Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mawazine Festival in Morocco 3: Quincy Jones to Aadawiya

Text and Photos by Banning Eyre.

America's most legendary producer, Quincy Jones, now 78, has been a real presence at this 8-day festival in Rabat, Morocco.  I've seen him take the microphone on various stages, in press conferences, and in a brief one-on-one interview, and he never fails to point out that Morocco has been on his radar screen since 1953 when he first visited as a trumpeter in Lionel Hampton's band.  Jones also never failed to speak a little Arabic to the crowds he addressed.  Where other international stars came and went during the cultural hurricane that is Mawazine, Jones set up camp and stayed from start to finish, becoming a friendly and benevolent presence wherever he turned up.

Quincy Jones

Jones and his entourage stayed long in Rabat to work on a new project, a re-make of his Grammy-winning 1989 song "Tomorrow," with Arabic lyrics and a host of Arabic singing stars, including Kadim Al Sahir of Iraq and Majda Roumi of Lebanon.  This song, intended to be something like an Arabic "We Are the World" for the Arab Spring, will be released this summer.  (Stay tuned.)   But on Wednesday, May 25, Jones also presented a remarkable, 2-hour long concert at the largest festival stage, OLM Souissi.  Despite a light rain--unusual for this time of year--another enormous crowd gathered.  They could hardly have known what to expect, but remained rapt and rowdy until the end.  Jones acted as MC for a remarkable musical journey, which began with a complex and subtle Arabic orchestration of a composition by Lebanese maestro Bassam Saba, continued with Pakistani Sufi songs sung by Riffat Sultana, and wound up with soul diva Siedah Garrett regaling the crowd with 2 Michael Jackson hits she co-authored, notably the timeless "Man in the Mirror," which got an extended and ecstatic treatment.

Siedah Garrett
Backing up most of these performances was Jones's incomparable Global Gumbo All Stars, a powerhouse multi-national ensemble including, among others, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Richard Bona on bass, Paulino Da Costa on percussion, Greg Phillenganes on keyboards, and on piano, a young Cuban artist named Alfredo Rodriguez--a man Jones described as a "genius" and "the hardest working musician I have ever met."  The unusual Arabic-Pakistani opening to this wide ranging concert was the inspiration of one of the show's behind-the-scenes producers, Dawn Elder, who brought Saba and Sultana into the mix, providing the Eastern flavors in the Global Gumbo. 

The full concert included stunning solo performances by Rodriguez (like a Latin Keith Jarrett on solo piano) and Loueke (harmonizing his own vocal and plucking out walls of rhythm on a nylon-string guitar), a samba-tinged number led by Bona (complete with awesome solo from one of the world's hottest bass wizards), a short but powerful tribute film about Jones's career, and a surprise...  Naturally Seven is a out-of-this-world a capella outfit specializing in what they call "vocal play"--essentially, they become a band, mimicking the moves and sounds of any instrument required.  So when the Global Gumbo team left the stage and these guys hit, some folks were wondering why they were still hearing a band, but looking at seven guys playing air drums, air guitars, etc.  Naturally Seven's set made up the mid-section of Jones's show, hitting familiar numbers like the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man," and ending with funkier fare.  They were quite stunning and quickly won over the crowd, setting the mood for a blow-out, Michael Jackson finale.  (Unfortunately, photographers got closed down after 3 songs, so my photos don't begin to record all that went on during this dense two hours of music.)  In all, the show left an unmistakable impression that this American legend has a ear and eye to the larger world, and an unrivaled ability to rally forces from many corners to create sure fire spectacle.  Long live Quincy Jones!

Quincy Jones and Riffat Sultana

Earlier that night, I had a great moment of discovery listening to a young singer/songwriter named Hindi Zahra, performing at the Mohammed V theater.  Zahra was born in southern Morocco, of Berber and Toureg roots.  But she has made her career in France and Belgium infusing those rootsy influences into a unique jazz-rock sound that also channels Billie Holiday and Django.  Sounds impossible, I know, but Zahra pulls this off.  She sings in English, French, Arabic, and Tamazight (the Berber language).  She is a slinky, winning presence on stage, leading her small, versatile ensemble with her supremely relaxed voice--capable of cooing jazz coyness, and all out desert rock bluster.  This is an artist we need to hear on American stages, a true original.  She had a hall full of fanatically loyal fans in Rabat, and it was immediately apparent why.

Hindi Zahra and her band

Among the acts I had to miss to take in these acts was the current lion of West African reggae, Tiken Jah Fakoly, who apparently rocked the Bouregreg stage and drew another massive crowd.  I did catch up with Tiken for an interview the next morning, and he spoke movingly about the changes going on in North Africa, the Middle East, and his own country, Ivory Coast.  Tiken's latest album, released last fall, is called African Revolution, and he said it was quite an experience to release it and then watch it happen before his eyes in North Africa.  The only thing that surprised him was how fast it happened.  And he is unshakable in his conviction that the revolution will continue in other parts of Africa.

Tiken Jah Fakolyn (Rene Cruz)

Tiken Jah Fakoly and Banning Eyre (Rene Cruz)

Thursday's action for me centered around two performances, one by Staff Benda Bilili from Congo.  These disabled street musicians have claimed a unique place in the Congo music pantheon.  With a frontline in wheelchairs, they pose logistical problems, and the crowd at Mawazine's Bouregreg stage seemed at first a tad puzzled.  But after a taste of the band's sinuous Congo grooves, gorgeous vocal harmonies and the whistling wail of a home-made, one-string electric fiddle, people were up and grooving, just as they were for Papa Wemba a couple of nights earlier.  I hated to leave (my driver nearly rebelled!), but I had to take this rare chance to hear Houssein El Jasmi, one of the leading figures in Persian Gulf pop, the style known as khaleeji.  Jasmi was described to me as "the Barry White of the United Arab Emirates."  I think what that really meant is that his percussion driven, techno-orchestral pop features a lot of amorous crooning that hits home with the ladies.  Indeed there were more women in his crowd--which was massive, and held up posters of him throughout the show.  I particularly enjoyed the deeply percussive 12/8 numbers he did, full of Bedouin bluster and a hits of Indian and African rhythm.  The big talk was that Jasmi had recently lost a lot of weight, and fans wondered whether his voice would be affected.  By all accounts it was not.  Once again, I found myself bathed in a whole new variety of effusive fan adulation.

Houssein El Jasmi
Jasmi's Bedouin percussion section
Jasmi's fans

For me, Friday night began peacefully at the Chellah ruin, with a serene set from Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko and his music brother, French cellist Vincent Segal.  As we have noted before, these two artists enjoy an unusually deep musical connection, indeed, a spiritual connection.  And I could have not imagined a more beautiful place to experience it than among the turrets and walls of Chellah, with storks and egrets taking flight as thunderheads and sunshine played tag creating spectacular lighting effects, but never dousing the crowd.  Sublime!

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal

For me, the real payoff of Mawazine was that rare chance to hear legends who rarely, if ever, make it to American stages.  Such an opportunity came my way in the form of Egyptian sha'abi legend Aadawiya.  This is the man who paved the way in the '70s for popular singers like Hakim, whose update on sha'abi has made him a global star.  But Aadawiya is the founder, and so I headed the Espace Menzeh, by the sea, with great anticipation.  I had passed up Lionel Ritchie and Youssou N'Dour for this, and so was frustrated when the show started more than 90 minutes late.  (Mawazine has been known in the past for its timeliness, but that tradition was not always upheld this year...)  At last, a small orchestra dressed in black-tie--not "street" in the sense one might expect--took the stage.  Then came the somewhat alarming spectacle of two large men escorting an even larger one to center stage.  Aadawiya could barely walk, or stand, and had to perform keeping one hand anchored on the back of a tall chair (He later left the stage, and returned to finish the show seated).  But, my God, when he raised that microphone to his mouth and began to sing, there was a voice: burly, authoritative, classy, irresistible.  The crowd loved this guy, and I too was quickly smitten.  I stayed through the entire long set, hoping to get an interview with the man.  That didn't happen, but I did make contact with his manager, and Afropop will work hard to meet Aadawiya and hear his story when we arrive in Cairo in a few weeks.


My last post will cover the last night of music in Rabat, culminating in a show by Egyptian super pop star Amr Diab, and will move on to a special concert for peace held the next night in Marrakesh.  Coming soon....


Aadawiya's fans
All the big stars eventually find themselves draped in the Moroccan flag
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