Sunday, May 15, 2016

Fes Festival 2016 - The Wrap

The 22nd edition of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is over and as is our tradition at The View From Fez, our team takes a look back and reflects on the festival

Festival Artistic Director Alain Weber made some brave choices

Reviewer and photographer Hedd Thomas

This was my first time to the Fes Festival of World Sacred. In fact, it was also my first time in Morocco and my first time in Africa. I came with few expectations.

Obviously the weather affected the festival and it was disappointing to see the lack of organisation and communication from the organisers about any contingency plans. I bumped into a number of people who’d come from afar and paid good money for tickets or passes only to find themselves wondering aimlessly around the Medina for a venue that had been changed for a concert that had been postponed. I’m a fan of Uzbek music and was looking forward to hearing Yulduz Turdieva on Tuesday night but, unannounced, she was replaced. The organisers need to get to grips with modern modes of communication.

For a festival ostensibly celebrating female musicians, there was a conspicuous lack of women other than solo or backing singers. From the orchestras of Ramzi Aburedwan, Mohammed Briouel and the Cairo Opera House at Bab al-Makina to the smaller ensembles accompanying Sahar Mohammadi, Christine Salem, Maria Mazzotta, Rageshri Das, Lamar, Ariana Vafadari and Samira Saïd, literally every single instrumentalist was a man. At the same time, those ensembles made up entirely of women - namely Ingie, Agraw and the Jiangsu Women’s National Orchestra - were marketed as unique not because of their music but because - sacrebleu! - they were all women. Whether the issue is principally cultural, socio-economic or simply musical, I can’t say; but the fact that it doesn’t appear to even be an issue for festival organisers worth redressing or at least addressing through one badly-timed forum session is telling.

Mukkadas Mijit on opening night

The music was, on the whole, exceptional. I relished in the Indian fare, especially Rageshri Das’ intimate ghazals at Dar Adiyel and gnawi Mehdi Nassouli’s collaboration with Parvathy Baul. At her press conference, she talked elegantly about the need to move to the music, that only through dancing does the breath, body and soul synchronise without the mind and ego getting in the way. After Mukkadas Mijit and Imebiet Tegegne’s mesmerising moves on the opening night, I would have liked to experience more of the same throughout the week, as well as more space for audiences to join in. Appreciating music, and especially sacred music, is best done either though silent, concentrated listening or though somatic submission. Too few seemed interested in the former and too few were given space for the latter.

Ragashri Das

Most of the music came from Muslim-majority countries and regions, which gave me a great opportunity to hear the Maqam in all its historical and regional variations. More explanations would have helped, especially in English when only French was provided, and towards the end I did hear myself muttering, “Another day, another ney…” But there was just enough from elsewhere - Brazil, Réunion, Italy - to provide respite. All in all, I had a brilliant, eye-opening time. The many problems of the festival organisation - weather-proofing, communication, ill-timed forum discussions, lack of English language - were counterbalanced by some beautiful, memorable moments. Shukran Fez.

Reviewer and photographer Faith Barker

I had been interested to see whether the management change last year would have changed things at the Fes Festival. We’ve complained enough about the organisation elsewhere for it to be clear that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. If anything the disorganisation was worse because of the wet weather, although I thought the Batha prefecture hall was a great substitute venue.

The programme for me was not as enticing as when I was here in 2014, but I did see some amazing acts: OY’s performance at Batha wasn’t right for the time of day but their wonky, otherworldly music has inspired me to get tickets to their show in London next week; the indomitable Christine Salem and her drummers defied the rain and lit up the Jnan Sbil gardens; and Parvathy Baul’s turn in the opening ceremony stole the show for me. These artists all happened to be female, in keeping with the theme of Founding Women, but the theme was a bit confusing and not consistently drawn out in festival and forum events.

Parvathy Baul stole the show

The Sufi nights are some of my favourite events at the festival, so it was a shame that two were cancelled due to rain. But as always it was a great place for people from the Medina to come together, old and young alike. It unfortunately was not that well publicised to foreign festival-goers, with the information only appearing on the website two days after they had started. This lack of information affected several other events in the festival, including the free app walk exploring the history of Fez’s waterways and its traditional music.

The Fes festival will always have a certain magic because of the charm of the city itself. But it can’t rely on this alone to keep going – either the festival needs to move to September when it clashes with Ramadan, or they need to find better venues for rain. A temporary covering for Bab al-Makina is a possibility, and would improve the festival as well as adding a new concert venue in Fez which could be used all year round. They also need to move fully into the 21st century and use all their social media channels to communicate  - in English as well as French. The festival attracts a high calibre of artists; it has balanced free events with ticketed ones, responding well to criticism that it is too elitist; visitors discover a fascinating city as well as a varied and interesting programme. If it can get the communication right, it has an assured future as one of the most beloved and important world music festivals in the world.

Reviewer and photographer Lynn Sheppard

Lynn Sheppard & Rayyan
The theme for this year's festival was Founding Women, however, repeatedly in speeches, on the festival website and elsewhere the only founding woman mentioned was Fatima el Fihiri, founder of the Al Karaouine. A less limiting and more encompassing theme could have been "Celebrating Women" or similar.

My favourite concert was a woman, although not one of the big stars pictured on this year's poster. I loved the impressive Virginia Rodrigues' concert in Jnan Sibil. I also like the emphasis on India and am intrigued to see which country will be in the spotlight next year. Overall, compared to last year, there were fewer acts in the programme that I already knew and but also fewer discoveries of new favourites for me in 2016.

I was sad to see the Batha Museum lost as a venue, but Jnan Sibil was a worthy alternative, as long as the weather was fine. It was a pity that the entire gardens were shut for the concerts - if the security cordon were moved a little closer to the concert area, the gardens would have remained accessible to all. The Prefecture Hall was a much improved venue compared to last year. The lack of contingency venues is a point previously and frequently made.

The impressive Virginia Rodrigues

There was a distinct lack of clear communication when contingencies had to be made. The Festival would do well to use its social media feeds more consistently to keep festival-goers informed of last minute changes. The number of changes and the inconsistent communication of them between the website, printed programme and reality caused a number of festival regulars to comment to me that they thought the organisation was the "worst in 22 years".

Unfortunately, due to the venue change and a time change which meant it clashed with concerts, I was not able to attend any more of the Forum sessions this year than the first day. I have written here before of my opinion regarding the accessibility of the Forum.

This years forum sessions were a major disapointment

This year, there was no translation, meaning only Francophone attendees needed to bother making the trip to the Jnane Palace Hotel. One English festival-goer told me she had always attended the Forum and felt that the inclusion of the Forum in the Festival pass added significant value to her attendance at the festival. However, she wasn't willing to miss concerts to attend the Forum and when she learned of the lack of translation she realised it would have been a wasted journey anyway. When the President of the Spirit of Fes Foundation doesn't even introduce himself before he speaks, it is easy to interpret the Forum as a closed members club, not interested in attracting new audiences or developing new debates. So much the pity.

To conclude, the bad weather and poor contingency planning and communication meant that, for me, the 22nd Fes Festival of Sacred Music was not the best edition I have attended. With a new team at the helm, we hope next year will be bigger and better than ever before.

Photographer and Editor Sandy McCutcheon

2016 was a difficult year because of possibly the worst weather the festival has ever seen.

While previous festivals have had some very heavy downpours, the rain this year arrived with cold temperatures and an uncharacteristic persistence. In some way this may be a good thing and prompt the festival organisers to have much better contingency plans. While the lack of a "plan B' was an obvious flaw, it could have been ameliorated by the festival having better communication systems, particularly in the social media.

The failure to use the festival's twitter account  (@fesfestival) to alert patrons to changes of venues or cancellations, is particularly odd. A quick check of their Twitter account shows that they last used it 370 days ago! Yet, this was the year when updates of information was particularly necessary. Problems such as incorrect information on the festival website, or their Facebook page, could easily have been fixed with a tweet or two.  Instead, there were small "communique" posters in some places - which a majority of patrons never saw.

Twitter or a smartphone App would have been a better solution

An appropriate response to the communication problem would be to have a smartphone App which festival goers could download. Along with updates, alerts and venue information it could contain maps and other essential information - in English.

Praise deserves to be paid to the technical staff, particularly sound engineer Chris Ekers and his team, for the extra work involved in last minute changing of venues. Sound in most venues was good, apart from Dar Tazi where the Sufi Nights were held.

OY - a brave choice that paid off

No festival programme can ever satisfy all patrons, but this year Alain Weber's opening night and the Indian events were a standout. The inclusion of OY was a brave decision that paid off and became a festival favourite for those lucky enough to have caught their concert. Other performances worth mentioning are Imebiet Tegegne, from Ethiopia and Sahar Mohammadi.

The mesmerising Imebiet Tegegne

Many who had been looking forward to seeing Oumou Sangaré after the disappointment of her being rained out last year, were shaking their heads at the bad luck that saw her cancelled once again. The weather was unkind and at one stage three or the five women on the festival banner were either cancelled or rescheduled - something beyond the control of the festival. 

Two cancellations and one postponement due to rain or equipment not arriving on time

The final Sufi Night concert with the Fez Hamadcha was a boisterous affair, with security and police needed to keep control of an over-full venue. This should not have surprised them as the Hamadcha are the most popular and exciting tariqa in Fez.

The View From Fez Team shukran to...  

Rachida El Jokh
Press Officer Fatima-Zohra Hamidi,  Meriam Sqali and Amine El Youssefi at the Festival office. Sound Engineer Chris Ekers for providing background on the festival's technical workings, Helen Ranger for hot hints, tips and translations. Hassan Zemmouri for his detailed knowledge of who's who in Fez.

Working at covering the entire festival is a time consuming task. Most nights the VFF team were working to 3 am and are in debt to Rachida El Jokh (and her mother) for keeping them fuelled up for the long nights.
"Rachida was a genie who kept making great food appear."  - Hedd Thomas. 
Without the constant availability of great Moroccan food and endless pots of coffee and tea, the crew would have been far less able to cope with the long hours. Rachida also performed marathon babysitting sessions "Without her it wouldn't have been possible for me to do my work." - Lynn Sheppard. 

Shukran l' kulchi


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