Sunday, June 23, 2019

Fes Festival Wrap Up -2019

Following in the footsteps of the many Sufi musicians of the past, who had famously travelled to this ancient city to unearth its wisdom, the Fes Festival 2019 attracted an eclectic mix of artists from around the world. 
Marcel Khalife

This practise of migrating between centres of knowledge, sharing and exchanging ideas, is what helped cultures to infuse a variety of styles, genres and instruments into their traditional musical heritage. This interconnectedness and diversity of musical knowledge was evident across each stage of the festival, from the iconic Bab Makhina to the solace of Jardin Jnan Sbil.

Each member of the audience had their own personal favourite performer or musical genre, but there were some undebatable festival highlights. At the top of the list was the world-renowned Marcel Khalife, who was accompanied on stage by his son Rami, a master pianist, and also by most of the audience, who sang the lyrics to each and every one of his songs like they were trying out for ‘Morocco’s Got Talent’. Relaxed and confident, Khalife lived up to their expectations, delivering an even sweeter sound than that on his records and CDs.

Ballaké Sissoko

Another spellbinding performance was from the Ballaké Orchestra, who, under the direction of Ballaké Sissoko, relied solely on vocals and the kora instrument of the Mandika tradition to captivate the audience. The unique sound and sight of the kora made this performance one to remember. The same could be said of the much-enjoyed Carlos Nunez with his Spanish Gaita Bagpipes. The novel experience of hearing such an instrument, especially played by a master such as Carlos, was memorable, and his talented violinist Mary Ryan added a raw energy and vigour to the mix that ensured the concert was a highlight.

A local favourite was Sami Yusuf, who performed new and old arrangements to a packed-out audience who repeated each line back to him. But nobody had the audience dancing and singing as much as the Gospel performers of this year’s festival. Firstly there was Michelle David and The Gospel Sessions, who, despite their late start, wowed the audience with their energy, openness and cheer. But with double the manpower, the Kingdom Choir of the U.K., who performed at the first section of the finalé, may have been this year’s ‘Festival First’. Within minutes, they had the entire venue on their feet, singing, clapping and swinging their hips from side to side.

Michelle David 

Few vocalists in the festival could rival the singers of the Kingdom Choir, who sang as if the melody erupted from within. Contenders who matched them included Alain Larribet, the vocalist of Opera Slam Baroque, who could make sounds unknown to this world, and the Azerbaijani vocalist of the Baharriya ensemble, who used his voice like an instrument, dancing between notes and melodies acrobatically.

Despite the passion and soul of each performer who graced the stage this Fes Festival, there is considerable room for improvement when it comes to organisation and strategy of the festival itself. Recurring complaints from Fes Festival regulars were the same: poor time management, poor logistics, and the constant feeling of not really knowing what is going on. It came to be that there were actually two separate schedules for the concerts, one listing all the start times half an hour later than the other. This is a recipe for confusion and frustration, and an elementary error.

Another gripe comes to the planning of the schedule itself. For those who shelled out for a Festival pass and found themselves unable to attend each concert, there was considerable frustration. Why not schedule the concerts with half an hour between each, allowing the audience to make their way to the next venue? Currently the schedule dictates that many in the audience rush off early from one concert to arrive late and exhausted at the next.

Getting between the venues is also no mean feat. Even those who have lived in Fes medina since birth admit that the old city, with its thousands of small streets, is a labyrinth not to be underestimated. It would hugely improve the overall experience if there were clear signs, guides, or even better: a shuttle bus for those less able to hike up and down the hill.

The last piece of constructive criticism has been heard before: there is considerable need for the introductions and narration to be translated into English as well as French and Arabic. The majority of the Festival pass-holders are Anglophones, mostly from across Europe, America, Canada and Australia. Given the unrivalled linguistic skills of Moroccans, it would not be impossible to source a translator, and this is essential if the festival aims to be renowned internationally. Such organisational shortfalls fail to do justice to the performers who are bringing it their music year after year.

Regardless, the crowds will undoubtedly return next year, expecting an equally impressive line-up and probably a few logistical mix ups too. It is always a delight to hear performances from masters of sacred music from around the world, and to be at a festival that celebrates the diversity and importance of global musical heritage, and ultimately of all humanity. In current times of division, antagonism and fanaticism with regards to global geopolitics, it is refreshing to be immersed in such an environment where people from all faiths and nations can unite around a common love for music.

The View From Fez would like to thank Venetia Menzies for her magnificent solo effort in covering the festival.

We welcome your comments about this year's festival - just comment below - Thank you!


Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fes Festival Closing Concert - June 22

This year, the Fes Festival audience were left a little deflated, reeling from all of this week’s performances but unsure how to digest an oddly put together two-part closing concert


After a slow start the stalls filled up to the brim, but luckily a warm breeze kept the audience awake and energised as they waited. For the last time the hosts entered the stage and gave a warm thank you to all the festival regulars who had attended this year.

Karen Gibson - ‘Britain’s godmother of gospel”

The Kingdom Choir, from the isles of Britain, brought buckets of energy to the stage for the first part of the final concert of Fes Festival 2019. After recently performing at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in St George's Chapel of Windsor in May, they have leaped from fame to fame.

At the wedding they performed the iconic ‘Stand by Me’, topping the US Hot Gospel charts, and bagging a record deal with Sony Music. But their roots are twenty five years prior to this. Based in London, and conducted by founder Karen Gibson, who was declared the ‘Britain’s godmother of gospel”.

Tonight the audience had the pleasure of two concerts, one gospel and one flamenco. It wasn’t clear why they had put them as a two-part concert, and the order was even more confusing.

Opening with a powerful ballad, ten women and three men walked onto the stage with confidence. The conductor Karen introduced herself and thanked Morocco for welcoming them:

“I don't know if you know the meaning of gospel but it's ‘good news’, so we hope you will feel really good. But we need to see your hands and feet… can I see you click? Can I see you clap? Can I see you stand? Can I see you tap your feet? Okay let's practise again.”

“Tonight we honour our one and only Aretha Franklin” Karen declared as they burst into song with ‘Sing a Little Prayer’. The truth is, within the first five minutes of singing, they blew every other vocalist in the festival out of the water. With a natural volcanic sound that exuded power, confidence and soul, they were unrivalled.

“We have people from England, from Italy, from India, Jamaica, Guyana. We're sorry we don't have anyone from Morocco, but tonight we have you.”

In honour of one West African singers in their ensemble they sang a traditional song. After that things got funky, and they asked everyone to take to their feet. With crisp clear and explosive vocals, the audience couldn't help but sing and dance along. The audience hadn't quite seen anything like it.

Being positive in the face of sorrow and hardship is central to the message of gospel music. Born from the suffering of slaves, and used for solace in secret, the melodies and lyrics of gospel, with flavours of jazz, blues and soul, has a unique power to uplift that no other music quite rivals.

Suddenly looking around it felt we were at a gospel church session. With the boys singing a long ‘lovely day’ and the girls repeating it over and over, the whole audience was on their feet singing.

“Thank you the Gospel Choir of Morocco” the conductor said to the audience. With hips moving as fast as hands clapping, it was hard to see how flamenco could follow this act.

After a fifteen minute hiatus the audience were in store for something very different, Spanish flamenco music led by the duo José Mercé (vocals) and Tomatito (guitar). Performing since the age of 12 in flamenco festivals, José has an incredible voice, something unique and natural. His voice erupting from his frame like a spirit being exorcised, he shakes and wobbles as he sings, throwing his hands around in spasm.

José Mercé (vocals) and Tomatito (guitar)

Tomatito, real name José Fernández Torres, is a Spanish flamenco guitarist who has accompanied many of the most famous flamenco singers such as Camarón de la Isla. Together with Jose they shifted the atmosphere completely. Joined in stage with three percussionists using only their hands, and a drummer who was banging in all sorts of places, the sound was constant and hypnotic.

For a lot of the local audience who had been enjoying every minute of the Kingdom Choir, they weren’t so appreciative of the flamenco music. A lot of Moroccans left early, leaving a good few empty rows. However those who stayed enjoyed each rhythm and best, dancing and swaying their hips for the last time this year.

José Mercé 

Disappointingly there was no finale that mixed artists as expected. The audience were left feeling as if the finale failed to deliver that ‘out with a bang’ feeling. The combination of various artists all on stage that occurred last year was unforgettable, and was a poignant end to a festival about unity. This year, however, the audience were left a little deflated, reeling from all of this week’s performances and unsure how to digest them with this oddly put together two-part closing concert.

Review and photographs: Venetia Menzies


Friday, June 21, 2019

Fes Festival - June 21

Mohammed Briouel

On the penultimate day of the Fes Festival, it has become something of a tradition to give the locals a treat with one of their favourites - the Arabo-Andalus Orchestra of Fes, directed by the renowned Mohammed Briouel. This year was no exception, but several other performances attracted visitors and gave superb performances - Venetia Menzies reports...


Ballaké Orchestra

Under the direction of the master Ballaké Sissoko, a member of the National Orchestra of Mali since the age of 13, young musicians from Bamako gathered for an afternoon of Mandika music.

Ballaké Sissoko

Ballaké’s musical talent was inherited and developed by his late father Djelimady Sissoko who was the founding director of the NOM. He specialises as a kora player, an instrument with a mysterious origin related to the Mandika tradition.

Mandika are an ethnic group spread across Mali, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Senegal and Benin. Descendent of the Mali Empire, their musical tradition holds the kora as a mythical instrument.

Tradition has it that it was first played by the supernatural spirits, the djinns. The Mali King Sundiata found a djinn playing it by a riverbed and ripped it from his hands, bringing it into the human world. A cross between a harp and a lute, the instrument is dynamic and rich, literally considered a portal to another world.

Balleké played the instrument as if second nature, helping it to live up to its reputation. After two enigmatic pieces, he left the stage. Five men dressed in shining hand-made Malian djellabiah replaced him, each with their own kora. They were different shapes and sizes, one so large it came with its own seat, and with holes in different places.

Never failing to surprise, three singers in colourful outfits entered injecting another level of joy onto the stage. Getting the audience involved with claps and cheers, they bobbed from side to side singing over the instruments. Turning to the musicians, one singer addressed them directly blessing their instruments and expertise.

Singing odes to the river and the bounties of nature, they gave us duets solos and harmonies to take us to neighbouring Mali. The eldest vocalist sang with such passion that if it wasn't for his beaming cheeky smile you'd think he was furious.

For the entire performance their director Bassaké had his eyes closed, sitting muted at the back focusing solely on his kora. With total trust in his fellow musicians, he let them slowly melt the audience into a dream.

Opera Slam Baroque
Captain Alexandre

“We walk, we walk, again and again we walk, towards the same beautiful sun”

Marc Alexandre Oho Bambe

Captain Alexandre, real name Marc Alexandre Oho Bambe, is a poet and slam artists. This evening in the medina he shared with the audience a flowing text that celebrated the human journey of being alive, with all its twists, turns and hard lessons. Spoken in French, even for those who couldn't understand, his message was translated in his embodiment of the emotions.

The setting of the performance was as evocative as the lyrics, a single spotlight shining on the slam artist aptly named Captain. With each word he personified the emotion of the song, his face expressing each sorrow, each hardship and each joy.

What was unexpected was the vocal skill and sound of his fellow performer Alain Larribet. With the ability to make noises that evade human origin, those of birds, animals and forms altogether unknown, he stunned the audience into silence.

Alain Larribet

Flitting between an Indian harmonium, flutes, percussion and using only his voice, he created a mood of reflection and awe. At the left of the slam artist was our and guitar player Christophe Isselée settings the undertone melodies of the pieces, keeping otherwise disparate components united.

An unmissable addition to the Festival, and for those lucky enough to find Dar Batha in the medina, a favourite.

The art of Muwashah from Aleppo to Fes

Literally meaning ‘to embroider’, muwashah, is a Semitic word that describes a poetic structure. With each word accentuated by the music, the structure is connected and yet free flowing. The rhythms often intensify in speed until you can feel ‘drunk’ under its spell.

Tonight Bab Makina was packed out with mainly local Moroccans, waiting for an orchestra considered the most important and oldest of Moroccan Andalusian tradition: the Arabo-Andalus Orchestra of Fes, directed by the renowned Mohammed Briouel.

The Arab-Andalusian musical tradition was preserved by the efforts of such orchestras after the fall of Granada in 1492. Bringing together traditions from both sides of the Mediterranean, and the best of both rhythms.

Another local hit, the audience knew exactly when to clap and sing in unison as if it were all rehearsed. It wasn't too long before there were foot taps that morphed into dancing. With catchy rhythms and the energy of the crowds, the enjoyment was infectious.

Switching between the vocals of the beautiful Nabyla Maan, Moroccan singer songwriter, and the blend of percussion, oud, cello and violin, they played the smash hit song “chams achya”:

“Oh sun of the evening,
I hope you do not go away with God,
I am all yours”

Nabyla Maan

It didn't stop until the clapping was deafening and the strings of the violins began to split and spray. Hypnotic projections circled behind them, designed on patterns native to Fes that decorate the medina.

A sudden break was taken, and next up was the Syrian Orchestra of Paris, directed by lead violinist Khalil Jerro. Dressed in modern black tie, they entered with more the same instruments to show their flavour of Mushawah musical tradition.

Syrian Orchestra of Paris

Aleppo was at the heart of conserving and developing this tradition throughout the centuries. Omar Sarmini entered belatedly, a famous musician known for his ability to sing the sacred songs of Sheikh Muhammad Sarmini and sang alongside the orchestra.

A Fes Festival regular, the orchestra are a big hit every year. With a similar set, it is just how the audience like it: catchy, familiar and evocative of past traditions still alive today.

Reviews and photographs: Venetia Menzies

Tomorrow at the Festival

Venue: Jardin Jnan Sbil

Venue: Dar Batha

Venue: Palais Glaoui

Venue: Bab Al Makina

Weather - Warm  sunny and 35 degrees Celsius