This is the third and final installment in Rob Weisberg's report on the Festival of Sacred Music, in Fes, Morocco. If you missed the previous posts, here are the links to part one and part two. For this final installment, Rob has supplied us with lots of on-site audio, which is available for download after the jump.
This was the place to see the influence of Gnawa music, whose sudden boom probably owes a lot to the enormous Gnawa and World Music festival held every June in the beautiful seaside town of Essaouria, as well as the influence of the popular French fusion band Gnawa Diffusion, whose CDs are available everywhere.
Gnawa music comes via Mauritania and is seen as a link to Sub-Saharan (black) Africa. A lot of younger males seem to be identifying with it, and they learn the dances, flock to the festival in Essaouria (they were expecting 400,000 plus this year), learn to play the trademark long thin lute, known as guimbri or hejhouj. New Yorkers may be familiar with the style through the music of Hassan Hakmoun, who calls his axe a sintir.
Majeda Yahyaoui, already notable for busting the gender barrier in the traditional sung-poetry genre Mahjoun, totally changed her style to perform with a band which included both Gnawa and jazz musicians. Although the Mahjoun style is quite beautiful, it is also rather staid, which is why Majeda's performance was so surprisingly rocking, thanks in part to the Afrobeat tinges of the music. The hybrid sound brought to mind bands like WFMU favorites Tinariwen. Although the power went out at the crux of this performance, the good-natured crowd of the Bab Boujeloud kept singing and clapping along until the juice kicked in again a couple of minutes later.
Casablanca's Darga were a brash and energetic young band that played ska, rock, reggae, and Gnawa music. The jumpy combination is reminiscent of French superstars Zebda, or the fringey and more carnival-esque Babylon Circus. They played a bit on Gnawa instruments, but I was most intrigued when they hit the Gnawa rhythms on electric instruments. (You can hear good examples of this on their MySpace page). Not surprisingly, they were heading to the Essaouira festival later in the month.
Mazagan is another band from Casablanca that combines traditional Moroccan music with rock and jazz. Not as much of a Gnawa thing, but still an interesting hybrid. In some ways they follow in the tradition of Moroccan post-university-type folk ensembles like the legendary Nass el Ghiwane, but the older groups had a much more purist approach, whereas this is more of a combination of pop and roots.
And then there was Amarg Fusion, who are a Berber-electric fusion band. They mixed heavy metal guitar licks and other European influences with Berber rhythms and language. What's not to like?
Sufi nights: Ritual and music from Sufi Brotherhoods. These were free, late night concerts at another beautiful house and compound, the Dar Tazi. Beautiful tilework served as a backdrop for the musicians, who played on a front porch (of sorts). These performances were all very intense, even though the vibe in the crowd tended to be as much social as it was spiritual. The performers were all male, and they performed dressed in clerical robes with a lot of deep, devotional chanting. At select moments, the groups whipped out instruments and turned it up a notch. It's the one place where I felt the sacred vibe of the festival a bit. Most of these guys have day jobs, reminding me of something akin to a gospel choir, I suppose. And while the audience was often focused on each other as much as the stage, they knew the words and it was not uncommon to see people chanting along. When a band really got rocking, the crowd responded likewise, furthering the gospel vibe.
Sufi nights also broke format to include a Gnawa show for the first time (Gnawa isn't Sufi), reflecting Gnawa's expanding influence: The Ouled Kamar Gnaoua Ensemble. That was one of the liveliest shows there in terms of audience response. Sufi nights also had the most mixed crowd: about half Moroccan, half European. Entire families were out in force for this, and even though the shows ran well past midnight, there were plenty of little kids around.
One problem with all the free concerts was the selective admission process. Women, children, and Europeans get obvious preference. Moroccan males are searched and selected, some apparently denied admission. There were reports of some disturbances at the Sufi Nights concerts - although I felt the environment to be quite tame at the three I attended.
There was also one special venue, a quarry overlooking Fes, with a beautiful panoramic view of the city. This was used for two dawn performances by Bartabas with his horse Le Caravage and gentle music by esteemed veteran Turkish Sufi musicians Nezih Uzel and Kudsi Erguner. Basically, this was a Sufi horse dance. The audience sat around in a big circle beneath cliffs, and Bartabas and his horse performed in the middle. Bartabas, atop the horse, wore a big ominous black robe and hood. The horse certainly did some good dance steps, particularly some impressive shuffles. We Americans found it all a little hokey, but I guess they meant well. And curiously, right at the beginning of the dance the horse pooped right in the middle of the dance floor. Not sure if that was choreographed. Anyway, they served a great breakfast on windswept white-clothed tables right after the gig and that made it all worthwhile.
Miscellaneous Fes Experiences:
Instrument shopping: My pal Tom Pryor from National Geographic's World Music website took my sidekick Katie, myself, and journalist Kristin Berendsen to visit Semlali Mohamed's musical instrument shop (142 / 217 Talaa Kobra Fes Medina, tel. from US 011 212 065 03 2719). Mohamed is a really sweet guy and if you show that you're serious, he'll take you from the touristy storefront to the bigger musicians' shop in back. (A lot of shops have this setup: Touristy stall right on the medina; much bigger selection in the back). While perusing, you may also bump into his dad making wooden flutes! He demonstrated a bunch of instruments for us and we bought qaraqeb - the ubiquitous black metal castanets used in Gnawa music, as well as a wooden flute for my little niece.
High-speed video chase: Journalist Richard Gehr (of AARP's Music For Grownups, emusic.com) and I were interviewed by kamikaze video director Jake Clennell for an industrial project pilot. Jake and his DP, on a tight schedule, ran us through the medina at breakneck speeds looking for locations and then shooting. It was a classic case of a film crew descending, grabbing what they need, and leaving, regardless of the pace of the place they're in. Although they did have to stop everything and get out of the way when the Coca-Cola laden mule-wagons went by...
Other media ops: I was briefly interviewed by Moroccan TV, -- my network television debut -- and by a group of Moroccan students who were working on a cultural exchange project. The students were great and there was an interesting mutual defensiveness: They were worried that we were getting the wrong picture of their culture, just as I worry that they get the wrong image of Americans. Or at least, I wanted to know that I'm not one of those Americans!
The people in Fes are very friendly and they like practicing
English. But there is also a pushiness in Morocco; people aggressively
try to sell you stuff if you look European and they try to guess what
country you're from by yelling out 'hello' in various languages. It can
be hard to tell if people engage you whether they're friendly and
curious or trying to hustle. Sometimes people follow you around trying
to get you to hire them as a guide, although the government has cracked
down by licensing official guides (who
have badges) and discouraging the others. There are a lot of street urchin kids hustling for a little money, trying to get you to take their picture (for which you must pay) or show you the way here or there. And there are plenty of poor mothers and their children sitting in doorways asking for money.
That said, it's certainly an easy place to get to know people. Stick around for a few days and you'll get invited to houses, on field trips, etc.Tom Pryor spent an afternoon with a cab driver and his friends and family watching a soccer match.
Interestingly, I couldn't sense a strong anti-American vibe despite the fact that we're fighting an unpopular war in the Islamic world. Of course I might have felt different if I understood Moroccan Arabic, which is really the main language (French is an official language but a lot of poor folks don't really speak it). I was blissfully ignorant of the whole Islam vs. the world mess, not conscious of it on that level except for the fact that Al Qaida was on TV everywhere.
However, I was conscious of the fact that women were constrained in clothing and action, especially once my partner Katie joined me a few days into the trip. One is constantly aware of this and it kind of casts a pall over everything. It's a definite cause worth pondering, because a lot of the people working in significant jobs were young women -- at the festival press center, the travel agency, and the hotel -- yet the culture dictates that if they marry a Moroccan man, they will probably be expected to end their careers.
There is also some real home-town pride in Fes -- people know it's a beautiful city, and there are posters of the king everywhere. The new king, who was crowned when his dad passed away eight years ago, is said to be kinder and gentler, but it's still understood that if you're doing business, his portrait had better be clearly visible. Among the most popular are the photo of the king in a café for eateries to post, or wearing traditional outfit for tailors to display. Or you can just go with the formal official portrait - three of which flanked the main festival stage.
Hey, it was a wonderful trip - if you think you ever want to the festival go by all means send me an email and I'll be happy to fill you in on any further details I might be able to offer.
Fes Festival MP3 Bonanza:
Kids Call of Peace
I recorded the kids of the Association Fes Dhar El Mehraz singing their hopeful anthem "Call of Peace", with an intro by music director Driss Bouabid.
Kids Meowing and Singing
On the walk from the Bab Boujeloud to Bab Makina concert venues, I caught a charming bunch of young kids imitating kitties and singing.
Coro Gregoriano de Lisboa in an excerpt from their 2007 Fes festival performance at the Batha Museum. You can hear the ubiquitous chirping birds of the Batha garden in the mix.
Semlali shop Guimbri demo
Mohamed Semlali gave us a tour of his wonderful instrument shop in the Fes medina. He demonstrated various instruments including the trademark Gnawa 3-string bass lute, the guimbri (also known as sintir or hejhouj). Kristin Berendsen asked the questions.
Majda power outage
Majda Yahyaoui, known as a singer in the traditional malhoun genre, busted out Gnawa-style for the Fes Festival 2007. Unfortunately the power blew out as well -- briefly. The good natured Bab Boujeloud audience kept singing along, with her, until the power came back on.
Kids on mic
During a performance by a Fes hip-hop crew at Bab Boujeloud, a bunch of little kids were inspired to take the mic -- my mic.
Fes market ambience
There's a busy market right next to the Bab Boujeloud medina entrance, with piles of stuff on bamboo tables, or just on the ground. This is a recording of the market's ambience and vendors pitching their wares.
Gnawa ensemble Ouled Kamar (AKA the Sons of the Moon, Keepers of the Invisible Sacred Music) in an excerpt from their 2007 Fes festival performance at Sufi Nights at Dar Tazi.
Parissa and Dastan Ensemble (the group that inspired Eno and the Winkies, um, Bono and the Edge) in an excerpt from their 2007 Fes festival performance at the Batha Museum.
Sahraui radio aircheck
For a radio nerd like yours truly, one of the most exciting parts of the whole trip was picking up an AM station from Western Sahara at night, playing amazing Sahraui electric folk music.
Below is a TV feature on this year's festival and the city by France 24, whose cameras were everywhere. Video found on YouTube.
The photos featured in this series of posts were taken by Catherine Bendayan, Richard Gehr, Katie Gentile, Hicham Tazi, and Rob Weisberg. You can see more photos of the Fes Festival from these photographers here.