Sunday, July 01, 2018

Fes Festival 2018 - The Wrap

The 2018 Fes Festival of World Sacred Music has been generally acknowledged by audiences and critics as a success. The general consensus is that it returned to its spiritual roots rather than attempting to offer big star performers. 

The lack of introductions in English, inadequate communication about venue changes and no social media presence during the Festival have been the main complaints by patrons.  However, thanks are due to the staff of Esprit de Fes for providing opening night tickets for our team, due to the late delivery of the press passes for The View From Fez. 

The View From Fez guest photo-journalists, Lauren Crabbe from Australia and Venetia Menzies from Scotland, offer their thoughts on the Festival.

The Fes Festival 2018 - bringing the world together

Fes Festival Wrap - Venetia Menzies

Venetia Menzies
The exceptional musical talent of this year’s performers, drawing on ancient wisdom from across the world, provided Festival-goers with a week of both entertainment and insight into sacred musical practices. It was alone their sheer joy for performance, technical mastery and humility that redeemed the shortfalls of the Festival, namely poor management and time-keeping.

Repeated complaints heard from the audience was a lack of translations in English, for both performer’s introductions and of the Festival programme itself. In a country where almost everyone is multilingual, there is no shortage in the availability of narrators who could easily provide information in Arabic, French, English, and even Amazigh. This could prove a turning point, improving accessibility and allowing the Festival a chance on the international stage. With new management retreating back to its Francophone base, they risk alienating customers along both geographical and class lines.

Performances usually began more than half an hour late, and with the audience arriving an hour before the due start-time, this left people impatient and exhausted. For those attending multiple concerts a day this was particularly frustrating. The alteration in the timing of the programme, compounded with late starts, made it impossible for pass holders to attend three concerts in the day, something which Festival regulars were particularly upset about.

Despite these shortcomings, the Festival was once again a success thanks to the immensely gifted performers who graced the stage, many travelling thousands of miles to perform in the ancient city of Fez. The flawless work of the sound and lighting technicians, who provided dizzying projections onto the fortress, deserve a special mention. Particular highlights of the Festival include Dhafer Youssef, whose super-human vocal ability had the largely local audience begging him for more. Another local favourite was Said Belcadi’s Al-Ala Orchestra, who played traditional Andalusia music that whipped people into a frenzy and had them singing along to favourites.

Dhaffer Youssef 

A particular success of this year’s Festival was its syncretism, providing sets which fused sacred music from around the world, offering novel concoctions that mixed styles and languages. ‘3 Ma’, which showcased devotional music from Morocco, Mali and Madagascar, was a shining example of this, with Moroccan Driss El Maloumi, Malian Ballaké Sissoko and Malgache Rajery Madagascar, grinning exuberantly as they played songs which did everything from praising God to mocking African politics.

The Heart of Sufi Africa was another successful blend of musical styles and performers from across Africa. Uniting around the devotional nature of Sufi music, the concert welcomed musicians from Senegal, High Egypt and Morocco. Senegalese Sheikh Papa Sow Djimbira stole the show with his spine-tingling vocals and stage presence. The sheer energy of the Egyptian group’s ritual dances, including whirling dervish-like for minutes on end, had the audience entranced.

Sheikh Papa Sow Djimbira 

Closing the Festival this year, the Soweto Gospel Choir of South Africa injected colour and cheekiness back into the programme, with vibrant costumes, ceaseless dancing and booming vocals. Their final song, where they were joined by the Moroccan Sufi choir led by Hajj Muhammad Bennis, exemplified this year’s focus on celebrating common ground between faiths. Both groups harmonised Hallelujahs and Hamdollilahs as the audience abandoned their seats and poured towards the front of the stage to dance.

If the Festival management are willing to address the shortfalls in organisation, this Festival has the potential to become an international gem, doing justice to the talent of the exceptional performers we’ve seen this week.

                     Fes Festival Wrap - Lauren Crabbe

Lauren Crabbe
Coming into the Fes Festival for the first time, I really didn't know what to anticipate. I expected to witness a lot of tradition, which the Festival wholeheartedly delivered. I expected to be challenged by some of the styles and compositions and messages behind the music, which I was (a welcome challenge, I might add). I expected to reach the end of it all, totally spent, and a little unsure of how to process the flood of new information in my system, which is indeed the case. I didn't expect to be so blown away by the sheer spectacle of some of the performances.

The visuals were astonishing, and witnessing the chameleon-like walls of Bab Makina during the opening ceremony had me instantly captivated. The energy of some of the performers was incredible; Dhafer Youssef's epic soundscapes, the infectious passion of the Soweto Gospel Choir, the frantic dynamism of Goran Bregovic's orchestra, the bolstering fusion of sounds in Heart of Sufi Africa.

Some performances were more understated, but still very special and intimate; the pure and wholesome vivacity of the Moxos Ensemble, the classical rock 'n' roll zeal of Fest Noz, the gentle hilarity of 3MA, the technically brilliant but charming accessibility of the Saint Ephraim choir with Bea Palya and, of course, Jordi Savall. There were few weak links in this festival lineup, and seeing performers unreservedly share their hearts and homeland traditions with their listeners already has me hoping I'll be lucky enough to return again.

Jordi Savall

Despite this resounding success, there is, unfortunately, room for improvement behind the scenes. The biggest problem was lack of almost any kind of English translation, in programs and onstage. Non- (or even weak) French or Arabic speakers not only lose a lose a lot of context, but feel quite excluded when introductions and explanations are directly only at roughly 50% of the audience.

The curse of the smart phone

Sure, it's possible to perform one's own research beforehand, and absolutely to still appreciate and enjoy the spectacle...but it doesn't compare to hearing the traditional meaning entwined with the music and its significance directly from the source. (Or, if not from the musicians, then the announcers.) The varied musical styles (some very unlike anything back home) would be so much more understandable, and therefore endearing, with just a little bit more effort put into multi-lingual translation.

Bungles with programming also led to missed performances. Lack of communication on social media (and apparent indifference to the confusion this might cause) about the last-minute venue change for the Sufi nights was obviously a problem, and misinformation online and in some paper programs regarding performance times of the Linyuanxinlei Art Troupe meant some (including The View From Fez) couldn't experience what surely would have been a dazzling display.

I also think venue staff could have been more diligent. Uneven stair construction leading to a raised platform in Bab Makina caused many people to trip up and potentially injure themselves, while no fewer than five staff lingered nearby but refused to step in and help. Plenty of people talked loudly or on their phones during performances, and loitered in aisles so others couldn't properly see or hear. This was managed a little better towards the end of the festival, but measures could have been put in place sooner.

Thankfully, these criticisms didn't detract from the Fes Festival's core message: appreciating and integrating ancestral traditions from all over the world, and ultimately providing a magnificent platform for artists to share their sacred rituals with us. I was moved, charmed, floored, and heartened by the experience in its uniqueness, and reserve a special place in my heart for having had the privilege.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I attended the concert for the first time, although I have been aware of its existence for 23 years. My children are all finally grown up and I could afford to take the time to attend this amazing event. When I received the concert agenda, it was so exciting that I immediately decided I would plan to go both this year and next. I practiced my high school and college French for months to expand my understanding and ability to get around. Sadly, although reading maps is part of my professional skills, I was unable to attend most of the concerts at the smaller venues because maps, GPS, directions, guides, and even people who had found the venue the day before were not enough to confidently find the venue. I would either arrive too late or give up the hunt after an hour of hunting. After 23 years of wanting to go to this concert, it was a lovely experience, the music I was able to find was uplifting and heart-touching, and the people of Morocco will be in my heart forever, however I will not be returning next year. Being able to attend only the main concerts was too disappointing and frustrating.