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Dispatch from Fez: Sounds and scenes from the World Sacred Music Festival

June 18, 2010 |  5:00 am

The labyrinthine Arab-style medina of Fez, Morocco’s historical capital of trade, culture and religious life, was a remarkable space for the 16th Annual World Sacred Music Festival June 4-13. The expansive and diverse event, with about 60 performances, took place in the walled city's public spaces, traditional palaces and places of worship. The festival, originally started by Moroccan anthropologist Faouzi Skalli in 1994, seems to have spawned a growing worldwide trend of sacred music festivals, including the World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles every three years.

Performers included Amadou and Mariam, a blind couple from Mali who have become international stars, and Jordi Savall, a Catalan composer who is a major figure in early music. There also was an emphasis on providing space for endangered traditions. “Some of these artists are seemingly rejected by globalization, and their traditions are sometimes in danger of disappearing,” said Alain Weber, the artistic director of the festival.

“Sacred” took many forms, from the mystic Sufi poetry of Ustad Gholam Hossain of Afghanistan to the energetic rapping of Casa Crew from Morocco. Groups associated with religious institutions, such as the Baghdad-Jerusalem group, played traditional Jewish music of Baghdad.  At the same time, there were numerous performances that are not typically described as “sacred.”

Casa Crew, a hip-hop group from Casablanca who rap in the Moroccan dialect of Arabic and use samplings of traditional Arabic music, profess that rap can be spiritual.

“When you have a universal message, you can’t always communicate it directly, but the melodies that accompany the message, that [engross you], give a sense of spirituality,” says group member Simo, who goes by the moniker MASTA FLOW.  He acknowledged that “sometimes it’s like ‘pump it up,’ it’s not always spiritual, but rap can be sacred like Gnawa [a form of religious music practiced in North Africa] or any other kind of music.”

FestivalPhoto1For Kiya Tbassian, who is trained in Persian music but whose group Constantinople currently is working in collaboration with Corsican polyphonic a cappella group Barbara Fortuna, “it is the process of trying to find one’s identity through music that is sacred.”  Tbassian’s group Constantinople played an ensemble with Barbara Fortuna on Monday night, which was a fascinating fusion of Iranian art music with the polyphonic a cappella style; an Iranian sitar mixing with Christian Renaissance-style voices.

Parvathy Baul (pictured), a North Indian mystic, held an audience transfixed with her “meditation in motion” of chanting, whirling, stepping and drumming. “The highest order of art and human expression is through music, and the body is the flute, and the wind is blowing, and He is the one who is playing through me,” she said. For the Bauls Order, who are inspired by Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, the sacred is found through the act of performance.

The highly varied pricing of the concerts dramatically affected the type of crowd in attendance. The most expensive concerts were those in the evening at Bab Makina — the monumental gateway of the Royal Palace. With ticket prices of up to $55, these concerts were prohibitively expensive for many, resulting in empty sections on several nights. On Sunday night, the lively and athletic Drum Masters of Burundi played to a low-energy audience of tourists and Moroccan elites at Bab Makina.

Two blocks from the Palace gate, the plaza in front of Bab Boujloud (a major gate to the old walled city) teemed with crowds at free concerts every night. On Sunday, Moroccan popular singer Najat Atabou had a young and boisterous crowd of about 5,000 dancing at the free concert.  About half of the concerts were free, including Sufi music performances each night.

For many attendees Jordi Savall’s musical epic presenting the history of Jerusalem epitomized the message of harmony at the festival. The full orchestra included Israeli, Palestinian, Armenian and Greek musicians playing traditional instruments. The stunning and elaborate piece included poetry and religious texts from the many groups who have inhabited Jerusalem. Chris Colucci, a sound designer and composer from Philadelphia, called this concert the “spirit of the festival,” which emphasized the “profound ways in which we’re all the same.”

-- Merrit Kennedy with reporting by Joe Lukawski.

Photo: Bengali mystic Parvathy Baul performing her “meditation in motion.” Credit: Omar Chennafi

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