Fez: an African reflection

Morocco's cultural ties with the regions beyond the Sahara provided the fascinating theme for the most recent Festival of World Sacred Music in the Moroccan city of Fez. Stefan Franzen was there

By Stefan Franzen

The "Musiques Sacrees du Monde" is one of the longest running music festivals in the Arab world. When it was established in the city of Fez over 20 years ago, its musical resonances carried well beyond the country's borders.

"Though events such as this were a rarity back then, the festival's message penetrated deep into the Middle East, and showed audiences that sacred music could have a place on the stage," festival director Alain Weber recalls. "It allows spirituality to be expressed in a different way. Our task at the beginning was to open up the spiritual dialogue. It would be presumptuous of me to claim that a festival such as this can have a perceptible impact on the entire Muslim world. It is far too vast and multitudinous for that."

Nevertheless, within the space of two decades, the "Musiques Sacrees", the sacred sounds of Islam, have spread around the globe. From their origins in the Arab world with its various forms of Sufi music, they have travelled the world, and have influenced jazz and Western pop stars such as Bjork and Patti Smith.

There are probably not very many festivals – as the current one ably demonstrates – that can attract such a wide variety of musical tastes among its audiences. One of the venues, the magnificent concert arena flanked by the towers of the Bab Al Makina fortress, tends to attract the fairly well-heeled, while younger audiences are more likely to gravitate towards Boujloud Square, close to the city's famous Blue Gate, where the new stars of Morocco's Chaabi pop music scene perform.

French and American academics of a certain age, on the other hand, will tend to frequent the gardens and magnificent courtyards of the city's medina, where the stars of world music from China to Mali do their thing. At the "Sufi Nights" events, the ceremonies of the local Tijaniyya brotherhood, audience members find themselves seated on carpets on the floor surrounded by local music devotees. It is here that one has the most direct encounter of spirituality. The atmosphere here is almost folk-like, with women laughing and clapping enthusiastically and young men jumping around in an almost trance-like state too the songs of praise.

A meeting of spiritual traditions

The focus of this, the twenty-first festival, seemed, from a Western perspective at least, rather unusual. While relations between the West and the Arab countries are what most people in the world are currently discussing, the theme of this year's festival was "Fes au miroir de l'Afrique" (Fez: an African Reflection).

According to Alain Weber, however, exploring the links between Morocco and Africa is not such a surprising thing to do. "I find it quite strange that Morocco is at times not considered part of Africa at all," he says. "The country has for some time been trying to strengthen its influence across the continent and views its economic relations with the West as limited. Morocco is re-establishing the role it played in earlier centuries during the heyday of Marrakech and Fez. Back then, there were other geopolitical poles to the current Orient versus Occident, and spiritual traditions were spread and mixed via the trade routes."

In order to make the weave that binds the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa visible and audible on the stage, Weber chose a sixteenth-century historical figure who embodied such relationships: Al-Hassan al-Wazzan al-Fasi, also known in the West as Leo Africanus.

Forced to flee Granada as a child from the Castilian conquerors, Leo became a son of Fez. He would later travel by caravan to Timbuktu, experience life as an exile in Cairo, and finally be carried off to Rome, where he saw service as a diplomat under several popes. His "History and Description of Africa" is a work that remained influential for centuries. The travels of this colourful character from a fascinating period in Arab history were brought beautifully to the stage of the Bab Al Makina by Weber in an impressive opening revue.

Deep into Sub-Saharan Africa

To begin with, the musical journey included music from Moroccan oud player Driss El Maloumi and a Malhoun ensemble accompanying his countrywoman Nouhaila al-Kalaa, developing into a Berber–Mauritanian get-together. The final flourish came from kora player Ballake Cissoko, who transported his listeners back to the Mali of the legendary king Sundiata Keita. From there, the audience was carried deep into Sub-Saharan Africa in the company of masked dancers from Burkina Faso and by the lion dance performed by the Senegalese group Ker Simb.

"The focus was on the cultural encounter between Islamic Africa and the animistic traditions that are often denied", says Weber. "It was a huge challenge to show all of these facets within the space of 90 minutes and to connect them all in a way that was dramatically satisfying and that flowed rhythmically. It was particularly demanding for the traditional musicians, who are not used to working within such a tight time frame."

Thanks to the use of some highly imaginative digital projection technology, which made exquisite use of the venue's natural scenic backdrop, the revue was a stunning success and applauded by Morocco's Princess Lalla Salma, who was in attendance. Her husband, King Mohammed VI was away on an official visit to Dakar on the evening of the concert, working to strengthen Morocco's ties with Senegal. A fitting symbol of the festival's theme.

In the later stages of the festival, some concerts had to be cancelled due to heavy and unexpected downpours of rain. Leo Africanus, as ambassador for Fez, continued to sparkle, if somewhat intermittently: at the impressive night-time concert of ten kora harps, for instance, or in the fiery performance delivered by Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara and Cuban Roberto Fonseca, or the epic recitation by the Hilal Bedouin from Luxor in Egypt, a people encountered by Leo during his exile.

Above all, it was the omnipresence of spirituality that defined the festival: in the recitations of contemporary Sufi poetry by the Tunisian Sonia M'Barek, for example, in the soulful musical crossover between Indian ragas and the griot tradition delivered by Debashish Bhattacharya and Ballake Cissoko, and in the performance of the Kurdish Payiz Ensemble. In evoking the old trade routes as the carriers of such sacred sounds, the festival was a resounding success.

Stefan Franzen

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Ron Walker