The 17th World Sacred Music Festival kicks off June 3 in the Moroccan city of Fes.
(This article was originally published by Arab News on June 8, 2011 and International Business Times on June 9, 2011.)
By Asif Ismail
The 17th World Sacred Music Festival kicked off June 3 in Fes, the charming Moroccan city of majestic hills and ancient walls, with a dazzling opera based on that eternal love story, Layla and Majnun.
Under the artistic direction of the Morocco-reared and Paris-based composer, Armand Amar, at the historical Bab Al Makina, the show was a veritable medley of global musical traditions that included vocalists and percussionists from Europe, Africa, South Asia, Iran and Mongolia. It featured percussion of Shanghai, drums of Japan, Armenian wind instrument duduk and Maghrib’s own stringed instrument oud.
The musical diversity of the opera, specially commissioned for the occasion, set an ideal stage for performances that would follow. Besides local artists, performers from several nations, including Afghanistan, Brazil, Ethiopia, France, India, Italy, Pakistan, Senegal, Spain and the US, are taking part in the 10-day festival, which ends on June 12.
For the first time, the Fes festival has a strong Indian presence this year, showcasing three performances. On Tuesday, brothers Umakant Gundecha and Ramakant Gundecha performed “Sacred Art of Dhrupad.”
The other two shows involve musicians from Rajasthan’s Manganiar and Langa traditions. In a cine concert, they played live music accompanying “Prem Sanyas (the Light of Asia),” a 1925 silent masterpiece. Separately, these artists are also scheduled to present “Sufi chants of the Thar Desert.”
Giving star power to Fes this year is Senegal’s Youssou N’dour, one of the most popular musicians the African continent has produced, who is scheduled to perform on Thursday. Other stars included two female singers who had the world at their feet while they were still in their teens: Brazilian Maria Bethania and Lebanese Julia Boutros. The ever youthful Bethania, a product of the swinging sixties performed last Saturday, and Boutros, who is known for supporting Middle Eastern political causes, put on awe-inspiring performances last Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
“This year, we have tried to mix the traditional musicians with great and popular artists whose music have a spiritual [dimension], such as Bethania, Boutros and Youssou N’dour,” said Faouzi Skali, the director general of the festival.
Explaining the festival’s theme, “Wisdoms of the World,” Skali said it expresses “something that needs articulation. It is not just spiritual wisdom, but wisdom related to what is happening in our world and what is the meaning of wisdom in economics.”
What is happening in the world this year included political turmoil in the region, which has so far consumed two regimes and is threatening to topple more. It is one of the topics discussed at length at a four-day colloquium, titled “Giving Soul to Globalization,” which has become part of the festival since 2000.
Skali, the brain behind the festival, terms Fes as “Spiritual Davos,” referring to the Swiss city that hosts the World Economic Forum, the annual gathering of the world’s business and political elites.
“In Davos, they are thinking that economics is the justification for everything. Our approach is more profound and is different from that of politicians and business people,” added Skali.
It is that difference that has attracted visitors like Tony Singh, a banker and independent board member from India, for whom a tour to this imperial city has become an annual event.
Terming Fes as “a spiritual platform more than a religious platform,” the Delhiite said he was pulled by the spirituality and the message of oneness that it spreads. “It is the spirit in which performances are held here, the spirit of oneness and compassion, of understanding, of peace, of inclusion of different religions, using music as a method of harmonizing.”
Of course, the welcoming nature of Fes and its charm are added attractions. “Fes is a city which is magical for many people for the energy it brings,” said Singh who, along with his daughter Priyanka, is making his fourth trip in four years.
Part of that magic of the festival is the backdrop of its dozen odd venues, all of them steeped in history.
Bab Al Makina, the venue for evening concerts, was built 125 years ago. Musee Batha, a palace-turned-museum where morning events and afternoon concerts are held, was also built around the same time.
Then there is the granddaddy of all venues, Bab Boujloud, which hosts free concerts. Built in the 11th century, it is a gateway to the Fes medina or a walled section of the city unique to this region.
Started in 1994, the Festival of World Sacred Music has become an important feature of the Moroccan summer, bringing thousands of visitors to the city every year. Organizers estimate that between 5,000 and 6,000 people attend the festival daily.
On the opening night, among the several thousands who showed up to watch the tragic story of unrequited love of the “Madman” and Layla was Princess Lalla Salma, the commoner from Fes, who would go on to marry the King of Morocco. (Global India Newswire)