WFMU's Rob Weisberg (host of the Transpacific Sound Paradise program) recently attended the amazing Fes Festival of Sacred Music, held in the medieval city of Fes, Morocco. The festival brings together prominent musicians from the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for a weeklong celebration of sounds. While the visceral joys of experiencing amazing music against the backdrop of Roman ruins and Moorish gardens can't really be overstated, it should be noted that the festival has a broader agenda: It was launched in 1994 as a pro-peace response to the first Gulf War.
Here is the first installment of Rob's account of the trip. Look for more in the coming days, or check out his radio show this Saturday from 6-9 PM for more discussion of the sights, tastes, and sounds, as well as music by many of the featured artists..
I knew right away this was going to be a special trip. The Royal Air Maroc flight from JFK to Casablanca is typically packed with not only Americans and Moroccans, but also Sub-Saharans who are making connections back home. The latter tends to be an especially elegant crowd. To the left of me sat a handsomely attired young Senegalese woman and to the right an earthier and rather chatty woman with roots in Guinea and Sierra Leone. She told me that she'd actually traveled to Sierra during the fighting there, and managed to escape thanks to a very unofficial ferry service. She also told me that one of her kin had been married to none other than S.E. Rogie, the legendary Sierra Leone singer-songwriter who lived in the US for many years. She went on to dish some dirt that defied the typically cheery world-music bios of Rogie: His will had specified that he was to be buried in Sierra Leone, but when the casket arrived, it was turned away by his family--who clamed that he'd abandoned them.
I was traveling with several other American journalists. We were embedded at the Royal Mirage hotel with the other writers and broadcasters from Europe, North Africa, and around the world. Poolside and press room banter ensued; war stories were exchanged. It felt like foreign correspondent fantasy camp.
Our first meal was at the lovely Kasbah restaurant, right at the Bab Boujloud (Bab = gate; these define the town) entrance to the medina -- old town, that is. In Fes, not only is the old town "old", but the lifestyle is too -- Imagine somewhere between 1100 and 1900 AD, with horse-drawn commercial wagons, hand-craftspeople, and individual stalls selling all manner of wares. Tour books call it the world's largest functioning medieval city, although it's considerably less romantic than such a description might suggest. A lot of street urchins, beggar moms and kids, stray animals, dirt, poor sanitation, etc. People earn 5-10 percent per capita what Europeans do, so don't get too worked up over it, time capsule though it may be.
The Kasbah, with its cramped terraces and Moroccan-style comfort food, is a great place to take it all in while being just slightly removed from the fray. It also has one of the best soundtracks in town; one of the owner's kids specializes in making bootleg mixtape CDs of Moroccan, Sub-Saharan, and other world musics, and he has an exemplary ear for quality. (More dirt: He also once dated the editor of a U.S. world music magazine, who apparently tired of him and is now heading off to live with another Moroccan gentleman in the rural south of the country.)
Opening night of the Festival at the most bourgeois of the festival's five outdoor venues, the Bab Makina, was one of the more red carpet events of my life. There was, in fact, an actual red carpet rolled out for the Queen of Morocco and her pal the Queen of Jordan. The royal guard stood at attention, sabres raised, and when the queens hit the ground, the paparazzi burst into action (ruining any chance I had of getting a photo, but you can see them on the festival's website.)
The other big celebrity sighting was on the second day of the festival, when Bono and The Edge, who were in town for a video shoot, turned up for the rocking Parissa and Dastan Ensemble (Iran) afternoon concert at the intimate and lovely Batha Museum. Also reportedly in town: Juliet Binoche, who may have had a gig, and Brian Eno, who apparently did not.
The concert itself for opening night was Barbara Hendricks, African-American opera singer, and the difficultly named Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (Sweden) singing Stabat Mater by Pergolèse, and sacred Christian songs. Not really my cup of tea, but people seemed happy enough with it. One curiousity
was the crazy psychedelic light patterns projected during their set -- definitely not your typical accompaniment for a formal classical recital. I later discovered that this was standard on Moroccan music TV shows, although most other artists throughout the festival didn't allow the light show to go on...
To read part two of Rob's report, click here.