Wednesday, June 22, 2011

17th Annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music: Days 4-5

The 17th Annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music continued Monday and Tuesday with an impressive variety of musical traditions. Under the rubric “Nights in the Medina,” both evenings arranged for multiple overlapping performances held in traditional Moroccan homes in the Batha neighborhood of Fes al-Bali. Moving from one concert to the next meant strolling the narrow znaqi, or streets, from one luxurious riad to the next, following signs or asking friendly passersby for directions.

Monday’s performances began with an afternoon concert by a multinational trio, Nawah (En. “core”). With rain on the horizon that afternoon, the concert was moved from the Batha Museum to a gorgeous hall in the Prefecture office across the street. It took a bit of time to get everyone situated in the much smaller indoor space.



Once inside, I felt the change of location only improved the performance.
Françoise Atlan, already well known in Morocco for her renditions of traditional
Sephardic songs, joined with Palestinian vocalist and oud player Moneim Adwan and percussionist Bijan Chemirani for a program by turns mournful, playful, and virtuosic, with Andalusian repertoire in Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish. Her light, fresh soprano sounded beautifully balanced with the oud, and in the tiled hall, none of the performers needed amplification. Chemirani brought out nuances in his daf playing that might have been lost in the museum courtyard.



By 8 pm the rain was really coming down, but I set out with my concert-going companions to find Riad Mokri for the next show. Once we turned down the right street we were greeted by a suited gentleman who informed us that the venue was completely full, and could we please return for the 10pm show instead? We doubled back to reach the next venue for the 9pm concert, only to meet a stream of dripping audience members informing us that concert was cancelled. Since that riadʼs courtyard had no roof, all performances there were cancelled until further notice. Multilingual rumors spread through the streets as fans searched for the music that was supposed to have been played there and at Dar Tazi.

In the end, my friends and I walked back and forth to various venues two more
times, only to return to Riad Mokri and catch two fantastic performances: Alèmu Aga, a vocalist and lyre player from Ethiopia, and Jesús Corbacho, a flamenco vocalist from southern Spain.

The two styles of music, and musicians, could not be more different. Aga sat alone with his lyre, an instrument half as tall as he, at the end of the courtyard. His songs were so quiet that the audience was not only silent, but totally still in order to catch every phrase. Most songs were single-line poetry with a repeating melody, the minimal treatment producing a meditative effect on the crowd. Aga plucked the lyre or strummed a drone with a plectrum. It was a soothing antidote to the stormy confusion of the previous hour.



Next, Jesús Corbacho and his ensemble took the stage for their second
performance of the evening. Their youthful pianist began with an improvisation not out of place in a jazz ballad, but the rest of the ensemble--guitar, cajon, and two compas performers--picked up the thread and transformed the phrases into recognizable flamenco. Corbachoʼs vocals were as bold as Agaʼs had been delicate, and equally arresting. His a cappella laments showed off serious vocal fireworks as well as remarkable control. The band was clearly having fun together and the audience, seated just a few feet away on the floor, could take in every gesture. From my seat I could see that the compas performers had at least four different ways of clapping, each with a distinct sound.




The audience demanded an encore, and they got it--an uproarious last song
complete with flamenco dancing from two of the musicians. Sadly, I didnʼt even think to take photos, I was so engrossed. But folks, trust me--these men had moves. As I left Riad Mokri, people were still filing in to catch Agaʼs second ethereal set. The Festival and its audience did not let a little rain spoil their plans.

Tuesday began with more rain, but this time alternate spaces were ready to go.
Press and audiences filed into the large ballroom at Hotel Jnan Palace in Fesʼ ville nouvelle for the first concert of the afternoon, the Gundecha Brothers. Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha are masters of dhrupad, a form of performing vedic chants with a very long history. Along with two other siblings on percussion and vina, they gave a spellbinding concert of over two hours. One would start a phrase and the other would finish it, both improvising extensions to their musical ideas with extraordinary grace and precision. Dhrupad performances usually begin with an alap, a unmetered introduction that slowly reveals the characteristic pitches and gestures of the raga. The first alap lasted more than 25 minutes, but as I looked around, I saw people happily tuned in throughout.

Next, I returned to Dar Mokri to watch the Wajd Ensemble, a trio consisting of
Ghaïs Jasser (piano, compositions) and Khaled Roumo (poetry), both originally from Syria, and soprano Naziha Meftah, from the northern Moroccan city of Chefchaouen. We were lucky to have the poet in attendance, offering commentary in both Arabic and French on the eveningʼs themes--loss, nostalgia, and unrequited love, but also a celebration of women and of the Arab Spring. Despite the crispness of Jasserʼs classically-influenced compositions and playing, and despite Meftahʼs incredible Arabic diction, what I took away from this concert was how thrilled the three were to be working together. They exuded a joy that, for me, made the most worldly songs of their set seem like a form of prayer.



I then walked over to Place Boujloud for an entirely different event. Muslim,
Tangierʼs pre-eminent rapper, performed to a crowd that packed every corner of the huge open-air square. Young men perched on the city wall and climbed the tree closest to the stage, not-so-patiently waiting for the man himself. At one point, a group near the stage sang the national anthem to keep themselves occupied. Muslim, his DJ, and his hype man all wore patriotic t-shirts, and they kept the wild cheering going for over an hour with heart-stopping bass, a string of the hardcore rapperʼs older hits, and the most popular cuts from his 2010 album, al-Tamarroud (The Rebellion).




Later that night, at Dar Tazi, I watched Ensemble Divan, a group of Manganiyars, hereditary musicians from the Indian state of Rajastan. Earlier that evening, the ensemble had played the live score to Prem Sanyasʼ film “The Light of Asia,” about the early life of the Buddha. Here, they performed songs from their own tradition, interspersed with phenomenal instrumental soli on an end-blown flute, jaw harp, and the khartaal (wooden castanets). Their set was a brilliant end to two days of non-stop entertainment.





Contributed by Kendra Salois
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