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Monday, July 07, 2003

Arts & Letters

Fes: Not World Music But the World’s Music

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music and Dance was founded nine years ago on a simple and yet sweeping premise: that it was possible — even imperative — to create intercultural and interfaith understanding, and that the best vehicle for doing so was music. The festival’s founder, Faouzi Skali, despaired of the highly charged rhetoric used on all sides during the first Gulf War, which seemed to him to represent a strictly us-versus-them chasm, with its terrible echoes of the Crusades and so many other religious wars. And so, Skali, a noted cultural anthropologist and scholar of Sufism, set out to create an annual festival to bridge those divides. His vision was not to meld all the different (and often mutually challenging) religious traditions included at the festival into a soupy, “it’s-a-small-world-after-all” haze of goodwill globalization, but rather to create an environment in which performers and audiences alike could come together to learn about each other’s traditions and engage in dynamic dialogue.

Fes (or Fez, in its anglicized spelling) was chosen as the site of this event in June for a variety of reasons — some, no doubt, logistical and financial, but certainly because of the city’s deep symbolic resonance as well. For centuries, Fes was not just the capital of Morocco, but its intellectual and religious center as well; indeed, its Qaraouine University, founded in the ninth century, is one of the oldest centers of higher learning in the world. Sufis of the region refer to Fes as az-Zawia, “The Sanctuary,” but over the centuries it has also attracted many non-Muslims. Pope Sylvester II, who was pontiff for four years at the turn of the tenth into the eleventh century, studied in Fes (and is said to have introduced Arabic numerals to Europe); Maimonides taught at the university. The city also became a refuge for Muslims and large numbers of Jews following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. (Though the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, is now almost completely empty of Jews who have left for Israel, France, and elsewhere, it is still home to some gorgeously ornate synagogues and a large Jewish cemetery.)

There’s much to be said for Fes’s beauty, too. The city’s oldest areas, the ninth-century Fes al-Bali (Old Fes) and the thirteenth-century Fes al-Djedid (New Fes), are largely unchanged architecturally from their respective founding — save for the satellite dishes springing from most rooftops — and are preserved by UNESCO as world cultural heritage sites. The rhythms of daily life match older paces. In the narrow souks, whose paths wander into confusing dead-ends to confound intruders, donkeys still bear the loads, whether of local goods or crates of Coca-Cola; leather-tanners and dyers still ply their craft as their forbears did centuries ago. It must be noted, however, that UNESCO’s protection is a double-edged sword. Fes is the poorest city in Morocco; consequently, residents of the old medina tend to be the least affluent or formally educated Fassis (Fes residents), and are often migrants from the countryside. It is hoped that the global attention paid to the festival, and the tourism it brings, will help create some economic advantage to the local community. In the past, the festival has been criticized for high ticket prices, which effectively shut out the vast majority of Fassis; last year, in response, the organizers began presenting daily free concerts featuring both local musicians and festival headliners.

Certainly, Fes offers incredible venues for performances: the three primary sites are visual feasts. Afternoon concerts take place at the courtyard of a nineteenth-century palace that now houses the Batha Museum; the stage is set right in front of a lush garden of roses and orange trees heavy with fruit. Evening performances are at the Bab Makina, a magnificently tiled gate that used to serve as the main entry to the king’s palace. The massive courtyard in front of the gate is walled off on two sides, creating a space for 5,000 spectators that feels oddly intimate. The stage itself is set in front, within the niche of the actual gateway; the arch’s graceful curves frame the artists below. And for one day each year, the festival’s participants and spectators drive 40 kilometers from Fes to the splendid ruins of Volubilis, a remarkably well-preserved site that marks the Roman empire’s southernmost major city.

The festival has come to embrace not only sacred music but sacred dance as well; and not just artistic performances but, starting three years ago, a corresponding colloquium of academics, religious leaders, and social and economic activists from around the world, who are invited to participate in daily panel discussions. This year’s colloquium theme was “From My Soul to Your Soul: The Art of Transmission.” Invited speakers ranged from Rev. James Parks Morton, dean of New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and founder of the city’s Interfaith Center, World Bank official Katherine Marshall, Moroccan women’s activist and professor Sabah Chraibi Bennouna, and musical legend — and now Brazil’s minister of culture under the newly elected Lula — Gilberto Gil. Each panel included at least six speakers; as a result, the most frequent criticism was that there were simply too many articulate people given too little time to speak, and that they were often reduced to soundbites (and clichés) about the importance of basic human values (mutual respect, equality, the importance of ethics, etc.) rather than being allowed to develop meaningful assessments of pressing issues in a time of intense and rapid economic, industrial, and cultural globalization.

The list of artists invited to Fes ranges as broadly as its colloquium participants; for this year’s festival (which took place June 6-14), Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American artists came together to share their traditions of music and dance. Some of the artists’ work is overtly sacred, as in the case of Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo or the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus — a Sufi order whose members may well object to the notion of their sacred, ritual movements as “performance” or spectacle. Other performers blend sacred and secular material, such as the musical ensemble called “The Masters of Armenia” or the troupe performing sacred temple dance and more purely artistic work from the eastern region of Orissa, India, led by Odissi dance legend Guru Kelucheran Mohapatra and noted performer Madhavi Mudgal. And then there are performers such as the nearly mythical Gil, a founder of tropicalismo, who, when asked why he was appearing at a festival of sacred music, grinned and said, “My music has a connection with the spiritual life. It is about men and God, men and the sense of transcendence, and the religious dimension of life. I’m not singing music that comes directly from religious music or traditions, but pop music that speaks about these experiences.”

I had attended the festival once before, in 2001, and was eager to see the effect on it of recent events, from September 11, to Gulf War II, to the terrorist attacks in Casablanca just a few weeks before the festival began, which appeared to be aimed at Jewish and foreign targets. Considering that the festival was founded as a direct response to the first Gulf War, I was interested in how its organizers, and the artists in general, would react, both practically and philosophically, to the collective challenge of these incidents. The Fes festival certainly provides a target of opportunity to potential attackers, and, as several friends and colleagues also attending the festival noted, any number of fundamentalists — from any number of religious backgrounds — unquestionably oppose the festival’s objectives.

Before leaving, I and all the other journalists going to Fes received a flurry of e-mails reassuring us that security was a very high priority. And indeed it was, judging by the dozens of policemen, soldiers, and bomb-sniffing dogs stationed at each concert, the barricades lining the streets, and the metal detectors at every show. Artists received explicit assurances from government officials about their safety; even so, one of the three members of Ulali, the Native American singing group, decided not to come, while the now-Queens, NY-based Ilyas Malayev Ensemble, who are Jews from Bukhara, specifically requested that they not be identified publicly as Jewish musicians. (This was a compromise: just after the Casablanca attacks, the group had considered canceling their trip.) In the end, I am happy to report that nothing happened — you would undoubtedly have heard if something had. Still, the atmosphere in Fes had certainly changed from my visit two years ago. Whereas the earlier mood was relaxed and quite benign, the festival’s raison d’être and goals now were both more endangered and more urgent than ever before.

This year, I could not stay for the entire festival; I arrived not long before the opening-night concert and left a mere four days later. Even so, I heard a number of remarkable performances; for each day of the festival week, there are no fewer than four concerts, if you count the free shows and an additional Sufi musical gathering that took place every night (including an unforgettable performance one evening by the Aissawa Tariqa brotherhood of Fes).

Fes attracts the finest artists, who are at the forefront of their respective fields; most of the performances I attended this time ranged from very good to some of the most memorable I’ve heard in a long time. To start with the lesser performances: this year’s opening event featured a new oratorio entitled My Heart Has Become Tolerant by the now-Paris-based composer Goran Bregovic, who was born in Sarajevo of a Serbian mother and Croatian father (and is best-known for his soundtracks to Emir Kusturiça’s films). This oratorio was, to say the least, quite ambitious: Bregovic’s idea was to link the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — by their musical traditions. His collaborators for this event included the Belgrade Choir, members of the Bulgarian Voices, the String Ensemble of Moscow, the Arabo-Andalusian Orchestra of Tetuan, and a Serbian brass band. Rather than merging these diffuse cultural elements, Bregovic opted for a mosaic-like approach in which each tradition’s “voice” emerged by turn as the solo figure. The oratorio thus lacked an overarching structure or design; its effect was of discrete ensembles taking turns at the microphone rather than playing together to create something new. Occasionally, arresting melodic or harmonic figures arose from Bregovic’s score; and, as soon as one did, he repeated it endlessly before moving on to the next fascination.

Another mixed bag was an evening dedicated to Egyptian vocalists, featuring the blind cleric Said Hafid, as well as Mohamed Tarouat and Amal Maher, all accompanied by the luxurious, thick sound of a big Egyptian orchestra (which includes both Western stringed instruments such as violin and cello and Arab instruments such as the stringed oud and hammered qanoun). I had heard the remarkable Said Hafid for the first time just the night before; he came as a guest to the Sufi gathering and sang solo, accompanied only at the end of each extended phrase by the appreciative sighs and exclamations of the audience and the other musicians gathered to perform that evening. The next night, however, his forward delivery, matched with a deep understanding and technical expertise of the rich ornamentation necessary in Arab classical music — which had been so moving the preceding night — was nearly lost on the grand stage of the Bab Makina in the swells and tides of the instruments. The other singers were eminently forgettable: Mohamed Tarouat pulled out one cheesy, grandiosely arranged monstrosity after another (think Yanni in Cairo), while Amal Maher’s bland performance left no real impression save that she is no match for her professed idol, the late Umm Kalthoum.

The Native American women’s ensemble Ulali — now whittled down to two members — was forced to change both its set list and arrangements at the last minute to accommodate its pared-down unit. At the Batha Museum, these women from the Tuscarora nation performed a number of social songs rather than sacred or ritual ones (as Ulali singer Jennifer Kreisberg later observed to me, the Native nations have lost so much over the centuries that most Native artists understandably will not perform sacred music or dance for non-Natives). Their performance of porch and rattle songs from the southeastern United States — so different from the music of the nations of the Plains and Southwest — most likely did much to show the mostly French audience that Native American music isn’t all Navajo hoop dances or Sioux war chants.

The Odissi dance troupe, accompanied by a vocalist, bamboo bansuri flute player, sitarist, and percussionists, displayed its tradition’s incredibly elegant style, in which the tribhanga (or “three bends”) form is prominently displayed; in this dance, the performers often form their bodies into a sinuous S-curve, bending at the head, torso, and hips. Odissi dance often takes the form of a narrative of Hindu mythology; here, however, no synopsis of the story was given, so most audience members had to guess at what the dancers’ precise movements were meant to convey.

A similar issue figured heavily in the performance of Ilyas Malayev and his ensemble, which gave a concert of the traditional repertoire called the shashmaqam. They are master musicians who count Yo-Yo Ma among their collaborators, and they represent an incredibly rich musical and cultural tradition. Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, was a meeting point for many ethnic communities, and Bukhara’s Jewish musicians historically have performed music from all these communities in the royal courts. However, as with all the Fes performances, there was no explanation of the origin or meaning of their repertoire aside from a very brief introduction written in the program and given from the stage.

The two most outstanding performances at the Bab Makina during my stay were those of Gilberto Gil and a group of master musicians from Iran: vocalist Mohamed Reza Shajarian, kemencheh (spiked-fiddle) player Kayhan Kalhor, and tar and setar (plucked stringed instruments) player Hossein Alizadeh, all accompanied by young percussionist and singer Homayoun Shajarian, who is the elder vocalist’s son and protégé. Gilberto Gil’s sweet, gentle delivery and rather modest manner belie his stature as one of the giants of Brazilian music, whose artistic influence on his country’s music has never wavered since it began in the 1960s. His performance that evening showed off his range, from reggae- and rock-infused tropicalismo to songs directly influenced by the sacred candomblé traditions of Brazil’s African descendants.

Although their music comes from a completely different place, the Persian musicians perform with the same sort of honeyed lyricism displayed by Gil. (Although all four currently live in Tehran, they tour frequently abroad, including in the United States.) Persian classical music is born of a highly structured and highly refined musical system that finds its base in what is known as the “radif,” which is both a collection of traditional Persian melodies and a theoretical outline of the way in which modes and melodies may be used. The radif is twinned with an emphasis on ornamentation and improvisation. Persian classical music is a subtle art, best heard in a small performance space, but somehow, that night in the massive Bab Makina, these Iranian masters managed to convey the intimacy and warmth of their music.

As the organizers prepare for the tenth edition of the Fes festival, they do so in a global environment that has changed significantly over the past decade. A few short years ago, the Fes festival’s goal was, in some ways, to help harness the positive aspects of globalization and turn them toward benevolent use, such as increased cultural contact, economic empowerment of the disenfranchised, and mutually respectful interaction between peoples and communities. But now, with the world veering chaotically into increasingly fractured, disengaged, self-regarding, and isolationist realms, Fes’s values, mission, and goals are more important than ever. As it has for the past eight years, the 2003 festival brought together artists and thinkers with a variety of worldviews but with a common ideal of creating cultural and intellectual dialogue — which, in this day and age, is a powerful affirmation in and of itself. And if it is something of a voice in the wilderness, Fes provides a venue for like-minded individuals from across the globe to come together and, at the very least, reinforce that voice.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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