As the Fes festival has developed over its 22 years, with more famous artists who push the limit of what we understand as sacred music, the Sufi nights at Dar Tazi have remained a beloved constant. They are the real highlight of the festival for many, a place where spiritually curious foreigners and Moroccan families sit side by side to appreciate the samaa, madih and dhikr (audition, praise, and remembrance of God) of Morocco’s Sufi brotherhoods. Faith Barker reports for The View From Fez...
The position of Sufism in Morocco is fascinating. It is still deeply embedded in Moroccan culture and the music and chant associated with its brotherhoods are close to the hearts of many. At the same time, in the 1960s as there was an impetus to modernise both industrially and culturally, numbers in the brotherhoods dwindled. But as Morocco began to capitalise on its reputation as a site of spirituality and tolerance with a strong Sufi tradition, there was renewed interest in the brotherhoods. It was also around this time that they began to perform like musicians. The music came out of the zawiya, the Sufi lodge, and the traditional chanting and clapping was augmented by instruments from Andalusi music like the oud, the nayy, and the violin.
It is this combination of musicianship and worship that gives the Sufi Nights an interesting flavour. Performers and audience feed off each other’s energy, creating an atmosphere of warmth, conviviality and spiritual openness which gets to the heart of what the Fes Festival is all about.
After a last-minute programme change, the Sufi Nights series was opened not by the Touatiyya but by the Shadhiliyya. It seems more appropriate in any case to begin with the tariqa from which many of the brotherhoods across North Africa have originated. This group, from Tangier, led by the calm and capable Saad Temsamani, took to the stage after processing in to the sound of the tbbal drum and chanting, known as the darqawiyya.
The Sufi performances, as they would in the ritual in the zawiya, always begin with the hizb or litany of the tariqa, the prayers setting the tone for the rest of the evening. The music began with a form of the musical mode hijaz al-kabir which Temsamani explained is particular to the north of Morocco. As well as Temsamani’s soft and sweet tones, there was a beautiful solo from the nayy player which drew cries of “Allah!” from the audience.
|The audience were totally engaged|
As always at the Sufi Nights, the audience is just as absorbing to watch as the men on stage. Their participation and appreciation is an integral part of the performance, with many singing along with the hizb. It was heartening to see young Moroccans in the audience engaging with the tradition, as well as a teenage boy singing with the tariqa. He was tentative in his solos but passionate in the call-and-response sections where the men sing as a group.
|The youngest member of the tariqa|
The hijaz al-kabir was followed by a form of the sharqi sghir which according to Temsamani is also particular to the north and rarely sung today. Throughout the musical sections there was some virtuosic singing and playing from the soloists, but the men remained fairly sedate, often looking down at the papers in their hands to recall the words. As they began the hadra, however, the mood changed. The instruments, except for the tbbal drum, are set aside and the men get to their feet. The hadra is a section of Sufi ritual where adepts chant the name of God and sway from side to side, experiencing the hal, an ecstasy that comes from a feeling of divine grace and closeness to God.
|The nayy player's solo was superb|
As the unmistakeable chanting of “Allah, hayy” began, many in the audience got to their feet. A trio in the front, regulars at the festival and true Sufi devotees, were the first up. They joined hands and formed a parallel to the three men on stage who were jumping up and down and rocking back and forth chanting, demonstrating again how the boundary between performers and audience becomes blurred in the special ambience and communal spirit of the Sufi Nights. As more people stood, the security guards stood to attention at the front of the stage in case any of the displays of devotion got out of hand. The performers were newly animated, closing their eyes in private trance, breathing heavily in the rhythm of the drum. They reached a fever pitch, with those in the audience crying out “Allah” and “nabbi Muhammad”, and then, suddenly, it came to an end. The evening wound down with a fatha prayer and Qur’anic recitation, with some in the audience mouthing along with the words.
First time Sufi Nights attendee Habiba was very moved. An Australian woman who practises Sufism and lived in the north of Morocco in the seventies, Habiba is a good example of the typical Sufi Nights audience member.
“This is why I’m here,” Habiba told me. “It was fantastic, and so moving. It’s a concert, and yet it’s also a practice.”
Text and photographs: Faith Barker
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