Monday, June 20, 2011

17th Annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music: Day 3

Julia Boutros at Bab al-Makina
The third day of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music incorporated a wide variety of musical sounds, mostly from the Arab world. Each ensemble approached the idea of spirituality in music differently, from maintaining venerated traditions to adopting popular sounds that implement a sense of the sacred in everyday life.

The French Hevrat David Hamelech Chorale kicked off Sundayʼs program at the Batha Museum. As on the previous day, the courtyard of the beautiful Hispano-Moorish palace was filled for a concert focused on the human voice in prayer, accompanied by a local Andalusian orchestra led by Mohamed Briouel. Based in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg, the Chorale specializes in a Judeo-Andalusian repertoire, including liturgical chants and piyutim (Hebrew poems sung to different melodies during religious services). This performance left a vision of past and present co-existence between Jews and Arabs especially resonant in Morocco, considering that an estimated 5,000 Jews still live in the country, and their vibrant legacy in the arts is often overlooked.

Later that night, at Bab al-Makina, excitement ran high for a completely different sort of performance–the Lebanese Christian vocalist Julia Boutros' Fes debut. By 8:30 pm, both my section and the paid sections behind me were jam-packed of elegantly dressed Fassis and tourists. I wasnʼt sure what to expect, but when the orchestra flipped from a swooping violin-led melody into a sassy disco beat, I was hooked. From the 24-piece ensemble to Boutrosʼ spangled crimson gown, everything about this concert was larger than life.

Fans eagerly awaiting Nass el-Ghiwane
Boutros sang one show-stopping belter after another in a set designed to showcase her powerful vibrato and dramatic gestures. Introduced to her audience as the “voice of conscience,” Boutrosʼ songs were not explicitly spiritual but did explore heart-wrenching themes of loss, war, and longing for freedom.

Despite the intense atmosphere at Bab al-Makina, I left a bit before the end of the concert in order to see every second of the next show. I had been waiting years to catch the legendary Moroccan band Nass el-Ghiwane in performance, and tonight I would have a front-row spot. However, I was not early enough to beat the crowd at Place Boujloud.

The current lineup of Nass el-Ghiwane
Despite Morocco's suppression of the arts in the early 1970's, Nass el-Ghiwane became wildly popular overnight with the release of their first single “Es-Sinia” (“The Tea Tray”), and quickly became known for an irresistible amalgam of rhythms, melodies, and texts from Moroccan Sufi and Amazigh music and Western rock. Honoring native Moroccan heritage, Nass el-Ghiwane sang profoundly moving lyrics of love and loss in Moroccanʼs own language, Derija, instead of in Modern Standard Arabic or the more popular Egyptian Arabic. Considered politically oppositional, their songs are as popular as ever with Moroccan youth and their parents alike. Three of five original members of the band have passed away, and another has retired, so this performance with bandleader and original member ʻOmar Es-Said was a special experience, appearing with a full Gnaoua percussion ensemble backing them up and lending considerable rhythmic drive and the spiritual resonance of the Gnaoua tradition.

Rachid Batma,  Larbi Batma's nephew

The band ran through a set of their hits, including “Fin Ghadi Biya Khouya?” (“Where are you taking me, brother?”), “Ma Hammouni” (“My Sadness”), and “Lebtana” (“The Sheepskin”), which starts with a poetic indictment of poverty and inequality and stretches out into a grooving Gnaoua jam session.The crowd started yelling for “Es-Sinia” early and often, and I could tell by the grins on their faces that the band had decided to move the song up in response. They began the song with a long acappella intro--after each line, the band responds “Oh, sinia.” Watching Rachid Batma, the nephew of the late Larbi Batma sing his uncleʼs song, and hearing well over a thousand voices joyously cry “Oh, sinia!” behind me was absolutely unforgettable. A few minutesʼ walk away, at Dar Tazi, a troupe of Sufi Darakouiya from Essaouira were performing, but I couldnʼt tear myself away from Nass el-Ghiwane.

Day Three of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music was an excellent showcase of the intimate relationship between music and spirituality, and the various ways the artists chose to honor their spirituality and glorify it through music.

Contributed by Kendra Salois
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