Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fes Festival 2017 ~ The Wrap

The 23rd Fes Festival of World Sacred Music took place between the 12th and 20th of May. This year's theme was "Water and the Sacred"

The festival under the artistic direction of Alain Weber, once again brought together an eclectic mix of music and performers. While no overall programme will be to everyone's taste, the mix this year offered something for everyone.

Artistic Director Alain Weber

While spectacular, opening night lacked the punch of the previous two years. As our reviewers wrote: "What the opening night lacked in excitement it made up for in colour, though at times it felt as though the splendid image mapping was upstaging merely incidental music. As usual, the sound and lighting were near perfect. However, with a lack of a strong narrative line, the production fell short of of the splendid opening at last year's festival." (see full review)

The splendid image mapping

For the rest of the festival attendance was good at most concerts, though the afternoon heat and lack of shade kept audience numbers small at the outdoor Jnan Sbil performances.

The presence of Chinese performers this year was a plus, with pipa player Lingling Yu being a particular favourite. Her virtuoso performance at Riad Dar Bensouda was, for many people unfamiliar with Chinese music, a revelation.

As reviewer Lynn Houmdi wrote: The dexterity of her interpretation, as she strummed, plucked, stroked and picked the pipa's five strings, occasionally banging the body as well, easily transported the audience across the seas and mountains.

Images of raging dynastic armies or snow falling on the pine-tree lined mountainsides of a classic pen and ink scene came readily to mind, while in other pieces the lute had more of a flamenco guitar or a Middle Eastern sound. For the first of a series of homages to the music and culture of China, we were given a rare treat tonight: an instrument so versatile in the hands of one so expert."

"An instrument so versatile in the hands of one so expert"

The other major contribution from China was the Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe (浙江婺剧团), whose Legends of Water was presented at Bab Makina in partnership with the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China. While being a stunning spectacle, flawlessly performed, some in the audience found it challenging, particularly those not accustomed to the high tone style of Chinese Opera singing.

A flawless performance

The collaborations across cultural lines, such as Aziz Sahmaoui's Cuban Project, the Songhai collaboration and Violons Barbares, all worked particularly well. The Songhai Project was a musical experiment that began in London between Malian kora maestro Toumani Diabaté and flamenco musicians from the band Ketama in 1987. Here, in Fez, we were treated to a wonderful concert. As Toumani Diabaté put it, "A 30 year reunion - for nostalgia's sake!"

One of the characteristics of both the Fez and Essaouira summer festivals is their ability to bring artists together who would not normally collaborate. Sometimes this creates something new and amazing. Other times it seems as though the collaboration is less than the sum of its parts. The latter was sadly often the case this year, for example backing Vicente Amigo with a symphony orchestra. A maestro such as Amigo should be given space in his own right.  The orchestral second half was, in the words of an audience member, "...a low point that detracted from the overall evening".

Long-standing collaborations, rather than those with just a few rehearsals, work best. The "made for Fez" model doesn't seem to offer enough opportunity for artists to really build the rapport and relationships necessary for a convincing fusion of styles.

Eric Bibb - "The perfect combo"

The inclusion of blues legend Eric Bibb was a real plus. "Bibb has the perfect combo of skills: a true (slightly husky) blues voice and great guitar skills. His humble demeanour and shrugging off of stardom is not affected and is endearing. He is a man with a sense of the universal sacred and many of the songs, such as We Are All Connected, brought this to the fore." (full review here)

This year the Festival explored other artistic avenues beyond music and dance such as film, literature and combinations of those with music. These efforts worked to varying degrees but are certainly worth exploring in greater depth. The least successful was Arestes E S’Urtzu PretistuAncient rite of the village of Sorgono - an idea still, sadly, in search of a form. Being "authentic" or "worthy" is not enough to turn it into something suitable for a sacred music festival.

The Hamadcha - A force to be reckoned with!

The Hamadcha Sufi group's collaboration with Vincent Moon and Priscilla Telmon's Labyrinths showed the necessity of all the collaborator's producing equally strong material. In this case, the Hamadcha upstaged the film and probably saved the evening.

Amongst the regular festival patrons there is a feeling that each year the Festival moves further from its "Sacred" aspect and more towards yet another festival on the global summer circuit. This was characterised by the number of groups this year presenting their latest album, although the Songhai project - reunited after 30 years - was a notable exception.

Sadly, from a commercial and diversity perspective, the Festival organisation seems to be turning back towards being a Francophone club. English-language media were largely ignored and in some cases even excluded from covering the Festival; The View from Fez being a rare exception. Event introductions were seldom in any other language than French, despite an increasing Anglophone audience (not to mention an Arabophone one - not all Moroccans are fluent in French, after all). Welcome exceptions were the interpreters at the Forums, which were excellent this year. Violons Barbares and Aziz Sahmaoui both introduced their sets in a mixture of French, Darija and English - no mean feat for the violinists, considering the members are themselves French, Bulgarian and Mongolian. The appointment of a specific person to make sure the Festival's communication extends beyond French speakers in all aspects would be a definite improvement.

The Nights in the Medina concept is worth preserving. However, signage this year was not put up until halfway through the festival. The candle-lit pathways of other years, unfortunately did not return. The Dar Adiyel venue is far from large enough from an audience comfort and safety perspective.

Claire Zalamansky at Palais Amani

The addition of Palais Amani as a venue was a positive step. Their hosting of the talented Claire Zalamansky was a rare treat. More should be made of the Sidi Mohamed Ben Youssef Cultural Complex, which is under-utilised. It is also relatively easy for visitors to find. While the addition of smiling "meeters and greeters" at venues was a charming addition, these need to be better informed about how to direct patrons to venues. Helpfully, local people redirected more than a few visitors.

It seems that the Festival needs to sit down and actually work out what it is they are presenting and for whom. In addition, the relationship between the media and the Festival needs improvement. The narrow focus on Francophone print and television media does the event a disservice. These days, the impact of online and social media, in all languages, cannot afford to be ignored. Many visitors to Fez and the Festival will access their news about it in this form, and whatever helps to spread the word about this significant cultural event is worth encouraging.

A greater adherence of the Festival to its purported theme is needed to refresh the festival format. And an improved coherence from the outset between development of the theme, selection of artists and their repertoires and promotion of the Festival itself would make for a more satisfying audience experience.

The View From Fez coverage of the festival was by: Lynn Houmdi, Suzanna Clarke and Sandy McCutcheon


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