben Youssef Cultural Complex Sonia Mbarek (Tunisia)
9 pm - Batha Museum - Diego El Cigala (Spain)
10.30 pm - Dar Adiyel - The Sacred World of Mugham  (Azerbaijan)
10.30 pm - Sidi Mohamed Ben Youssef Cultural Complex - Nawab Khan and Mantra (India)

Sufi Nights
11 pm Dar Tazi - (Free) Al Ghazali Ensemble- Tariqa Machichiya

The View from Fez  is a Festival Media Partner and will be reporting on all festival events and keeping visitors up to date with any change to the schedule via news stories and on Twitter :  @theviewfromfez

See our previous Fes Festival 2015 reports
Fes Festival Opening Night Review
Fes Festival Day Two Review
Fes Festival Day Three
Fes Festival Day Four Review
Fes Festival Day Five
Fes Festival Day Six
Fes Festival Day Seven
Fes Festival Day Eight
Fes Festival Day Nine
Fes Festival - The Wrap

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

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