The 17th annual edition of the Festival of World Sacred Music kicked off Friday, June 3rd in the medina quarter of Fes, Morocco with a royal address and premier event, presenting a spiritual facet of Arab music, in contrast to the secular Mawazine festival in Rabat the previous week.
Set 45 years after the founding of Islam, the legend of Leyla and her beloved suitor Qeys, who is renamed Majnun (“the crazy one”) after her father refuses to allow the two to marry, is a foundational story in Islamic oral tradition. Qeysʼ transgression–he sings a love poem extolling Leylaʼs beauty and grace in public, thus dishonoring her and her family–his rejection by society, his ﬂight into the empty desert, his transformation into Majnun, and his subsequent path to wisdom allegorically represent the Suﬁ initiateʼs journey towards God–the ultimate unattainable love. Majnun wanders through seven “valleys,” or stages in the journey, presented through text combined with fragments of traditional Arabic and Persian poetry. Nine soloists showcasing the vocal techniques of Mongolia, Iran, northern India, and European art music interpreted both narration and dialogue, backed by an orchestra that neatly combined lush European orchestration with Arab instruments such as the oud, nay, ribab, kamanja (a North African fiddle), and thunderous drums played by members of the Shanghai Percussion Ensemble.
My fellow audience was impressed by the power and grace of the Mongolian vocalist Gombodorj Byambajargal, the spectacular virtuosity of throat singer Enkhajargal “Epi” Dandarvaanchig, and the serene, ﬂuid arias of countertenor Bruno Le Leveur. A dialogue between Leylaʼs father (sung by Epi) and the nobleman Nowfal (sung by Raza Hussain Khan) as Nowfal unsuccessfully attempts to convince the father to marry Leyla to her beloved, transcended the sometimes staid progression of solos, dramatically demonstrating the chasm between the two characters by using Mongolian text for Leylaʼs father and Urdu for Nowfal. Amarʼs ambitious creation exemplified one of the Festivalʼs fundamental goals–to seek a uniﬁying sense of the sacred through the inﬁnite variety of the human voice.
Saturday afternoon, the Elena Ledda Quintet entranced a full house at the Batha Museum. Under the shade of a massive centenarian tree, the Italian mezzo led her excellent backing ensemble through a repertory that mixed traditional Sardinian songs with chants from Catholic Mass. The through line was Leddaʼs own richly layered voice and passionate delivery--she and her soprano duet partner seemed to lose themselves in their own performance as if in prayer.
Throughout the afternoon, the audience waited patiently to hear both women sing atop the expertly balanced harmonies of the menʼs quartet, Su Cuncordu ʻE Su Rosario de Santu Lussurgiu. We ﬁnally got our wish in the last piece.
A few minutesʼ walk away inside the walls of Fes al-Bali, Saida Fikri played a free show to an ecstatic multi-generational crowd at Bab Boujloud. Born and raised in Casablanca, the singer-songwriter and guitarist was a refreshingly down-to-earth presence on stage, performing her original material to an audience who needed no encouragement to sing along. Well known in her home country since her ﬁrst album in 1994 and an international presence today, Fikriʼs visit to her rabid Fassi fans was a festival-caliber performance brought home to the audience in Modern Standard and Moroccan Arabic.
Deep within the nineteenth-century palace and Festival headquarters known as Dar Tazi,the Suﬁ Harakiya brotherhood sang traditional devotional songs to an audience of equal parts international tourists and happy locals. The troupeʼs leader, Abdelkadir Boukil, brought the audience to its feet for the ﬁnal song of the evening, which condensed a progression through several different patterns of call and response into a few short minutes. Their set ended after 1 am, but it was still too soon for many in the audience.
Contributed by Kendra Salois
Photos by Christopher Watulski