Friday, May 06, 2016

Fes Festival 2016 - Opening Night Review

 Imebiet Tegegne from Ethiopia was outstanding
(Click on images to enlarge)

The 22nd Fes Festival of World Sacred Music opened with the international premiere of A Night Full of Stars, in which the women of the Orient took the audience on a journey of discovery into the history of Morocco and the myths of the East

The dismal weather forecast did not deter the Fassi audience for tonight's opening concert of the 22nd Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. Flash suits, fur and high heels were the uniform of those near the stage in the BMCE Bank's reserved seating, while head-scarved housewives and their husbands sat in the cheaper seats further back. In fact, those best dressed for the occasion sported waterproofs - a wise choice as it turned out.

Rain? Yes, but it was still fun

Just before the arrival of patron Princess Lalla Salma, accompanied by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned from Qatar, the ominous clouds burst and the front rows became a sea of corporate umbrellas. Fortunately the rain stopped in time for the princess' arrival in a traditional kaftan of burgundy velvet. Her friend, Sheikha Mozah looked equally stunning in a lime green outfit with a matching turban. A further shower did little to deter the enthusiasm of the performers or audience as we were taken on a journey through 1001 Nights across the continents.

HRH Lalla Salma was given a very warm welcome by the capacity crowd
HH Sheikha Moza bin Nasser and HRH Princess Lalla Salma 

As ever, the opening night was an excellent way to get a taster of many of the festival's acts. However, this year's narrative provided by Scheherazade was tenuous at best and our journey was not as smooth as, for example, in 2015.

Nadia Kounda as Sheherazade, appeared a little nervous and hesitant at times, but warmed up as the evening went on. However, right from the beginning there were flashes of humour and vivacity. In the setup to the loosely constructed narrative, Dikra Al Kalaï as Dunyâzad, came onto the stage singing Lama Bada, probably the most well-known Arabic song, holding an iPad. The displays flashed up images of great women including Fairouz and Oum Kelthoum, but the solemnity was ruptured by images of what appeared to be a Moroccan children's cartoon featuring Scheherazade which drew laughs from the audience. This was so welcome at the Fes Festival, which in its presentations, speeches and forum discussions, can sometimes be too dry and po-faced.

We hopped from continent to continent and back again without a clear destination, and the theme - Founding Women - got lost along the way. But, without a doubt, tonight was a celebration of women: and, in particular, the artists from Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, India and Mongolia were outstanding.

Nadia Kounda as Sheherazade

In the lead up to the opening night there had been worries about the weather. In addition, here had been concern that the festival's theme might be too sweeping or handled vaguely. In the end the rain came and went and, as far as the music was went, the concerns were needless. It never felt like a token gathering of performers chosen only for their gender. Each act stood up on its own, captivating the audience with their skill, passion, and freedom. Despite the florid language of the introductions, there was real feeling in every performance. They represented different facets of the complicated experience that is womanhood and personhood, from the deep sorrow and resilience conveyed by the plaintive melodies and regal bearing of Iranian singer, Sahar Mohammadi, to the intimate interiority of Parvathy Das Baul playing her one-stringed lute while spinning and singing as if in a private trance.

Sahar Mohammadi

Technically, Sahar Mohammadi’s superb vocal and dynamic range was admirably managed by the sound engineers but there were issues with her accompanists, the ney sounding thin and tinny, as if only Mahdi Teimori’s breath were amplified while his tone were bunged up in the body of his flute.

For any sound engineer, Bab Al Makina is a challenge. Tonight, however, the orchestra sounded great, with the colours and textures of each section well balanced through the sound system and with the Palestinian-Moroccans playing with confidence and assured technique under the capable baton of Ramzi Aburedwan.

Balance was an issue with many of the traditional ensembles, however, with the instruments’ natural ranges punched into their extremes through the amps. During Ethiopia’s Imebiet Tegegne’s dance, for example, the kebero drumming was too loud and low, the masinko bowing too soft and strained, and Zewditou Taddese’s voice, which should have penetrated through the Bab al-Makina like a bell, simply got lost in the muddled and mushy mix.

Some sound engineering decisions were downright suspect: Abeer Nehme’s reverb was pumped right up to 11, which one can imagine being the result of a particularly poor rehearsal, but it would only be fair to give both the Lebanese singer and the festival’s capable sound engineer Chris Ekers the benefit of the doubt and accept that this strange aesthetic was desired. It did indeed sound like her voice was filling a vast, cavernous space not dissimilar to a Bab Al Makina under a red harvest moon, as the projection portrayed, but any intimacy or genuine devotion dissolved into a diva’s sentimentalism.

Contrast this to India’s Parvathy Baul, who combined an extara in a hand, a tabla at her hip, bells round her ankles and a soulful voice from her lips with braids in her hair, dance in the feet and poetry in her soul. How Ekers managed to mic her up in such a way as to make every element audible while allowing her such spirited freedom to move is a miracle, but the result was an experience closer to the sacred than any other.

Parvathy Das Baul in a private trance

The light projections were often stunning, sometimes outperforming the dancers and musicians themselves. A Moroccan cityscape brought audible delight to the audience, while Allurers d’Images expertly mapped the famous turquoise domes of Uzbekistan to fit the walls of this historical palace in Fez. Some did go too far, with an already disorientating mosaic suddenly shifting in all directions, the disconcerting result akin to a magic carpet ride gone wrong.

A feature of the opening night were the superb projections - photo Hedd Thomas

Amongst the performance highlights was the stunning performance by Ethiopian singer (and mover and shaker) Zewditou Taddese, who also stopped the show from taking itself too seriously. Her voice was hoarse and raw, each phrase peppered with ululating, and she commanded the stage with a relaxed assurance from the moment her two drummers began beating the rhythm. It felt familiar and fun rather than grand, perhaps because the movements of her dancer recalled those of women trancing in the jedba. Her flamboyant shaking drew gasps and cries from the audience. One woman in the audience even stood and danced, a rarity in the front sections where high society Fassis come to see and be seen.

Zewditou Taddese - a mover and shaker

Inevitably the narrative fell slightly apart and it turned into more of a straightforward concert, although the standard of the performances more than made up for that. However, a glaring problem for the non-French speakers in the audience was the lack of any translation into English or Arabic of Scheherazade's guide to the women of the world. It is also impossible to ignore the general tendency of the festival to generalise and in its quest for transcendence to avoid addressing real inequalities.

 A member of the 6 strong Ingie Women’s Qanun Ensemble

That may be too much to ask from an opening night. The overall display was stunning. As always the charm of the festival comes as much from the city itself as from the performances. Fate smiled on us, with the rain easing off enough by the start of the concert that we could see most of it without a sea of umbrellas obscuring the view. From time to time the swallows circling above Bab al-Makina flew in front of the projector, giving the impression that they had flown into the dream world created on the stage. The festival may have changed, but perhaps not for the worse. The pomposity of the past has been undermined, and it is undeniable that the music and the city still have the capacity to unite the audience in feeling wonder, witnessing grace, and glimpsing something beyond the everyday.

The Cast: 
Nadia Kounda as Sheherazade – Morocco
Dikra Al Kalaï as Dunyâzad – Morocco
Azerbaijan: Ingie Women’s Qanun Ensemble directed by Tarana Aliyeva, with the support of the International Mugham Centre of Azerbaijan.
Xinjiang Province, China: Mukkadas Mijit, dance.
Ethiopia: Zewditou Taddese, song. Grum Begashaw Tegene, kebero drum. Henok Aria, masinko (single-stringed bowed lute). Imebiet Tegegne, dance
France: Parvathy Das Baul, song and ektara (one-stringed lute)
Iran: Sahar Mohammadi, song. Azad Mirzapour, tar lute and composition
Italy: Maristella Martella, dance. Cinzia Marzo, voice, tambourine and tammorra tambourine
Lebanon: Abeer Nehme, song and composition.
Mongolia: Ösökhjargal Pürevsüren, khöömii song. Khulan Navaandemberel, morin khuur (horsehead fiddle).
Morocco: Zinab Alfilal, Andalous song from Tetouan. Dance of the veils, Tafraout.
Palestine – Morocco: Moroccan Palestinian Orchestra directed by Ramzi Aburedwan.

The production concept and direction was by Alain Weber, with lighting by Christophe Olivier, assisted by Gaël Boucault. The spectacular stage mapping was by Allumeurs d’images. Direction, composition and orchestral arrangements were by Ramzi Aburedwan. Sound was under the control of Fes Festival regulars; Chris Ekers and Erik Loots.

 Mukkadas Mijit dancer with the Ingie Women’s Qanun Ensemble from Azerbaijan

Text:  Faith Barker, Hedd Thomas, Lynn Sheppard, Sandy McCutcheon
Photographs: Sandy McCutcheon


Jnan Sbil Gardens: 16h30 Sahar Mohammadi with the Ingie Women’s Qanun Ensemble – Iran & Azerbaijan- Sacred Persian song

*Jnan Palace Hotel 17h00: Fez Forum - Without Women Nothing is Possible.

Boujloud Square: 22h00 (Free concert) La chorale régionale de Fez – Mohammed Soussi

Bab Al Makina: 21h 00 Durbar: Indian Night: Premiere (See more details here)
Glory of Princes and in praise of the Gods: a dazzling musical engagement between the great musicians of India

Dar Tazi 23h00 Sufi Night: Touatiya Tariqa: Dar Dmana hal touat

Tomorrow's Weather: Partly cloudy, high of 24 Celsius, low of 12. 

*NOTE: Late programme change: The 9am forum sessions have been switched to 5pm at the Jnan Palace Hotel. (This leaves little time for dinner if you are attending the evening concert at Bab Al Makina).

The View From Fez is a Fes Festival official Media Partner

See our Fes Festival previews:
Homage to India Preview
Divas of the World Preview
Nights in the Medina 1 Preview
Nights in the Medina 2 Preview
Nights in the Medina 3 Preview
Istanbul to Fez Preview
Tribute to Oum Keltoum Preview
Samira Saïd Preview
Forum Sessions Preview
Sufi Nights & Boujloud Concerts


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