Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fes Festival 2015 ~ The Wrap Up

Tajeddine Baddou is a man equipped to face the challenges ahead ~ Suzanna Clarke reports

A few days into the 21 Edition of Fes Festival, newly appointed director general of the Spirit of Fes Foundation, Tajeddine Baddou, is obviously weary, but is unfailingly courteous. There is real warmth in his handshake and the way he makes eye contact. It's easy to imagine him hobnobbing with politicians and diplomats in his previous postings as Moroccan Ambassador to the former Czechoslovakia, Canada, Austria and Italy.

He grants The View From Fez a few minutes for an interview in the garden of the Batha Museum.

"I only assumed the role four months ago," he explains, "so this year's Festival is an exploratory mission for me."

Mr Baddou is working with some of the same team who have been responsible for the Festival in the past few years, including artistic director Alain Weber. Taking over from founding director Faouzi Skali is a challenge, Mr Baddou says, but one he is looking forward to. He's had events organisation experience before - in 1999 he was in charge of the Year of Morocco, showcasing the country through more than 400 international events.

One of the biggest challenges, says Mr Baddour is that, "We have a lack of sites in Fez to stage concerts. When the weather is good, Bab Makina can have a real magic, with the magnificent walls and the birds flying overhead. But the acoustics are not good, and in wet weather it's not possible to cover it."

Both extremes were experienced this year, with a triumphant opening night, using spectacular projections on the crenelated walls of Bab Makina, contrasted by the wash-out that was to have been Tuesday's Spirit of Africa concert.

There simply isn't an alternative venue in Fez that will hold an audience of thousands. It's something, Mr Baddou says, that the team will be trying to address.

Another aspect that will be a focus is an increasing move towards using English during the Festival. "Because we have a lot of English visitors," he says. This year, for the first time, opening night introductions were given first in Moroccan Arabic and then in English, before French.

However the format of the morning forums, which aim to give an intellectual context to the Fes Festival, are less likely to alter. I put to Mr Baddou the criticism that the panels seem to be mainly composed of French, or European educated academics, and could be more diverse. And rather than a series of long lectures by each panelist, the format would be more engaging if it was more dynamic. "This year we are fortunate to have Ali Benmakhlouf organising the forums, and he is doing a wonderful job," says Mr Baddou. "To change the format, you would need an intellectual revolution. We have to deal with our heritage." However, he would like to see more youth involvement and points out that this year that some Moroccan university students attended. He hopes that the number will increase.

Originally from Meknes, Tajeddine Baddou graduated with a PhD in Sociology from the University of Rene Descartes in France. Then from 1971 to 1983 he was Head of the Department of Social Sciences at the National Institute of Statistics and Applied Economy in Rabat. "So I started as a teacher and researcher in demographics...then I became involved in politics," he says. In 1983 became the Director of Multilateral Cooperation at the Ministry of Cooperation, and the following year the Permanent Representative of the Arabo-African Union. "Then His Majesty the King asked me if I wanted to open the first Moroccan embassy in (the former) Czechoslovakia, and I did." He moved onto other embassies, his last posting being in Rome.

I ask him about another criticism which has been levelled at the Festival; that it is turning away from its spiritual roots and becoming more of a world music festival. "This is not a real issue," he says. "We have the name, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, but in reality all music is sacred. We do our utmost to be open to all kinds of music."

Today the team from The View From Fez report their personal reactions to the 21st Fes Festival of World Sacred Music


Lynn Sheppard ~ Reporter

As a Fes Festival first-timer, I found the 21st edition a great opportunity to see some acts I like, get to know some new artists and come to appreciate some new musical genres.

My favourite concerts were: Omar Sosa and friends, Julie Fowlis, Fatoumata Diawara and Roberto Fonseca and The Royal Art of the Kora with Ballaké Sissoko. These are all acts I have seen and enjoyed before in different contexts.

Of the acts which were new to me, I enjoyed Faada Freddy, Masks of the Moon and Ramadan Hassan and the Musicians of the Nile. I would have liked to have seen more of Benjamin Bouzaglou and Oumou Sangaré.

I can't honestly say that all of the above fall within the term "sacred" and I find it a pity that the festival organisers seem to feel the need to invite more 'popular' groups which don't always fall under the overall theme. I would like to see the organisers of the Fes Sacred Music Festival have more confidence to differentiate this festival from others which take place across Morocco each year. Fez is the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco and draws on a long and rich heritage of sacred music which people are surely willing to travel and pay to see. Complemented by sacred music acts from across the world, this would make for an interesting programme with a clear identity. Personally, I feel the festival is becoming rather populist by featuring acts such as The Temptations (who weren't even the original Temptations).

Fatoumata Diawara - an audience favourite

I thought this year's theme was well-chosen and timely; it was expertly presented in the opening concert, which was spectacular. The featuring of Hassan el Wazzan's travels created a common thread through a large proportion of the festival, which worked well. Without exception, the acts which I saw from Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali and Egypt were excellent. I would have liked the opportunity to learn more about the spiritual or sacred background to their music - the Forum would have been a good place to do this.

Overall, I thought the Forum programme made a decent attempt to open up a debate on Morocco's place within broader Africa from historical, philosophical, anthropological, literary, cultural, musical and current affairs perspectives, but it could have been better. My suggestions would be to ensure that the speakers are really able to speak directly to the topic (eg by insisting on the submission of a paper which could subsequently be published); to make the Forum more interactive (eg by having shorter presentations from the podium and more audience input), and to invite more practitioners to speak, rather than academic observers and researchers.

Musicians of the Nile

The venues in Fez are spectacular. It was so enjoyable to sit beside the verdant green gardens of the beautiful Batha Museum. However, this year proved that the city is ill-equipped to manage a wet weather contingency and this is something that should be seriously considered. Also, programming should reflect the audience the Festival seeks to reach - if it is anticipated people travel to Fez for the weekend, the weekend line-ups should be stronger. If it is the aim to attract more working Moroccans, weekends and evening concerts should reflect this.

The lighting at Bab Makina was "awesome"!

Although I understand the communication this year was an improvement on previous years, I would expect a more dynamic and professional effort from a 21-year old festival. Hardly anyone other than myself and The View From Fez was using the #fesfestival hashtag; the Festival twitter feed wasn't updated at all during the festival; several concerts (Sufi nights and free concerts and events) were not in the programme; important information was communicated at the last minute, and there were frequently discrepancies between the English and French versions of online and printed material.

Masks of the Moon - a festival favourite

In conclusion, I would heartily recommend the Fes Sacred Music Festival to friends, as an interesting world music festival easily reached from the UK. However, given the limited coverage of the festival in English language media, they might need a little convincing.

Fatima Matousse ~ Reporter

I have always wanted to attend the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music as I am haunted by spiritual and Sufi music. In the past, as a student, I was not lucky enough to attend to attend the festival. This year is my first time and I am grateful to have been given access, due to working with The View From Fez, for the entire programme.

I have not attended the past editions so am not entitled to compare and give accurate criticism or appreciation but I can speak about my feelings about this edition.

I was disappointed and surprised that the whole African Spirit and Oumou Sangaré was cancelled. As it is the 21st edition, the Festival should have been equipped for all kind of conditions and plan for any situation; particularly a rain event. I would have forgiven a beginning festival with two or four years, of experience but not one of 21 years. So the first impression I had was not the best.

I attended the forums in the beautiful Batha Museum the day after the rain storm and after ten minutes discovered that the chairs were still wet. Covering chairs before rain should be a pretty basic requirement! People had to pay to get access to the forum and the concerts, (with the exception of the non-spiritual pop music that was offered to locals). I was surprised that the Festival was also making money out of glasses of tea, charging 10 dirhams! I understand that a festival needs money to run but I think that when you pay for a concert, the audience should be offered a glass of tea for free. For the record, a huge pot of tea would not even cost 10 dirhams.

Création Marassa with Omar Sosa

I believe that what really charms people about the festival is not simply the programme, but the place itself. The riads and palaces where the music takes place charm the audience and constantly speak to their souls; like a lover whom you will follow everywhere and forgive their mistakes after few seconds. During some concerts, I was inspired and the negative energy inside me was washed away. I loved the Création Marassa with Omar Sosa, and in particular the dancer, who was exceptionally talented to the extent that he made me wish to dance again, although I stopped years ago. I was surprised by the happiness and the enjoyment his band spread to the audience.

Diego El Cigala - disappointing

Fatoumata and Fonseca were fascinating. I was so happy to see the combination of the two using music to speak to each other while still engaging with the audience. They both have charisma and the voice of Fatou took me back to my dream to live in Mali for a year or two. Diego El Cigala has a special character, and way of talking and walking. However, I found him arrogant. I am actually crazy about flamenco and Gitano music, but was disappointed with his performance.

I was also disappointed that Amazigh music was barely present in the programme. Had it been present, I believe people would have appreciated it and discovered how diverse and culturally rich Moroccan music is.

Over all, despite the criticism, the Fes Festival has inspired me and there were more touching moments than negative ones - due to the music, the city and the ghosts of the Fez! I have been haunted and I will not hesitate to attend the Festival once again.

Vanessa Bonnin - Reporter and photographer

Curiosity was at an all time high about how the 21st edition of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music was going to fare under new management, since the ousting last year of Festival founder and former Director Faouzi Skali. The new team had a lot to prove in order to justify their coup, and unfortunately they fell short of the mark in my opinion. This sentiment was echoed by the majority of festival-goers I spoke to throughout the week, where the dissatisfaction and serious (rather than the usual trifling) complaints expressed were far greater than ever before.

The theme ‘An African Reflection’ was promising, as in the past the Festival has focused on Andalusian links plus connections with the Arab world and it was definitely time to acknowledge that Fes and Morocco are part of the African continent. Looking south should have provided a rich and diverse array of wonderful musical opportunities to tap into, but out of numerous concerts and artists engaged in this year’s line-up, only a handful were from Africa.

Oumou Sangaré
Tiken Jah Fakoly

The schizophrenic array of musicians lacked coherence and failed to deliver on what could have been a fantastic opportunity to highlight the boundless talent on Morocco’s southern doorstep. Admittedly the cancellation and inability to reschedule the expected highlight of the Festival – the concert with Oumou Sangare and Tiken Jah Fakoly – left a gaping hole in the African contingent, but for many it was the death blow to the week.

Ballaké Sissoko

This is not to say that there weren’t wonderful performances. Following on from the stunning opening night spectacle, particular highlights were the collaboration between Ballaké Sissoko and Debashish Battacharya, Marassaa Premiere and the outstanding Faada Freddy, but they couldn’t resuscitate a festival marred by poor planning and incompetence – or was it deception? – with regards to The NOT Temptations (don’t get me started). It seems that without Faouzi Skali at the helm (who was churlishly not acknowledged as the founder in any of the Festival material) the Festival has become a boat without a rudder. Hopefully the new Director General will take charge and throw them a lifeline.

Sandy McCutcheon  ~ Editor, photographer and reporter

In some cultures a 21st birthday is considered cause for celebration. In the case of the Fes Festival it was not only a celebration but also a new beginning, with a new administration put in place since the departure of Faouzi Skali. It was understandable then, that critical attention was  paid to every aspect of the festival by those for whom the festival caters - the audience.

The African theme was very welcome and the opening night concert was described by many veteran festival goers as one of the best. As Artistic Director Alain Weber, told The View From Fez - "I was less constrained this year". It was undoubtably a great start to the festival.

While critical voices questioned aspect of the programming ("only around half the concerts were African") and rain disrupted some events, the major cause of concern was the lack of contingency plans for bad weather and rescheduling postponed performances. The fact that the full programme was not on the brochure or booklet meant that audience members were scrambling to find out what was on at the Sufi Nights or concerts at Boujloud. Unfortunately the information that was in the printed materials was sketchy and at times contained rather exaggerated claims about the performers. The View From Fez is in debt to the major research work done by Helen Ranger.

The issue of announcements in English was improved this year, particularly at the beginning of the festival. It was not sustained and the huge numbers of audience members for whom English is a first or second language were vocal in their calls for this to be rectified in the future. Happily, the new Director General has flagged that this will be the case.

Artistic Director Alain Weber

The handling of the Temptations Review fiasco - something that should not have been allowed to happen in the first place - by the administration, was astonishingly unprofessional. Hopefully lessons will be learned.

It was a festival of challenges for the technical crews, who under the circumstances did remarkably well coping with performer demands and inclement weather. Special tribute should be paid to Christophe Olivier and Gaël Boucault, for superb lighting as well as Caroline Bourgine and Lucianna Penna for the projection mapping at Bab Makina. Sound engineers, Chris Ekers and Erik Loots, once again showed why they are regarded as among the best in the world.

Lighting and sound was amazing - thanks Christophe Olivier and Chris Ekers
Sound engineer Erik Loots

Because of the drop in audience numbers the previous years experience of dangerously over crowded venues was, with only one notable exception, not such a major issue. However the concerns expressed by hundreds of visitors to the crowd handling at the Hussain Al Jassmi concert are valid and must be addressed. Selling or giving out more tickets than a venue holds is not only dangerous, it is wrong.

Hussain Al Jassmi's fine concert was overcrowded

The final issue worth mentioning is that of communication during the festival. The View From Fez was inundated with text messages, emails and phone calls from visitors wanting up to date information of schedule changes, venue changes and postponements. The festival could easily remedy this with a constant flow of information via Twitter.

Finally, I would like to thank my team members at The View From Fez who worked outrageous hours to cover all the events. It was a job well done and much appreciated by both locals and festival visitors. We had great reviews by Lynn Sheppard, Fatima Matousse and Vanessa Bonnin. Suzanna Clarke's sub-editing and photography were superb as usual as was the photography of Vanessa Bonnin. Shukran. We look forward to welcoming you and our readers back for 2016!

See all our Fes Festival 2015 reviews
Fes Festival Opening Night
Fes Festival Day Two 
Fes Festival Day Three
Fes Festival Day Four
Fes Festival Day Five
Fes Festival Day Six
Fes Festival Day Seven
Fes Festival Day Eight
Fes Festival Day Nine

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

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1 comment:

pema said...

A mention here that there's little coverage of the Festival in English language publications. I was the UK PR person for the festival for 11 years -- with a 2 year break in the middle when I attended as a journalist. Coverage during that period was consistent and wide ranging. It included all media -- TV, radio, print, social, web sites and blogs. I invited journalists from music publications, religious and spiritual publications and broadcasters,travel writers, political commentators and academics. Audience figures from the UK were on an upwards curve when I was sacked by the new regime and replaced with Bannister Blake -- a London PR outfit which specialises in luxury travel. It will be interesting to see if UK coverage of 2015 is comprehensive or limited to travel.