Monday, June 17, 2019

Fes Festival Review - June 17

An odd day at the Fes Festival  - an afternoon launched with a soundtrack of cars, insects and bells followed by an evening starting with chaos, long delays and over zealous security guards - yet ending with the audience dancing


Bahariyya- Azerbaidjan

There was a slightly smaller crowd today in the gardens of Jnan Sbil, perhaps given the sweltering heat and the measly breeze. The seats filled up slowly as another late start was on the cards, the audience melting slowly as they waited for Azerbaidjan’s ensemble ‘Baharriya’.

The artists eventually filed onto the stage solemnly, carrying a range of traditional instruments popular with the Mugham tradition: the tar (an Iranian long-necked string instrument) the kamancheh (an Iranian violin-like string instrument), the daf (a Kurdish drum covered with fish skin), the balaban (an ancient 8-fingered Azeri wind instrument), and a single closed drum that has its origins in Turkey. Additionally, one member of the team sat at the back managing the electronic synthesiser.

In what was an bizarrely eery introduction, they began tuning their instruments whilst a soundtrack played the noise of cars, insects and bells. This eventually diminished as the balaban player trumpeted his arrival. After a hypnotic opening that showed off everyone’s talents, especially the vocalist and daf player, the song abruptly ended as an electronic soundtrack began. The kamancheh player, his purple shirt bringing out his green eyes, strummed away as he improvised with the backing track.

The Mugham musical tradition is so unique to Azerbaijan that UNESCO declared it a ‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’ in 2003. Welding together classical poetry with musical improvisation, it is a musical practise that celebrates spontaneity, spiritual connection and inclusivity.

Different from other schools of musical improvisation, the Mugham tradition uses not just modal scales as its ingredients but also melodies that have been orally transmitted across generations. With its origins in the 9th Century, it evades a Western interpretation of ‘improvisation’ as, although devised on the spot, it follows strict rules and structures.

This fusion of rigidity and impulse was evident in the artist’s manner of performance. At once appearing fluid and yet deep in concentration. Each artist had the chance to show their best, taking turns to give solo performances that would eventually include the entire ensemble.

The banaman player moved his hands and mouth so quickly the instrument wobbled between his lips as if he was gnawing it. The sound was unique, giving a deeper and more varied sound than a normal flute.

Although each artist was a clear master of their instrument, the vocalist could have held the show alone. He bounced between notes with an inhuman control, creating a sound that was a cross between yodelling and singing. Possibly the strongest, and definitely the most original, of all the performances in the festival so far.

 The vocalist could have held the show alone

Michelle David and The Gospel Sessions

With no concert tonight at Bab Makhina, festival-goers were back in Jardin Jnan Sbil, but thankfully in much more pleasant temperatures. However, trouble was afoot with the concert having several false starts.

Michelle David 

After being kept waiting outside until after the start time or 1930, the audience was eventually admitted into the gardens. They sped en masse in a battle towards the best seats, but alas, were joined by sprinting security guards halting their entry. Unable to keep up with the determined ticket holders meandering through the various paths of the gardens, the security went into panic manning each entry point like the goal in a World Cup final.

At last getting it together, the staff gathered at the final frontier, making a human wall at the stairs before the stage. Things were beginning to feel more like a demonstration than a concert. No explanation was given as the audience grew more frustrated, slowly being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Rumours of missing instruments began to swirl, but all unconfirmed.

Punctuality has always been an issue in Fes Festival, with clear organisational issues emerging again and again. For example, in Jardin Jnan Sbil there are delicious home-cooked Moroccan meals and treats available, as well as tea served by a cheerful man in a blue djellabiah. The audience is only ever allowed entry to the venue as the concert is due to start, and so they buzz past all that's to offer.

If the staff had made it clear there would be over a half an hour delay, the audience would have been able to relax and enjoy both the gardens and the food, rather than stay confined between security guards.

What is unfortunate is that tonight's concert was a full-house, and the crowd was eager for something quite different from the rest of the Fes Festival programme.

Luc Janssen on trumpet

Dutchmen Paul Williamson and Onno Smit, both guitar and bass players began the vision that is The Gospel Sessions ensemble, after going on a quest to the origins of soul, rhythm and blues: New York City. But their group was incomplete. Touring gospel churches across the city, they discovered a young Michelle David, who had been singing since the age of four.

Almost an hour after its start time, there was finally an announcement that due to a lost instrument we would have to wait another half an hour. After that has passed the men of the group took to the stage and started to play without an apology.

If it wasn't for the energy of Michelle, the wait wouldn't have been worth it. But from the minute she landed next to the microphone, she was non-stop joy. Starting with a jazzy gospel rendition of "I'm a soldier of the Lord" she welcomed the audience, declaring:

"We're in a no-judgement zone where dancing is encouraged, because isn't it great to be alive?"

Not one artist stopped moving for the duration of the performance, constantly rocking their hips and bouncing up and down. Satisfied despite the delay, the audience cheered and clapped.

"Things are about to get funky," Michelle said with a smirk, taking off her big hoop earrings showing she means business.

"Give it to Jesus, give it to him, just trust him, he can work it all out."

Her moves were as impressive as her vocal range, and her charisma electric:

"We may have had a heck of two days, but I will not let anything take our joy. If someone has taken something from you, your love, your job, your money- YOU GOTTA TAKE IT BACK!"

Bas Bouma on drums

Joining Michelle and the original duo Paul and Onno on stage was Bas Bouma (percussion), Luc Janssen (trumpet), Lucas Van Ee (tenor sax) and Dirk Zandvliet (baritone sax). Oozing with style, they brought a very different energy to the stage. However, they had one thing in common with their fellow festival-performers: an appreciation of music as sacred, as a tool to connect, elevate and find peace.

Soul, funk, blues and jazz all have their roots in both suffering and resilience, built on a history of enslavement, revolt, and evangelism. The conclusive message of hope and resilience was echoed in each lyric and each of Michelle's inspirational interjections.

By the end the audience were all on their feet, dancing and throwing their hands in the air with a sense of liberation not seen yet at the Festival.

Before finishing with a slow and sensual love song to God, she teared up whilst thanking the audience for sharing themselves with her. For those who were too impatient to wait- you missed out!

Reviews and photographs: Venetia Menzies

Tomorrow at the Festival

Venue: Jardin Jnan Sbil

DHRUPAD FANTASIA - 19:00 - Dar Adiyel

Venue: Jardin Jnan Sbil

MEERA – INDIA - 22:00
Venue: Complexe Ben Youssef

Venue: Dar Adiyel

Weather: Sunny and 33 Celsius


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