Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Fes Festival ~ Day Six ~ Review

Festival Forum
Topic: Contemporary challenges: education, health and geostrategy

Today's final Forum faced the challenging task of covering a wide range of global issues in a short morning. There was a danger that the topics would be covered too superficially or in too much depth for the three hour slot. However, a competent selection of panellists and a smaller, but engaged, audience ensured a decent discussion of a number of pertinent points regarding current affairs in Africa. The focus was intended to be on education and public health, but the majority of speakers specialised in the former. Several speakers had interesting anecdotes about the influence of actors such as international media, political elites, multinational companies and property speculators in Africa.

Phinith Chanthalangsy

Two speakers in particular proposed possible solutions for the issue of education and career mobility in Africa. Phinith Chanthalangsy, from the UNESCO office in Rabat, talked about his organisation's efforts to promote culture and human rights through South-South dialogue. Majida Bargach from Virginia University in the US had a very pragmatic proposal to equip young Africans to fulfil their potential. Citing the problem of borders closed to student exchanges in Europe and the US, she suggested that students travel between African countries to undertake work experience and become specialists in the African workplace. An audience member with connections to the Farage group encouraged her to discuss with him how the private sector might support such an initiative.

Majida Bargach

The range of issues was much more accessible to the audience members than on previous days, and as a result, many intervened from the floor with their own experience, as well as with questions. One summarised the challenge of education by citing Fatoumata Diawara, who played in the same venue yesterday: "Let our youth cross borders and gain the skills they need. They will come home and rebuild our countries."

Nights in the Medina III
Dar Adiyel ~ Sirat Al-Hilali

The epic Hilal story from the Poets of Upper Egypt
Ramadan Hassan, Mohammed Haza Nasra al Din and the Musicians of the Nile

The Hilal epic tells of the invasion of the Maghreb during the 11th century by the Beni Hilal and Beni Soleim tribes from the Arab Peninsula. There are still traces of this tale in Upper Egypt, where poets of gypsy origin sing this story accompanied by a rababah, a kind of fiddle with two horsehair strings and a coconut shell body, similar to the Arab rabab.

Tonight's five member all-male group resembled a troupe of itinerant troubadours. With their weather-worn faces and slightly tatty turbans, they looked as if they might have walked from Luxor to be with us, entertaining villages and gatherings along their way. Rather than invading the Maghreb, as did the 6000-strong Beni Hilal tribe about whom they sang, they enraptured their listeners.

The musical accompaniment to the story featured other traditional instruments of North Africa and Arabia in addition to the two rababah, including a large flat def (bindir) drum, a darbuka (goblet drum) and a range of flutes. Each section of the epic, which was sung, was punctuated by a musical solo. The most exciting of these was from the darbuka player, who encouraged audience participation through clapping, although our appreciation of his rhythm apparently left a lot to be desired! He laughed at our efforts as he returned to deftly tap out his own story on the skin of his drum. With these interludes, the performance was entirely accessible and enjoyable for those who did not understand the poetry element. This was confirmed by a call for "encore" at the end, which was graciously granted. There were few Moroccans in the audience, suggesting that those who had enjoyed it so much had not necessarily followed the complex story of the brave and rich men of Beni Hilal.

For those who are wondering what happens in the traditional 500-hour version, the El Hilali cross Egypt and settle in Tunisia, where they break a promise with the ruling Emir and go on to devastate the country. They continue their invasion into Libya and parts of Algeria, mounting raids, setting up independent principalities, and - fatally - continuing to fight among themselves. The infighting was their downfall. Add a little mystery, intrigue, double-crossing and seduction and you have all the makings of an 11th century soap opera!

Sidi Mohamed Ben Youssef Cultural Complex ~ Bhagavata Mela Ritual

Lord Krishna

The Festival programme presented a unique opportunity this evening - the chance to witness a sacred theatre group from India perform their ancient Sanskrit tribute to Lord Vishnu for the first time ever outside of their tiny village of Melattur in Tamil Nadu. Usually only performed once a year, on the birthday of Lord Narasimha (the fourth incarnation of Vishnu) in the Lord Sri Varadaraja Temple, the theatre group are embarking on a tour of six cities of which Fes was the first.

This form of theatre from South India is particularly moving. It is one of the last forms of ritual theatre in the sub-continent, originating in an India that is fast disappearing under the weight of globalisation. The village artists are deeply religious and for them, what counts more than any artistic idea is making the gods come to life, almost incarnating them. Exuberant, but also often gauche and naïve, this form of theatre evokes all the great theatres of the ancient world that keep alive the divine epics and mix theatre, music and dance.

The first indication that this was indeed a sacred ritual and not just entertainment was the musicians offerings of coconut, muttered prayers and the lighting of a candle at a miniature shrine with an image of Lord Narasimha, placed to the right of the stage, before the performance began.

A long low chant like an “oum” slowly built to a song accompanied by the venu (Carnatic flute) and mridangam (drum). The narrator, (thankfully) in English, announced that “the spirit of Ganesha will now enter and bless the audience and thus commences the play”.

The Demon King tries to turn Lord Shiva to ashes

The following hour and half showcased a spectacle of wonderfully costumed actors who played out a story of good triumphing over evil. A Demon King had convinced Lord Shiva to give him the power to reduce anyone to ashes by placing his hand on their head. Despite advising him not to misuse the power, the Demon King then tries to turn Lord Shiva to ashes. Shiva flees and goes into hiding. Then, both the soldiers of the Demon King and the gods search for Lord Shiva to no avail. The gods turn to Lord Vishnu for help, who disguises himself as a woman to entice the Demon King. In order to marry the ‘woman’ the Demon King is tricked into placing both his hands on his own head, thus turning himself to ashes
Lord Vishnu disguised as a women entices the Demon King

The narration was useful for a foreign audience to understand what would be a well-known tale to Hindus. However, much of the communication was done through dance, gesture, song and exaggerated facial expressions, “rather like an English pantomime” as one audience member commented. Another similarity to the medium was that all female characters were played by men. The style had echoes of the more well-known Kathkali theatre of Kerala, however as the theatre groups president pointed out, “Kathkali is much slower paced than ours”.

Sri S. Natarajan, President of the Bhagavata Mela group said after the performance: “First of all I want to thank the Festival and Morocco for having us here, we are very honoured. It was wonderful to perform for a foreign audience, I really enjoyed watching the reactions on the people’s faces as I danced. One unfortunate thing, we started twenty minutes late so I had to cut short some of the performance. We are going to Paris next, six places in total.”

Lord Vishnu

First time Festival goer Victoria Kindell said of the performance: “It was very colourful and visual, with the moving of the eyes and dramatic emotions, and intricate and disciplined dance. We were lucky to have an introduction to a different culture that we wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. I was very grateful for the English narrator, as the explanation of the story in the introduction was only in French, which would have been very limiting otherwise for most of the audience.”

Batha Museum ~ Dance Memory, Dance

On an idyllic evening in Fez the Batha Museum was the perfect setting for a mix of polyphony and jazz.  The venue had fewer chairs in place, most of them filled with festival visitors from Spain, Italy Germany and France. Tonight, the Moroccans are a minority and the overall audience numbers dramatically down from the level during the Sufi Festival a few weeks ago.

Six members of the the Corsican polyphonic group A Filetta filed on stage dressed in what has become traditional dress for polyphony - untucked black shirts and trousers. They began quietly, accompanied by Italian bandoneon (concertina) player Daniele Di Bonaventura.

Sitting to one side of the stage is Paolo Fresu,  a jazzman in the Sardinian tradition. For a while he seems lost in his own thoughts then he picks up his muted trumpet and softly joins in like a seventh voice; shy and hesitantly intruding...

After the first short number the lead singer explains (in French) that their programme is based on the island poets Aimé Césaire and Jean Nicoli. Césaire was a writer, poet and playwright from Martinique; Nicoli was a teacher and member of the resistance, executed in 1943 during the Italian fascist period.

After the second song the trumpet mute came off but at no time did it dominate the vocals. Between songs Paolo Fres, trumpet on his knees, his gaze on the carpet at his feet. At times his head would nod in time to the music as if he was waiting for the jazz muse to inspire him. Only when he bent to turn a page did it become apparent he was reading the music score.As the tempo increased the trumpet produced some subtle riffs which developed into a teasing interplay between the accordion and the trumpet. Meanwhile the choir leader climbed above the drone produced by his choristers to engage in some splendid vocal gymnastics.

There was (thankfully after the previous night) a distinct lack of ego displayed by all the performers. In its place was a charming humility that invited a connection between audience and performers.   However, polyphonic singing accompanied by an accordion lacks the spine-tingling chill produced by groups who sing pure a capella. Nevertheless, it was appreciated by many in the audience.

Corsicans and Italians, polyphonists and jazzmen, singing, playing trumpet and bandoneon, gave us a concert that was pleasant and relaxing but for all of that, never took off.

Sidi Mohamed Ben Youssef Cultural Complex ~ Badr Rami
The great Muwashshah tradition of Aleppo

Badr Rami was born into a musical family in Morocco to Syrian parents. He is a bit of a legend in Morocco, which, for those unfamiliar with the Syrian Muwashshah genre, - texts of a particular Arabic poetic form set to music - may be hard to fathom. This is his second consecutive year at the Fes Sacred Music Festival, so he clearly sells. Having said that, at around €25 a ticket, there were not many Moroccans in the audience tonight, although those present were very enthusiastic. A couple of women, sitting around the venue's large ornamental fountain, even got up to dance in it. Thankfully it was empty of water.

The concert was extremely slick. The 11-piece band appeared on stage in regulation black suits, including a 6-man string section (oud, 3 fiddles, a cello and a box zither), the darbuka (goblet drum), and a tambourine plus 3 backing singers.

Rami appeared to much applause, practically bursting out of his suit jacket, once they had played an introductory piece. In the vast courtyard of the Sidi Mohamed Ben Youssef Cultural Complex, it felt like an event arranged for TV for transmission on a festive occasion. It was so polished, the uninitiated could not even scratch the surface. Although the Moroccans in the audience happily clapped along, it felt like there was little warmth in the performance: Rami did not even interact with the fans until after the fourth song and the musicians didn't even look like they were particularly enjoying themselves.

This was the second gig tonight based on centuries old Arabic poetry. Despite the smooth and glossy production and the remarkable popularity of Badr Rami, his musical form and his storytelling felt less accessible than that of the Musicians of the Nile who had played earlier. The Egyptian El Hilali epic is supposed to be told over 500 hours. Forty-five minutes in, Rami's set felt like it might last that long. In the end, the audience were the judges and they loved it - the legend that is Badr Rami continues.

Sufi Nights at Dar Tazi ~ Tariqa Skalliyya

Hajj Muhammad Bennis

After a relatively quiet week at the Sufi nights, the largest crowd we have seen this evening and probably the largest at any venue, was at Dar Tazi. There was no doubt that the crowd puller was Hajj Muhammad Bennis. His voice and knowledge are much in demand here, and therefore he does not limit himself to one tariqa (Sufi order). In his poetic way of speaking he says, “like a bird that is not confined to one tree, I sing with many different orders here in Fez.”

The audience was full of Moroccan families, with lots of young children and toddlers, for possibly their first Sufi experience. Sitting in the front row of the crowd of several hundred was the regular contingent of Sufi practitioners who are always present at such events, as they were at the Fes Festival of Sufi Culture some weeks ago.

One of the many young Sufis in the tariqa

Hajj Muhammad is arguably the most important munshid (Sufi singer) in Fez and has been promoting Sufi samā` for years by performing, recording, and teaching young singers. It was noticeable that tonight the twenty-three member tariqa contained many young Sufis - a great sign for the future.

Tonight he led the Tariqa Skalliyya not from his usual position sitting centre stage, but in the shadows at the front, conducting "his orchestra" in the old style, using only voices and no instruments.

As they picked up the pace, solo singers took a turn you could hear cries of  “Allah!” from the audience when a soloist finished a particularly beautiful passage where poetry and melody were combined to create a transcendent space. It was an evening of truly spiritual music.

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 attending the festival are talking about.

Assia Fasia, Fez: "I come from France and I discovered Fez for the first time a year ago. I decided that it is my home and I have lived here since then. In addition the festival is magical and stirs all kind of beautiful emotions deep down your inner self."

Mohamed Azami, Fez:  "The souls inhabiting the houses in Fez must be happy to hear this music. I want to refer to Tahar Ben Jelloun when he said that Fez houses are special because they get to share the sky and the stars."

Jalil El Hayan and Nadia Fatri, Fez: "The festival is magical because of the chosen spaces such as Bab Makina and the Batha Museum. These places are rich in history; their walls tell stories which adds to the magic of the music itself. Also, we personally find the music’s quality exceeds the audience’s expectations. This year’s Festival is exceptional, with its invitation to delve into and celebrate our Africans roots. We consider Morocco as a bridge between African and European cultures. Though we were disappointed  because of the weather, especially that many events were cancelled." Nadia added that it was a chance for her to discover various African rhythms, melodies and dances which makes this program special.

Majda Alaoui and Nadia Haida, Paris, France: Majda and Nadia are originally from Morocco but live in Paris. They both came specifically to see the festival. They were enjoying the music and loved the melodies of Ramadan Hassan and his troupe. “At the very beginning of the festival, we were disappointed as the organisers did not have plan B (for the rain) during the Oumou Sangare concert. But other that, the musicians are amazing, the forum was also complementing the shows. I also liked that there are some free concerts for people who cannot afford it."

Jake, UK: It is Jake’s second time in Morocco, he said how much world music means to him. He sees Fez as a melting pot of cultures both historically and artistically and argues that when cultures meet, they enrich each other and that is what the festival is promoting.

Rabia Mestaoui, Fez: Rabia is a teacher from Fez. “I try to attend some of the events every year, but not all. For instance, I am really interested in the forum and music but my work load does not allow me to attend whenever I wish to; it is also the case of many colleagues of mine. I would love the organisers to involve more locals to ensure that there is a balance between national artists and international ones. The festival can also help emerging artists by giving them chances to play with professional ones.”

Iness Forissier, France: Ines was amazed by the forums and feels that she is in a journey in all over Africa not just Morocco. However, she thinks that last year was much more organised.

Aly Ndao, (Student in Morocco, Department of Gender, Society and Culture) Senegal: It is Aly’s first time at the Festival and he is attending all the forums as they enrich his academic studies.  However, he complains that the concerts are not affordable for students.  “I would love if there is a discount for students or free concerts to spread the benefits.”

Thelma Stone and Valerie Godson, UK: “This is my first time in Morocco. I came specifically for the festival, thanks to a friend of ours who has been a fan of the event. I have really enjoyed the concerts very much and our favourite concert so far is the Kurdish band that was on the opening night. We have been attending forums as well but we think that some of them are not interactive as much as others. But, overall, it is really a blessing to be here.”

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: Warm and sunny with a top temperature of 32 Celsius - a low at night of 16
11 am - Batha Museum - Piano recital by Marouane Benabdallah
4.30 pm - Batha Museum - Moroccan Zakharif Ensemble with Nabil Benabdejalil
8.30 pm and 10.30 pm - Free Festival in the City - Bab Boujloud - Saida Charaf - Orchestre Asri.
9 pm - Bab Makina - The Temptations with Dennis Edwards

Sufi Nights
11 pm Dar Tazi - (Free) Tariqa Darqawiya

The View from Fez  is a Festival Media Partner and is covering 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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