06/13/06

The Fès Festival of World Sacred Music

The city of Fès scarcely seems like it could be home to nearly a million Moroccans. Surrounded by medieval walls and ramparts, the medina, or old city, is a hive of activity, but one that conceals as much as it puts on display. Vendors’ booths piled high with olives and preserved lemons, precious spices, or hand-painted tajine cookware make for visual feasts, yet turn another narrow corner, and you will come across another world entirely: bustling, centuries-old tanneries along the river al Jawahir, gleefully singing tots in Koranic nursery schools, or, completely hidden from view, the denizen’s private riyads. These tranquil inner-courtyards, with bubbling fountains adorned by splendid mosaics, are closed off to the city, but open to the sky.

No vantage point allows an observer to take in the full picture. And the gates along some paths preempt access; keyhole-shaped doors silently mark the entries to many urban mysteries. But perhaps it’s these partial views and a sense of separation between spaces and people otherwise so closely linked that allows spirituality and commerce, the ancient and the modern, centuries-long residents and recently-arrived outsiders, to coexist here in relative harmony. The medina’s poor live side by side with its wealthiest inhabitants, including many foreigners who have rescued—and bought up—the area’s architectural treasures. (Fès was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1981.) Shopkeepers haggle with French tourists on the price of goatskin lamps, but leave their stalls at the call to prayer. They join the kneeling bodies of the faithful, so numerous as to overflow the mosques onto the streets.

In many ways, the Fès Festival of World Sacred Music bears the traits of its host city. Now in its twelfth year, the festival presents an overwhelming abundance of music and related events. With as many as four concerts per day in a total of seven venues, it is impossible to take everything in. This year a forum titled “The Spirit of Globalization” ran for five consecutive mornings. In addition, there were readings, film screenings, and children’s activities. Although many of the offerings proved quite wonderful, they sometimes felt less like the sparks for fresh intercultural dialogue—part of the festival’s stated mission—and more like different worlds within the medina: the venues and their respective audiences ultimately seemed partitioned and destined to partial views.

The majority of evening performances took place at the spectacular, five thousand seat Bab Makina, a 19th Century city gate and entrance to the royal palace. Like big-ticket festival shows found across the globe, many of these seemed packaged for Western tourists and only loosely connected to the sacred. (With tickets costing up to $57 US, all but the wealthiest locals were priced out of these events. Many seats went empty.) Similar concert fare could be found easily enough in other major cites, whether the spunky Za Ondekoza Tokyo drummers or charismatic flamenco singing of Esperanza Fernàndez. Afro-pop superstar Salif Keita (pictured) closed the festival with a buoyant set that was fun and rhythmically compelling, if disappointingly brief. Bringing the audience to its feet on the second tune, he declared, “Pop music is sacred music.”

Classical programs counted among the Bab Makina’s best and worst shows. In keeping with the strong early music selections of year’s past, opening night featured Les Arts Florissants and William Christie in a program titled “Mozart and the Spiritual Concert.” Beginning with Rameau’s Castor et Pollux and Mozart’s own Paris Symphony, Christie featured music that the young composer might have heard on his 1778 visit to Paris. Rendered with beautiful precision, two obscure pieces excellently complemented an elegant first half: Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville’s motet In exitu Israel (1755) and Henri Joseph Rigel’s jaunty Sortie d’Egypte (1774), a work clever enough to rival Mozart’s. Another early music ensemble, the outstanding Capella de Ministrers et Choir de la Generalitat Valenciana, enchanted with El Libre Vermell, a 14th century sacred songbook in Latin, Catalan and Occitan. Playing light-hearted dance rhythms, the drum, reedy shawm and buzzing hurdy-gurdy supported sprightly voices, who vigorously breathed life into this most distant of repertoire.

In contrast to these masters, Italian singer Antonella Ruggiero generated an evening of unparalleled vocal twaddle. A handsome brunette with a pleasant if average mezzo-soprano, Ruggiero warbled wordlessly through trite popular classics like “Air on a G String.” “La,” “oh,” “oo” and “ah,” the prevailing texts for her selections, drastically circumvented any language barriers. Accompanied by string quartet and drum set, she also employed her own battery of hand-held instruments, including a rain stick that made amplified flushing noises. Rather than circling the drain, Ruggiero received a warm audience response, perhaps indicating her suitability for a PBS special alongside Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman.

Daily afternoon concerts at the Batha Museum, a Hispano-Moorish palace, attracted the same elite audiences as the Bab Makina. The French language dominated both the audience and the stage chatter in these venues. Set in an intimate courtyard, perhaps the smaller seating capacity of the Batha (around 500) allowed for some of the more adventurous and discerning programs here. Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo mesmerized listeners with placid Buddist chants. Dressed in floor-length white silks, Lhamo’s Rapunzel-like mane stirred in the breeze along with the branches of the giant Barbary oak shading the stage. Her achingly pure soprano—sometimes diminished by the chunky bass and synthesizer that accompanied a few songs—matched an almost otherworldly presence.

Two other brilliant vocalists little known outside their homelands stood out among the performers: Syrian muezzin Hassan Haffar and classical Azerbaijani singer Aygun Baylar. The singer from the great mosque of Aleppo, Haffar has succeeded in his life’s mission to “find truth in song.” The set built irresistibly in devotional fervor; an ensemble of stalwart men in identical gray suits heartily echoing their leader and his confident songs of praise. Baylar’s mugam repertoire, a cousin of Arabic maqam, wound through long suites based on classic ghazals, or love poems. Loosely tethered to the kamanchi (spike-fiddle) and tar that accompanied her, Baylar’s honeyed alto moved hypnotically in and out of time. She sculpted throaty trills and ornaments in emotionally charged verses.

Although both the Bab Makina and Batha Museum concerts featured some artists from the Muslim world, other events made free and open to the public carried the most local flavor and enthusiastic spirit. At the virtually tourist-free Champ de Course (race track), the crowd greeted the Moroccan band Jil Jilala with a roar befitting a soccer team. Leading stars of 1970s pop—when lyrics to their song “Laayoune Ayniya” helped to stir up nationalist sentiment—Jil Jilala’s roughhewn style incorporated traditional Gnawan instruments into funky, rambling grooves. Young Arabic men gathered in tight circles electric with energy, dancing and clapping in syncopated time.

Likewise, the Dar Tazi garden’s Sufi Nights concerts catered to natives and inspired wild audience responses. Priceless literally and figuratively, the after-hours series provided the rare opportunity to hear a different Sufi brotherhood from Morocco each evening: the country has long been an important center for Sufism. In particular, Fès’s own Tariqa Aissaouia dazzled with both musical prowess and spectacle. Beginning with a procession that had the grit of a New Orleans street parade, over a dozen men in crimson tunics pushed through the crowd while beating tbal drums and sounding the nfir, 6 foot long silver horns. The lead singer’s insistent improvisations sustained a feeling of tension, but these repeatedly erupted into powerful, recurring choruses with the whole ensemble joining in. Each member contributed interlocking rhythms on small, ceramic calabashes before the horns joined in, putting it over the top. Successive pieces became exponentially longer—up to 45 minutes by the end—gradually whipping the audience into an ecstatic frenzy. The music, as Sufis would say, allowed them to dissolve into God.

The Fès Festival did offer more than its share of musical wonders, but how much better it would have been if the Bab Makina and Batha shows could have been infused with more local culture—the kind heard and felt at Champ de Course and Dar Tazi’s Sufi Nights. These concerts were truly the fest’s most exciting events, making the big stage shows feel manufactured by comparison. Too bad relatively few visitors ventured out to hear them. Certainly, festivals need to attract audiences who can financially support them. With the influx of travelers it generates, this celebration of sacred music not only benefits its presenters and host city, but Moroccan tourism in general. Highlighting more of the country’s own rich talents, however, could only serve to make the Fès Festival more unique and ultimately promote the kind of cultural dialogue in which it purports to be so interested.

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