Friday, May 19, 2017

Izlan ~ Songs of Moroccan Women ~ Review

From the mountains to the plains, from the desert to the sea, woman appeared as a benevolent goddess as she was made of the elements, she was the elements and all that embellished them in the eyes of men. But it was in spring that as the mountain streams came tumbling down, edged with brown foam and bordered by green tamarisk, a muffled drum of pebbles sounded and she flourished and became as ethereal as an antelope. She became conjoined with the rebirth of Nature.~ Mohammad Khair-Eddine (Moroccan writer fromTafraoute)
The formidable Chérifa 
(click on images to enlarge)

Izlan is an Amazigh (Berber) word meaning the art of verse. What the word does not convey is the energy and at times, sheer power of the performers. Tonight was a varied mix, which Festival Artistic Director Alain Weber described to The View from Fez as being "a little difficult to bring together". It was not clear if he was talking about the artists or the overall concept.

Certainly the performers covered a wide range of ages, backgrounds and geographic locations. Among them the formidable Chérifa, Raïssa Fatima Tabaamrant, Fatima Zohra Qortobi,  and a’yu singers – the sung ‘cry’ of Taounate in the Rif, the Roudaniat dancers of Taroudant in the Anti-Atlas, and Bab al Sahara, the guedra dance group from Guelmim.

Bab al Makina was packed

The Bab al Makina venue was packed for the performance which started with a narrator in French introducing the singers. As the audience was overwhelmingly Moroccan the use of French was understood by a majority of them. The anglophone contingent took it in good grace as an American couple told The View From Fez, "We don't understand a word of French, but the music spoke for itself".

The unnamed narrator was also a fine singer 

Raïssa Fatima Tabaamrant (real name is Fatima Shahu) is a great example of the strength of the Amazigh women. Back in 2012, as an Amazigh parliamentary deputy, she posed the first question in Tamazight in the history of the Moroccan parliament. Gutsy, yes, and she can sing. The audience loved her.

Raïssa Fatima Tabaamrant

There was obviously a "pecking order" as some singers were limited to a single song, while others sang two or three.  Some were backed by the small and highly competent orchestra, others by the group of Moroccans playing traditional instruments such as guembri and drums.

Along with the younger emerging artists, there were a couple of surprises. Two older singers (pictured below) were assisted onto the stage, and while the visitors in the audience had no idea who they were, the local Moroccans told us "everybody knows them" - however, when prompted to name them, simply returned to clapping and singing along. Raymonde el Bidaouia (Raymonde the Casablancan) and Haim Batbol were a surprise inclusion, but warmly welcomed by the audience.

Raymonde el Bidaouia - 75 and going strong

Haim Batbol - 82 years old and unstoppable 

The elderly man, Haim Batbol, at 82 appeared a little frail - until he got the microphone in his hand. He was obviously a Fassi favourite (he lives in the Mellah), as he knew exactly which hits to pull from the past and he never missed a beat as the crowd sang along.

Haim Botbol is one of the legends of popular Moroccan and Jewish-Moroccan music.began his career by creating his first group in Fes, in 1952, at the age of 16. Over the years he has become part of the history of popular Moroccan music, while mentoring hundreds of young musicians and singers. Star of Moroccan radio and television, Haim Botbol also performed for Moroccan families, at weddings, communions, and baptisms.

However, it was an odd interlude at a concert dedicated to Moroccan women.

For up and coming stars sit was a chance to show their talent

But the person most of the crowd had come to see was the woman from Khenifra - Chérifa Kersit. Also known as the "poetess of the Middle Atlas",  Chérifa sings in the emotional tamawayt style. She was born in the Middle Atlas Mountains and did not attend school. Her reputation singing at local weddings and village gatherings spread and in 1999 her career took on an international dimension when she sang at Peter Brook's famous Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in a marathon event celebrating the women of Morocco.


Chérifa was discovered by the great master and singer Rouicha and was part of her singing group for a long time. Chérifa can seem, at first, to be austere or even masculine. However, her career as a professional singer has given her another way of life, a status different from the usual one of traditional Moroccan women.

The evening's performance by Chérifa was limited by the small amount of time allotted to her. To experience her at full-power is exhilarating, but requires a complete concert.

Still, even with the short time on stage, Chérifa's sense of timing and her feel for poetry showed the audience the authentically Tamawayt tradition of the Amazigh songs of the Middle Atlas.

The emotional register alternated between rejoicing and suffering and spiritual reflection. From a restrained opening instrumental taqsime at the start of her performance, Chérifa's voice shattered the silence like a lightning bolt and, amid a frenzy of drumming, became the echo of the geography of the mountains of the Middle Atlas.

It was a good night at the Fes Festival, but left many wanting more.

I open my mouth to implore God,
not man who is not my creator,
Pillow, you are my witness:
even if I rest my head on you,
sleep never comes to my eyes
Tamawayt poem

Review and photographs: Sandy McCutcheon


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