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Dave Brubeck Quartet and Bill Smith at the Earshot Jazz Festival

From sacred to secular, Morocco celebrates three major music Festivals over a four-week period straddling May and June.

The eldest, the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, commences in the imperial city with the oldest, largest medina (or old city) in the Arab world, dating back to the year 808 A.D. For 10 days each June, the Fez Festival unites many of the world’s sacred music traditions, from Sufi, Islamic and Sephardic to medieval Christian expressions and African-American gospel.

The Fez Festival’s secular but still spiritual follow-up is the Festival D’Essaouira Gnaoua. A shared trait between the two is that some performing ensembles may not even consider themselves musicians in Western terminology. These disparate ensembles, brotherhoods, villagers and families grew up in a musical tradition as an integral way of life, not necessarily as a professional pursuit. The songs were ancient traditional expressions of mortal- and spirit-world experiences and yearnings.

At the Fez Festival, a classic example of how music is part of everyday culture happened on a gorgeous afternoon amidst the striking Roman ruins of Volubilis, about 30 miles outside the city. The Gharbawas of Meknes is an assemblage of about 20 celebrants whose music is noted for its therapeutic properties. Their invocation featured two trios–two men and one woman in each–in vigorous, rotating chants. The entire assemblage (children to seniors) then sang a lengthy and hypnotic circle chant. At its peak, several of the males shed their shirts and beat zealous rhythms on their bare chests. There was an element of trance in their performance, as there was with a number of the Sufi ensembles. This was one of several intimate performances where some audience members spoke of feeling almost voyeuristic.

Back in Fez, most of the Festival’s afternoon performances were held at the Batha Museum, in a courtyard shaded by an enormous 400 year-old tree. Among the noteworthy performers were the Moroccan singer and oud player Saad Temsamani and the mesmerizing “Diva of the Desert,” Dimi Mint Abba from Mauritania. Temsamani directed the Kettania brotherhood, a Sufi assemblage festooned in traditional white jhellabas and head-wraps. Their voicings bore an arresting logic and movement. During one selection, as they sang and danced holding hands (a warm Moroccan tradition among men), they achieved a breath-a-thon, an amazing display of deeply rhythmic breathing.

Dimi Mint Abba sat among her ensemble, which included two female singer-dancers, two male guitarists and a percussionist/kora player augmenting her marvelous multioctave voice. Her artistry is a perpetuation of a Mauritania griot tradition, singing sacred songs of the desert. Costumed in gauzy, flowing multicolored floor-length garments with coif-concealing scarves, the three women were a magnetic presence. The performance was further enlivened by a female-dominated processional of vividly garbed performers from the Saharan region of Morocco. Their entrance charged the house, dancing and joyously cajoling artists and audience.

The main evening concerts occurred at Bab Makina, a resplendent outdoor arena. Late-night performances, including several other Sufi brotherhoods like the drone-flute-blowing Jilala, played at two huge oasis dwellings inside Fez’s tight-cornered, labyrinthine medina. Among the highlights at Bab Makina was an ardent performance by Lebanese singer Wadih Al Safi, a recognized master in the Arab world. But there was a certain formality at the Bab Makina concerts, largely related to the rather elite audiences, and moments of tedium occurred because of this during the performances of singer Fadia El Hagge and the Mesopotamia Ensemble, a solemn orchestral performance of sacred songs of static pace and mood that did little to stir the blood.

Stirring the blood is the mission of the McCollough Sons of Thunder, a brass ensemble from Harlem, representing the rich gospel tradition of the United House of Prayer. They energized the Bab Makina crowd to a peculiar frenzy of clapping on 1 and 3 rhythms. A number of Moroccans seemed genuinely taken aback by the McCollough group. Initial questions of, “Is this spiritual?” gave way to full-fledged immersion and outright glee. Still, some Moroccans weren’t sure if this largely instrumental music truly represented their notion of gospel: choirs of African-Americans in passionate vocal fulfillment. It might help if the Festival’s well-intentioned daily colloquium defined the different musical traditions performed nightly, alleviating the long-winded speeches that predominated.

Offsetting the nagging implication that the Bab Makina concerts are not the province of the common folk were daily 5:00 p.m. plaza concerts at Bab Boujloud, one of the city’s older gateways. Populist, higher-intensity throngs of thousands witnessed these free performances. McCollough Sons of Thunder whipped up such an ardor that audience members tossed and caught their children high in the air in delight.

The 5-year old Festival D’Essaouira Gnaoua is a Thursday-Sunday event held in the charming fishing village of Essaouira. Gnawa music is the centerpiece and this free Festival attracts over 200,000 celebrants to this Atlantic Ocean town of 70,000.

One of the great Moroccan musical brotherhoods is the Gnawa. These black Africans were trekked across the Sahara in servitude at approximately the same period as Africans voyaged across the Atlantic in bondage, and from similar West African geographic sources. Their music involves call-and-response vocals, the coordinated trance-inducing rhythms of the qaraqeb (large metal castanets), hand-held t’bol drums and the guimbre, a powerful camel-gut-string instrument with a distinctive bass range.

Festival organizers engaged various musicians to play with the Gnawa, resulting in a frequently successful fusion, particularly when the guests are of a selfless nature, like jazz-oriented percussionist Jamey Haddad. Clearly the Gnawa are open, given their depth of experience collaborating with such Western artists as pianist-composer Randy Weston, the late wanderer Don Cherry, Peter Gabriel and, more recently, Afro-Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. Led by maalems, or masters of Gnawa music, including the great Mahmoud Guinea, these ensembles also welcomed several European and sub-Saharan-Africa artists, like the potent Mali guitarist Amadou Bagayoko. In their tradition the Gnawa also performed nightly lilas, spiritual events that induce trance dances.

Gnawa performances were augmented by other concerts, including the amazing singer Oumou Sangare from Mali, a return engagement by Dimi Mint Abba and the remarkable Bauls of Bengal. Playing on stages draped with gorgeous Moroccan carpets and incredible fabric backdrops, the two major outdoor venues beautifully lent themselves to this global music making. In addition to the lilas, there were three late-night acoustic-concert venues. In the wee hours one night the Gnawa, Haddad, the blazing Madagascar guitarist Solarazaf, Algerian and French musicians built a groove so deep Miles Davis would have found a home. The huge, good-natured crowds in Essaouira brought a sort of North African Woodstock ambiance.

Originally Published