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theartsdesk in Fes: A world music festival that's a beacon of tolerance | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Fes: A world music festival that's a beacon of tolerance

theartsdesk in Fes: A world music festival that's a beacon of tolerance

Forget Glastonbury, Morocco's Festival of World Sacred Music goes from strength to strength

Not Glasto: Hamadcha of Fes

You are or maybe wish you were at Glastonbury this weekend. Not me. I last went six years ago and it’s just too big for me. And you need about four different passes to get backstage should you have a good or a bad reason to get there. Too bureaucratic. However, I was, as ever, more than glad to be at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, which is more human in scale, sociable and, at times, transcendent. This year was the 20th edition.

I have gone as many times as I possibly could.

A couple of decades back, one autumnal morning in my flat in North London my fax machine juddered into life. I had been invited that very afternoon to a press conference in Casablanca and I had a ticket leaving in a few hours to get there should I want to. I decided to drop everything and go. Being in French, I didn’t understand too much of it, but afterwards, founder Faouzi Skali and artistic director Gerard Kurdijan suggested we drive across Morocco the next day to Fes, via the Roman ruins of Volubilis. On the way, both of them explained the idea behind the Festival. It was a response to the first Gulf war, an attempt to be a beacon of light and tolerance in one of the holiest and ancient cities of the Islamic world.

The city itself, with its ancient medina, is a wonderful place to get lost in. It’s a city where many saints are buried, and even if you don’t believe in them, the fact that many have prayed and meditated and chanted at their shrines changes the energy of the place. It was a destination where many Muslims and Jews who were kicked out of Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries came, and the Festival represents a kind of nostalgia for the great days of Andalucia, where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived, more or less, in harmony and were at the forefront of medicine, mathematics and knowledge. It has the biggest medina in the world and miles of car-free winding alleys – the only other comparatively similar one was in Aleppo, but now that tragic city has been virtually razed.

Ideally, the musicians would have a couple of days to acclimatise themselves to the energy of this place

As Skali pointed out, in other city festivals the energy is dispersed – people go off to cinemas or clubs and re-assemble the next day. In Fes the energy is somehow more focused, so that after a few days you've slowed down sufficiently and have had your ears opened, so that you can really begin to appreciate the ancient Indian vocal music of Dhrupad or a trio of bardic divas from Uzbekistan and  Kazakhstan. In a globalised world, it’s hard these days to think of anything as alien or exotic, but this trio really seemed from another era, another planet, these strong women’s voices from Central Asia singing songs from centuries ago, and all wearing the most fabulous headgear.

Iraq’s top pop star Kadim Al Sahir and Senegal’s finest Youssou N’Dour both returned as they love the Sufi traditions in Fes – Youssou having a particular connection with the Tidjiani Brotherhood who have millions of followers in West Africa and whose shrine is in the city. Al Sahir says that Fes is like Baghdad used to be “ a city of philosophers, musicians and mystics”. When I met him he undid his shirt and showed me a lyric tattooed on his chest. It was his song “The School of Love”, written in the Gulf War of 1991. "I placed this song and some others in one room and slept in another, so that if a bomb came, only one of us would go and I put a note with the song saying, 'Please give this to someone who knows about music'."

Yousou’s concert this year wasn’t – and couldn’t be – as spectacular and memorable as when he launched his Egypt album (his best) here in 2004, complete with Egyptian orchestra, but Youssou on an average night is still better than nearly anyone else. Seeing him, on a night billed as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, do hits like “Seven Seconds”, as well as more spiritual numbers, with strong support from South African activist veteran Johnny Clegg, his voice remains one of the wonders of the world.

One of the many pleasures of the festival are the more intimate venues, like Dar Adiyel, a small palace in the medina, or the gorgeous Batha Museum, with musicians playing under the famous and huge Barbary Oak (I've come to regard this tree with great fondness, and if anything happened to it I'd feel bereft).

Watch Rokia Traore perform at the Batha Museum

But not all the artists quite get that they have a truly receptive and captive audience. Altan, the wonderful Irish group I would guess are more used to playing to drunk crowds in pubs and in Irish folk festivals and were doing the hardcore CD salesmanship and chorus singalongs after a couple of numbers, certainly could have relaxed more, allowing themselves a bit more vulnerability at their Batha Museum concert. Ideally, the musicians would have a couple of days before playing to acclimatise themselves to the energy of this place, but Altan were at least full of an inventive, joyful spirit. 

From ancient Dhrupad music one moment to unusual mixtures like the fabulous flemenco maestro Tomatito, who appeared with the Berber musician Omar Bouzmaazought – the different musics are like different shades of the same colour, with the Berber (or “Amizagh” as we will have to learn to say) element a couple of degrees earthier.

I missed the hugely ambitious opening night – a setting of the mystical poem by Attar The Conference of the Birds, which featured 75 performers from different musical and spiritual traditions and was by all accounts a brilliant evening. But the Festival carries on renewing itself despite the often challenging nature of organising such an event. Music programmer Alain Weber mentioned a few intriguing ideas – from African rituals to more dance elements which will keep the festival fresh as it renews itself. What's encouraging is young singers like Nouhalia El Khalai, a 14-year-old expertly performing semi-classical Malhun music (watch video below) or the children lapping up the music at the daily Sufi Nights performances at Dar Tazi. The sheer delight of a couple of eight year old girls sitting next to me at the music of Yassine Habibi's group from Meknes was a lesson in itself.

Watch Nouhaila El Khalai perform at this year's festival

The festival, which featured Christian and Jewish groups as well as Islamic and other musicians is, for my dirhams, not just Skali's "beacon of tolerance" but the best world music festival there is. But the city itself is probably the real star of the Festival. It was where a university was founded two centuries before Oxford and Cambridge (by two women), and after a few days I found myself reading a line by Idries Shah about Fes that “it is a centre of learning, a place where transmission takes place. It’s where the baton is passed on” and it made perfect sense.

It represents a kind of nostalgia for the ancient days of Andalucia, where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived, more or less, in harmony

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