Saturday, June 23, 2018

Dhafer Youssef Mesmerises Fes Festival

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music opened on a high today with two great concerts and perfect warm weather

Day One 

ENSEMBLE MOXOS 16:30 JARDIN JNAN SBIL - Lauren Crabbe reports

The afternoon at Jnan Sbil was balmy, with the overhead shades trapping the humidity – reminiscent of the Amazon jungle, where this afternoon’s performers were from. The Moxos Ensemble, dressed in white robes with tribal trimming, entered the stage to the gentle sounds of Spanish guitar and slow, waltzing flute, almost like a march – and that is the persona they initially portrayed.

Gentle but proud, the lead sopranos hit the high notes like they were skipping across clouds – simply divine – with their hair bound in plaits and trailing with beads. Their energy carried across to the flautists and guitarists and violinists, strong and soaring, gathering momentum with every passing minute. Each note seemed to fill and light them up, and there were many shared smiles. Soprano bowed to bass and back again. Gospel turned to gothic tones that rumbled the ground, and then sprung back up out of the grass like wildflowers, the sound swaying in the wind at the vocalist's invitation.

The musicians exited for a few minutes and re-entered to flood the stage with colour – coral, mustard, magenta, purple, adorned with leaf prints. The conductor and a French translator (again no English) explained how the next section depicted the Spanish and Indigenous worlds colliding, and celebrated the holiest time of year – Easter.

The pace picked up and became joyful. The river stage was transformed into an open air cathedral through truly resonant renditions of hymns like Kyrie and Gloria in Excelsis Deo, exquisitely parlayed between the angelic sopranos and ghostly baritones. Audience members dissolved into tears. Singing paused while people wiped their eyes, and the conductor took the opportunity to discuss the school for underprivileged children Moxos funds through music sales, and how they’re making musical education accessible – no longer for the elite.

Clad in white again, the few musicians remaining on stage looked to be toning down the pace…and then floored the audience with the reappearance of the other ensemble members garbed in vibrant, dazzling Spanish dress, to a soundtrack of a deep, arresting violin. The stage became a flurry of colour and costume, so captivating as to make blinking a costly act. The musicians donned bells and masks and headdresses and began calling, cheering, whistling life, dancing around each other and ruffling their clothes like native birds. Tradition swirled around pure, unsullied joy – just incredible.

After nearly two entrancing hours, the musicians exited by floating down the concrete river snaking between the chairs, much to the pining of the audience. Teary-eyed Juan from Colombia, who’s wanted to travel to the Fes Festival after first hearing sacred music years ago, described the performance as, “ancestral, like the original thing – a sound that comes from within.” Catherine, from France, summarised their passion as “playing for God”.

DHAFER YOUSSEF 21:00 BAB AL MAKINA - Suzanna Clarke reports

The concert opened with images of the swirling cosmos projected on the walls of Bab Makina. In some contexts, this may have seemed grandiose, or clichéd, but for Tunisian oud player extraordinaire, Dhafer Youssef, and his four piece band, it perfectly encapsulated what was in store.

This was an extraordinary concert; where the fusion of the melodies created by a master musician on an ancient instrument, bouncing off the contemporary jazz played by four other excellent musicians - drummer, double bassist, pianist, and electric guitarist - became more than the sum of their parts.

The playfulness with which he and the other musicians interacted was a joy to watch. He leapt around the stage, playing extended duos with each.

Youssef has described himself as spiritual without being religious. He comes from a long line of muezzins, and learnt how to effectively use his voice from a young age. He has an unusually wide range, and can create evocative soundscapes. At times his voice sounds like the call of birds; at others the violin tones of whale song. But it’s not his voice alone - Youssef uses his body as an instrument, drumming on his chest to add to the reverberation of deep notes, or flexing his fingers to shape echoes which soar across the audience.

Many of the compositions were from his new album Diwan of Beauty and Odd - his eighth album, and were greeted by the audience with enthusiasm.

The images projected onto the walls, mainly in blues, and the laser lights reaching into the night sky and framing the half moon above, enhanced the rich sensory experience.

Youssef has said he feels a connection with Sufism, and the mesmeric, uplifting effect of his music reminded me of Sufi concerts, and seeing audience members go into trance. After almost two hours of his music, I felt like I was in a wonderful trance myself. It was one of the best concerts I have ever seen.


Jordi Savall
Tomorrow @ the Festival




Weather Forecast: 33 degrees Celsius down to 18 at night.

Credits: Lauren Crabbe, photos and text (Ensemble Moxos)
              Suzanna Clarke, text (Dhafer Youssef). Venetia Menzies, photos Dhafer Yousef


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