wed 13/12/2017

theartsdesk in Fes: Has the magic gone? | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Fes: Has the magic gone?

theartsdesk in Fes: Has the magic gone?

The top world music festival reinvents itself with an Africa theme

Fatoumata Diawara: Under the Barbary Oak

More than anywhere else, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music has been the place where I have gone annually for most of the last 20 years to retune my ears, to find inspiration and connections, and to discover new international music. For fans, it was always more than a mere music festival; there was a visionary, idealistic element. The founder, Faouzi Skali, is a Sufi who started the festival as a response to the first Gulf war and invited musicians, thinkers and practitioners from all religious persuasions as a counterpoint to extremism and intolerance elsewhere. That mission’s importance grew post-9/11 and continues to expand with the madness of ISIS and their psychotic ilk.  

Fes itself is in many ways the star of the show – the ancient medina with the winding car-free streets, the call of the muezzin, the circling swallows in the Bab Boujloud at sunset. Last year Skali and many of his associates were pushed out and so the big question for fans of the festival centred on how it was being remade, and would the idealistic elements remain? Skali, incidentally, still runs an impressive Sufi festival in Fes earlier in the year.

The printed programme was a disappointment – no mention of what many people see as the heart of the festival: the Sufi nights where followers of the local Sufi brotherhoods perform outside, very late, in Dar Tazi; no mention of the Festival of the City, which are the free concerts in Bab Boujloud (the big concerts are very expensive for most ordinary locals); and no mention of Skali himself, which seemed at best a faux pas, at worst rude and ungrateful. Fortunately, the excellent local blog The View from Fez kept us up to speed with the programme.

One great thing about Fes is the characters you meet, which illustrates the sheer strangeness of the place

I arrived in a unseasonal, torrential rainstorm and that night's concert of the always feisty Oumou Sangare from Mali was cancelled. But the following day I saw three top-notch shows which assuaged fears that the musical level might have gone down. There was an extraordinary and moving ritual in the medina from Burkina Faso called Masks of the Moon, like some Peter Brook 1970s avant-garde production, but centuries old and compelling both visually and musically. There was a performance of Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and a wonderful, expressive dancer called Tamango with percussionist Gustavo Ovalles. Sosa is a consummate pianist who has musicality oozing out of every pore and the result was both plugged into the past in its use of Santería sacred rhythms of Cuba and modern in its presentation, with impressive video projections under the famous massive barbary oak in Musée Batha.

 There was a curious but satisfying collaboration between Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya and African kora maestro Ballaké Sissoko, both of them doing music that originated in the 13th century on different continents. These were all in the Nights In the Medina strand, which was like a delicious tapas miscellany of musics.

The music director of the festival, Alain Weber, did mention that he felt “less constrained” under the new regime and it is likely that the above selection would have been impossible in earlier years – notably the mix of dance and video projection. I went off the main programme to get my musical kicks for much of the rest of the week. Instead of seeing what were billed as US soul legends The Temptations (actually, the splinter group The Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards, who joined the real line-up in 1968) I ended up seeing a fabulous group from the disputed territory of Western Sahara fronted by the charismatic figure of Saida Charaf, who dominated the stage in front of thousands of revellers in Bab Boujloud. 

The theme of this year’s festival was Africa and Morocco’s relationship to it, but there wasn’t any gnawa music, that most African of Moroccan of forms developed by slaves (a painful issue in itself not mentioned much at the morning discussion forum, I am told) who came over the Sahara, so I jumped at the chance of attending an all-night Iila, or healing ceremony, in the medina. The close-up funk-spiritual rhythms at Casa Zohra were thrilling but I bailed out at 4am after a traditional harira soup. I’m not necessarily blaming the soup, but I was sick the next day and only recovered after two days, and this may have flavoured my perception of the rest of the festival.

One great thing about Fes is the characters you meet, which illustrates the sheer strangeness of the place. One local guy told me how he had had a nervous breakdown and the only way out was to invent his own religion based around birds. For three months he drank bottles of water with bird feathers in as a successful cure. One could do a whole book on such characters found in Fes and their stories.

Without Faouzi Skali and some of his friends and acolytes the festival normally attracts – the Sufi leaders, the social activists, the visionary academics – the audience seemed to consist more than preiously of curious tourists. Some of the music, excellent enough, such as the collaboration between Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca and Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, was the type of thing you can see at the Barbican and WOMAD and perhaps it’s too early to tell with the new set-up, but there was a feeling that the festival might be morphing into a merely a superior world music festival, with some of the old soul or magic missing. I imagine this is a familiar refrain from those who went to the early Glastonbury, Burning Man or Festivals in the Desert (“you should have been there in the early years”), even if most newcomers think they are still impressive events.

Although not advertised fully, the Sufi nights at Dar Tazi were on (pictured above). The highlights were the wonderful Said Guissi, who takes traditional Aissawa music – described by one visitor in the 1920s as “a tempest of oboes and drums” – into a new place. I think of him as a kind of Miles Davis of old-style Moroccan trance music. The last night, too, was exceptional with a Hamdouchiya group featuring, unusually, a female singer and a couple of European interlopers who performed wild, off-kilter trance music to great acclaim.

The last night went out with a bang and was easily the most popular, with waiters begging me to get them in to the Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi, who charmed the overcrowded Bab Makina, where the old Palace walls were decorated effectively this year with gorgeous light projections. With a 20-odd piece band, he won over the local upper-middle classes (the women mainly turning up in heels and skirts as opposed to headscarfs). His big hit seemed to be “Habibi Bashaloni” about a lover who supports Barcelona football team, who will be celebrating the result of the Champions League final, no doubt.

Fes is the star of the show – the ancient medina with the winding car-free streets, the call of the muezzin, the circling swallows in the Bab Boujloud at sunset

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