Wednesday, December 14, 2005


From time to time THE VIEW FROM FÈS will publish a guest posting that captures a particular aspect of what makes Fès such a fascinating place. First up a wonderful piece on the Fès Festival by British journalist Mary Finnigan. Thanks Mary.

Please note; If you are looking for details of the 2007 festival you will find them here: 2007 Fes Festival


A blind man of truly awesome height and girth moves towards the stage – led with tenderness by a respectful acolyte. Said Hafid the master singer from Egypt eases his bulk onto a chair, grasps a microphone and launches into a hymn of praise to the Almighty with a level of emotional intensity that causes tears to flow from many eyes.

Hafid is a living legend among devout Muslims, but here, beneath the sheltering branches of a giant Barbary oak, his Psalms and Panagyrics touch the hearts of an audience assembled from a rich diversity of cultures and religions. Hafid is the star of an afternoon concert in the gardens of the Batha Museum, in Morocco’s ancient holy city of Fès.

People from around the planet make pilgrimage to Fès for the Festival of World Sacred Music – smart European bourgeoisie, young Antipodean backpackers, American intellectuals, black Africans in flamboyant national costume, elegant oriental ladies in fine kimonos, Moroccans who have probably saved up their dirhams for months to buy an hour or two of musical ecstasy. Some become ardent aficionados, returning year after year. Some have even been known to re-locate to Fès because they love the festival so much. Easy conversation springs up between people bonded by shared experience and friendships that begin under the Barbary oak tend to develop strong roots.

Said Hafid’s timing is immaculate as he builds towards peak performance. The entire audience (starchy bourgeoisie included) is on its feet – clapping, waving shouting and singing along. Afterwards the cognocenti say he was not at his best, that he has lost his edge. But to all who heard him for the first time he was a master singer who transported them out of their everyday anxieties and into a state of transcendent delight.

That, in essence, is what the Fès Festival aims to achieve. Performances are sometimes less than technically perfect and sometimes ultra-weird to the European ear, but the experience of Fès goes beyond intellectual analysis. Somehow, as one concert follows another, each starkly different from the one before, the festival persuades you to face up to the challenge of unfamiliar tonalities – because each act in its own way is conveying the same message: that there is something inherently beautiful hard wired into the human condition.

Most of us know it is there. Only a few of us are able to sustain it as a daily life reality. Most of us know that music makes us happy and relaxed – so we find solace in sound. But mostly it is a temporary palliative. Fes suggests that we can go further: into the spiritual domain, into more profound awareness. It suggests that if you consistently integrate deep levels of musical appreciation you can throw away the Prozac and fire your therapist. This modality has little correspondence with routine religion, but it is a form of meditation.

At dusk an undulating ocean of humanity makes its way along the broad boulevard that leads to the Bab Makina palace courtyard , where the evening concerts take place. Overhead, thousands of Alpine swifts wheel and shriek, swooping down to feed their young in nest holes in the palace walls. Fès treasures its swifts because they eat flies. They are known as the janitors of the air.

At ground level, the security janitors squeeze the crowd into two narrow tunnels. There is claustrophobic pressure from behind and the paraphernalia of electronic surveillance ahead. Then with relief, you step out into a latter day version of the Arabian Nights. A huge space – surrounded by towering, castellated walls. There’s a three-quarter moon in an indigo sky , an elegantly planted rock garden to your left and ahead an assortment of multi-coloured marquees with striped awnings, divans, comfy chairs and brass tables. There are stalls selling fast food – Moroccan style (brochettes, pancakes, mint tea) and USA style (hot dogs, Coca Cola). You can eat, soft drink and rendezvous with your friends in comfort, before, during and after the music. Alcohol is absent, but nobody seems to miss it.

Everything at the Bab Makina is on a grand scale – with ancient and modern meeting on equal terms. There’s seating for 5,000 people. The stage sits in front of a giant Moorish arch, tastefully lit with a softly shifting kaleidoscope of colours. Batteries of speakers hang from scaffolding. Chris Ekers, the festival sound engineer, sits behind a vast console, twiddling and tweaking and instructing his back stage team by walkie talkie.

This is where the big stars and the big bands conjure up their magic. In 2003 Brazil’s Minister of Culture – also known as the musician Gilberto Gil – powered out a thundering rock concert that earned him a standing ovation. In total contrast, the following night the Iranian Sufi Mohammed Reza Shajarian performed subtle, haunting devotional sequences with a simple string ensemble.

In 2004, the famous Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour chose the Fes Festival for the live world premiere of his album Egypt – with black African musicians and a full-size Egyptian orchestra shoe-horned together onto the Bab Makina stage. In 2005 Ravi Shankar, the maestro who turned the developed world onto Indian classical music, performed intricate ragas with his equally talented, beautiful daughter Anoushka.

A festival day and night ends in the Dar Tazi gardens in the heart of the Fès medina. You can sip mint tea under the trees – or you can join a shoving, heaving, throbbing mass bobbing its way into ecstatic trance while the wild Sufi brotherhoods drum and chant and wail. Men and women, Moroccans and foreigners jam up against each other in rhythm and in various states of spiritual intoxication. Some fall towards the ground – either exhausted or transcendent – or both.

There is not a square inch of floor space, so if you pass out you topple onto your fellow humans. The Moroccans are used to this sort of thing and lift the casualties away from the action.

On Wednesday evening, the mid-point of the Festival week, coaches depart from the tourist hotels, carrying concert goers out into the Moroccan countryside. Forty miles of pleasant, rolling rural vistas later they pull up in the car park at Volubilis --an A list tourist attraction and a gloriously romantic location for outdoor performances. Volubilis is the site of a large Roman settlement, the ruins of which are outstandingly well preserved. You can stroll past villas and bath houses, temples and piazzas – admiring the fine mosaics.

Tall pillars that once supported temple roofs are now providing nesting for the local storks. Bewildered by a sudden mass invasion when the last of the day’s tourists have trickled away, the storks have been known to delay the start of festival events with their loud, clattering alarm calls.

Of course there is a downside. In Fès you really do need to concentrate to reach the contemplative state where you overhear the music effortlessly. Partly because some of it is so austere – Shash Maqaam from central Asia for example or Japanese Gagaku – but also because of what the French newspaper Le Figaro described as a “concerto of mobile phone ring tones.” Moroccan audiences do not subscribe to European concert hall etiquette. They smoke during performances, they chat with their companions and despite twice daily exhortations, they refuse to switch off their mobiles.

These attitudes are a source of irritation to Europeans, Americans, Australians etc: but they also force you into sharp focus on the music, in order to edit out the distractions. This effort doesn’t always work, but it is a useful discipline.

The Fès Festival came into being 11 years ago – born from the heart and mind of a Sufi scholar called Faouzi Skali who was appalled by the implications of the first Gulf War. There was an emblematic first performance in 1994 that featured a Palestinian singer and a Jewish guitarist. As we know now, Skali’s foresight turned out to be tragically accurate – today jihad versus crusade is a daily, bloody reality – obvious to everyone with an eye for the big picture behind the political spin. A sizeable segment of the Moslem world and several western democracies are polarised into bitter opposition, each demonising the opposite point of view and each justifying mass slaughter as a means to an end. Faouzi Skali’s inspiration did not stop this happening, but the festival he founded occupies a firm position on the moral high ground. It celebrates spiritual values, pluralism and appreciation of cultural diversity. In our profoundly troubled times, it is increasingly recognised as an axis of hope. Skali symbolises Fès as a cup. In physical terms because the city sits in a bowl, surrounded by protective hills. In Sufi terms because a cup represents the heart – a vessel where spiritual love can be nurtured and distilled.

A sacred music festival located in one of Islam’s great holy cities attracted immediate support from the Moroccan establishment. The late King Hassan and his son King Mohammed 6 –monarchs with real political power – became enthusiastic patrons. They did this because Fès is a showcase for Morocco’s largely successful campaign to be seen as a standard bearer for social and religious tolerance. More royal philanthropists followed suite -- The Prince of Wales accepted an invitation from King Hassan to become a patron and so too did Prince Albert of Monaco.

For the first few years the Fès Festival was largely a francophone event and seemed to project an elitist perspective. It presented uncompromisingly authentic musical events, with audiences drawn mostly from affluent French and Moroccan professional families. But then one of Skali’s Sufi brothers had the brilliant idea to add free concerts for the people of Fès – designed to suit popular Moroccan taste and held in the vast Bab Boujloud square where thousands could gather to hear them. They were instantly successful.

Another innovation materialised in 2001 when the Fès Festival expanded its remit to include not only the intimate language of music, but also the overt language of dialogue. The Fès Encounters colloquium sessions kick off under the Barbary oak at 9.00am – a hard call if you’ve been boogying with the Sufis into the wee small hours. Their aim is to explore the potential for a worldwide level playing field – encompassing fair trade for example, aid that really does improve the lives of the poorest of the poor, international development with a compassionate face – and so on across the landscape of humanitarian endeavour. The over-arching rubric is Giving Soul to Globalisation. The people who take part include politicians, apparatchiks, philanthropists, activists, development workers, academics and clerics from all the world’s religions.

A remarkable woman called Katherine Marshall from The World Bank applies intellectual rigour to the extreme diversity of view and debate that characterises the Fès Encounters. Her daily summaries make the complexities digestible. The World Bank has sponsored the Fès Encounters from the start. In 2005 The European Commission and The Aga Khan Trust for Culture added their prestige and resources.

The Spirit of Fès has spread abroad. At first it was an abstraction – a phrase that encapsulated the festival’s high ideals – but now it is a concrete reality. Fès-inspired sacred music festivals have sprung up in France, Spain, Holland and the UK . In 2004 The Spirit of Fès roadshow gave performances in 17 cities across the United States. Another American tour is scheduled for 2006.

In the 11 years of its existence Fès has developed into one of the world’s great music festivals. It is also acquiring iconic status as a clarion call for peace and tolerance from the Islamic world – an influential counterpoint to Osama bin Laden. The roots of the festival are embedded in the Sufi mystical tradition – the path of the heart – expressed most eloquently by the 13th century poet Jelaluddin Rumi:

In your light I learn how to love
In your beauty, how to make poems.

You dance inside my chest,
Where no-one sees you

But sometimes I do,
And that sight becomes this art

Mary Finnigan
August 2005

Program for 2007. See the latest info here: 2007 Fes Festival

Accommodation in Fès

Festival Site

Last years Festival



Anonymous said...

Thank you. This is a very evocative piece.

Anonymous said...

Please ask your contributor to write more. She is a fine writer and captures the spirit so well. Thank you