Wednesday, June 18, 2008


One of the true highlights of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music was on Wednesday evening, at the Bab El Makina scene. Hadhra, a group of twenty musicians from Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq, performed a fantastic set: their two-a-half-hour musical journey was filled with energy and excitement.

Formed in Tunisia, Hadhra draws up traditional Sufi poetry to create a grand musical, and mystical, experience. While it is not entirely accurate to label Hadhra as traditional Sufi music, as there are obvious Western instrumental influences, the presence of Sufism is more than evident in their performance.

The evening began with two musicians on stage: one (blind) guitarist and another string player. The two musicians played a melodically relaxing prelude for about ten minutes or so. Then, a third musician, a keyboardist, joined them, for an addition five minutes. As I was waiting anxiously for a progression in the music, from out of nowhere, about twenty more musicians and more than a half dozen dancers took the stage – all dressed in unison.

The music was mostly vocal driven, lead by a male and female vocalist; however, there were hand drums, a violin, a saxophone, an accordion, and keyboards. Depending on song, there different number of drummers, ranging from none to six. Many of the songs began just with the hand drums, and then slowly added the other instruments and vocals. The importance of percussion was accentuated by the fact that there was one man on stage whose job was to change, and tune, the drums. I thoroughly enjoyed the several songs that had nice, short drum breaks.

In the early songs of the set, the music was not heavy on the rhythms; something expected with the Sufi music, as the lyrics profess a personal connection between the performer and God. I was blown away by the vocal ranges of some of the singers: the combination of such strong vocals, and such a large band, made for a huge sound.

As the performance progressed, more intricate rhythms were employed. The movement of the music was so smooth; from start to finish, there was a perfectly fluid evolution of the set.

The light show was extraordinary tonight; and once again, the venue of Bab El Makina provided the perfect atmosphere for a “sacred music” concert – sans, the flood of corporate tents near the entry, that is.

I love having the freedom of mobility that comes with a press pass: to experience the same performance from different vantage points makes for an even more enjoyable concert experience.

There was a very large turnout; perhaps this was in direct correlation with the delicious, free food that was available before the show…I am sure that the music would have meant even more to me if I had been able to understand the lyrics. Regardless, it was a wonderful evening; and perhaps my favorite “sacred” music performance of the festival.

But the night was not over. After the evening at Bab El Makina ended, the night at the Dar Tazi scene just began. Dar Tazi is the late night venue for the Fes Festival: only traditional Sufi musicians perform at this stage. (Hadhra, for example, would be deemed as not traditional enough to perform at Dar Tazi).

The Dar Tazi scene is tucked away in the medina. It is a rather small space: the stage is not so much a stage, as a mildly elevated platform. Unlike Bab El Makina, there is a space for general public. The catch, of course, is that this space is very limited; so, the security guards arbitrary decide who is able to attend the performance. Despite this flawed system of admission, the public space always is packed to capacity. The seating is a little odd, as everyone is required to sit on the (carpeted) ground.

Tonight’s performance was entitled, “Tartit Women’s Ensemble: Popular and Sacred Chants of Tuaregs.” The nine musicians – all but one were female – were from Mali.

The music had a very tribal feel to it; after all, it was the music of nomadic people. Many of the songs had a slow tempo: while the music was vocal-driven, there still was a modest influence of percussion-based rhythms. At certain times during the show, members of the band performed traditional Saharan dances.

Dar Tazi has a very strong “community” feel to it; it is an open-aired, natural setting, with trees and a fair amount of greenery. The crowd was very mellow; and it is clear that most of the audience were locals from the medina.

All in all, the contrast of the show at Bab El Makina and Dar Tazi made for a great day of music. Below are photographs and videos from both performances.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


On Tuesday evening, I headed to Bab El Makina, the main venue for the Fes Festival, to check out a performance by Panti Pusaka Budaya, a theatre troupe from Bali. The group mixes theatre, dance and music to re-create traditional stories of Hindu folklore, specifically that of Lord Shiva, and his manifestation as Nataraja, the Hindu god of dance.

Gamelan, the musical accompaniment, is an orchestra of percussion instruments, chiefly gongs, cymbals, hand drums, xylophones and metallophones. This arrangement of instruments is not exclusive to percussion, as flutes, strings, and vocals are also employed in the music. Gamelan is unique to Indonesia, and actually pre-dates the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Before the show began, the artists burned incense on the stage, making the performance the feel like a genuine Hindu ceremony. Just as the artists took the stage, the call to prayer began from a near by mosque: it was a very cool contrast.

There were six musicians in all, and four dances – only one male, but was the leader of the troupe. Within Balinese Hinduism, music and dance go hand-in-hand; although, not surprisingly, I was much more interest in the musical aspect of the performance.

The orchestra consisted of two metallophone players, one gong player, one cymbal player, one percussionist, and a flutist. For several songs, additional, extra-large, flutes (or, some sort of wood-wind instrument) were brought out.

The percussion often played his drum with a stick in his right hand, and just with his palm on the left side of the drum. The drum was very similar to a South Indian dholak, although it was a bit larger. I am sure there is a direct lineage between this drum and the dholak, as it is only logical to conclude that with the musical instruments of India arrived to Bali in tandem with the emergence of Hinduism to the island.

The metallophones were the most interesting aspect of the performance: each instrument was laden with a series of beautiful carvings and paintings in red, black and gold. The craftsmanship truly was outstanding – not to mention the sound of the instruments was exception. The metallophone is played with a hammer; the hammer strikes a metal bar, and then the musician quickly grabs the metal bar to control the reverberations, to augment or lessen the sound. These metallophones are specifically called “gangsa” – a metallophone specific to Indonesia. (Metallophones are found all around the world; the most common example of one is the glockenspiel).

Most impressively, the two metallophone players always stayed in sync with one another: absolutely amazing mutual coordination, considering the complexity (and speed) of the scales they were playing. The rapid, staccato movement across the metal bars was fascinating to watch. The music had a scurrying feel to it that fit seamlessly to the dance sequences.

Because the performance was both music and dance, each song, or piece rather, was very long. While I, admittedly, did not pay much attention to the dancing, it was enjoyable to watch the dancers move to the rhythm of the music. Furthermore, the costumes of the dancers, specifically the masks, were all quite stunning in terms of the intricacy of the detail. The dancers frequently changed their masks, as each mask represented a different deity or religious figure – each time the dancer removed a mask, a short prayer was made.

The backdrop of the gate was incredible; a truly perfect setting for traditional music. I was thrilled to be able to see a Balinese gamelan performance, as on my original itinerary for the fellowship (way back when I was first drafting the proposal in August 2006), I had selected Bali as my first destination, because of the large Hindu diaspora there. For various reasons (well only one actually, that the U.S. State Department had listed Bali as unsafe for travel, due to a series of recent bombings), I had to alter my itinerary, and replaced Bali with Fiji. I have no regrets, though!

Photographs and videos, below; more posts about the Fes Festival to come...

Friday, June 13, 2008


When I arrived in Morocco in mid-March, I had every intention to depart by early May. After learning about the plethora of music festivals in May and June in this country, I reasoned that I had to stay in Morocco until the end of June. One festival in particular, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, correlated with my research so visibly that I knew I could not leave Morocco without attending it.

The fourteenth edition of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music began on June 6th and ended on the 15th. The theme of this year’s festival was “Paths to creation” – according to the general director of the festival, Fatima Sadiqi, the theme, “highlights the contribution of innovation across the quest for the sacred, knowledge and inspiration.” 2008 is a very special year for Fes, as it marks the 1200th anniversary of the founding of the city. Fes, a former imperial city, has a very rich musical history; and the festival reflects the various musical traditions of this ancient city that have spanned many generations.

During the course of this week, I have refrained from instant journalism – immediate coverage of the Fes Festival – as I have needed time to collect my thoughts and accurately analyze the entirety of the festival.

Before I detail my various musical experiences at the Fes Festival, I feel obliged to give my unbridled opinion of the central tenets of the festival, in general. With my criticism of the festival, and, praise for it, I do have several suggestions that I will outline in a forthcoming post of my “final thoughts” about the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music.

In terms of the general organization, choice of venues and talent of the musicians, in short, the Fes Festival was outstanding. There was a wonderful mix of musicians from all over the world, including, but not limited to Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Mali, Indonesia, India, Saudi Arabia and Senegal.

Without a doubt, from the very beginning there was an impressive level of professionalism. The festival organizers made many minor, but notably positive, gestures – such as having space at a Royal Mirage Hotel for the press to work and preparing a detailed program book in three different languages – all of which made covering the festival a very enjoyable, easy experience.

This professionalism extended to the performances themselves: each show was punctual, had good sound quality, and was well staffed. The organizers of the festival took full advantage of the history of the city: most of the venues were in the old city, actually inside of the ancient medina of Fes. Some of the scenes, particularly Bab El Makina and Dar Tazi, are some of the nicest locations I have ever seen for a music performance.

Although the Mawazine Festival had more venues (nine compared to four), it seemed as if there were more daily events at the Fes Festival. Unlike the Mawazine, the Fes Festival had workshops, academic seminars, activities for children, and art exhibitions all throughout the day - not to mention the constant flow of traditional and contemporary music. So, in effect, there was an overwhelming amount of options on any given day at the Fes Festival – the good kind of “overwhelming,” that is.

Despite all of these positive assessments, there is something about the general concept of the festival itself that is troubling. I have many reservations about the festival, not only in respect to how different forms of “sacred” music are presented to the audience, but also in respect to the fundamental ideology of the festival itself.

In sum, there were two overlying aspects of the festival that were most disconcerting: the surprising presence of materialism, and the overbearing sense of Orientalism. Surely, a festival that promotes “sacred” music should have no part of either of those –isms.

How “sacred” can a “Festival of World Sacred Music” be when the week pass costs almost $500? The tremendous cost of the festival tickets breeds an equally tremendous degree of inaccessibility: the average Moroccan earns less than a $10 per day, making the festival financially out of reach for the vast majority of the population. When did “sacred music” become an elitist endeavor? While there were several free concerts every day, the majority of these shows were of contemporary artists, and not the headlining “sacred” musicians.

At times, the festival seemed to promote materialism as much as sacred music. The festival was saturated with shameless corporatism: “A personal, spiritual connection with God, through music…brought to you by Royal Air Maroc, BMCE Bank and Meditel Communications.” There were thirty-four official “partners” and “sponsors” in all. (It must be noted that one patron in particular, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, deserves to be separated from the corporate sponsors. Once again, it is wonderful and truly commendable that the King has made such a genuine, and generous, effort to embolden the music scene in Morocco).

I fully recognize that producing a festival of this magnitude costs millions and millions of dollars, and simply put, corporate sponsorship is mandatory to finance a festival. But, maybe, just maybe, it is rather sacrilegious to unite “sacred music” with such an abundance of corporate enterprises.

The Bab El Makina scene, the festival’s main venue, was littered with tents of the festival sponsors and various business ventures. Century 21, the largest real estate company in the world, even had a tent. Think about that for a moment: among the ticket-holders, there is so much wealth that someone might go to a concert and end up buying a house in Morocco. With such rampant capitalism, how can any sense of piety still exist?

In the most basic sense, sacred music seeks to create a spiritual connection with the Divine. Religious (sacred) music often is performed in the confines of a holy institution, like a church or temple, to eliminate worldly distractions. In the moments of a sacred music performance, is the stage not the temple? It is a doctrine of all religions to disavow any sort of commerce within the physical space of the institution? (Yes, yes, I have been to plenty of Hindu temples that sell souvenirs, and the Vatican does have a gift shop). Surely John 2:16 is not just a Christian prospect – materialism has no place inside of a mosque or synagogue or any sort of holy sanctuary, for that matter. How can proper devotion to the Divine be made when a vender is hawking Hagaan Daz a hundred feet from the stage? At what point do we distinguish between reverence and exploitation?

It is sadly ironic because the respective ideological roots of all of these different forms of “sacred” music were the antithesis of the materialism found at the Fes Festival.

Another reservation for me to endorse the festival is the immense sense of Orientalism that surrounds the festival. The concept of Orientalism, as written about by the great scholar Edward Said, essentially states that in the West, we have a very skewed view of the Eastern cultures. Strictly in terms of “religious studies,” some Westerners perceive Eastern religions as more “mystical” than Western traditions, and thus they are “better.”(You see this practice quite frequently in India, Westerns that “adopt” Hinduism because of the esoteric essence of an Eastern religion)

In a certain sense, the general idea of a festival dedicated to “World Sacred Music” is the definition of Orientalism: a bunch of extremely wealthy Westerners gather together to find the “spiritual” element in different forms of religious music. Since when did the bourgeoisie, the upper-crust, become so pious?

Sacred music is an exclusive union between the performer and God (the Absolute): through the hypnotic music, the musician transcends our immediate reality and is able to connect with God. While observers are able to comprehend the mystical experience that the musician is undergoing, it would be preposterous to assume that the audience has the same metaphysical experience as the performer.

Irrefutably, it is possible for more than one individual, as in a group of performers, to have a simultaneous, occult experience. To clarify: for example, in gnaoua, during public celebrations, it is common for participants, who are not musicians, to fall into a stance of trance. Listening to the rhythms of the music can create a transcendental experience. But there is a different between a dancing group of devote observers, and a seated, suit-and-tie audience.

The most elementary reason why the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music must be labeled as an Orientalist endeavor is that the audience is not encouraged to partake in the music, but simply to observe it, through an academic lens.

Most genuinely, I assert that there is nothing wrong with that concept - to study a foreign, religious idiosyncrasy but not adhere to it. On the most basic level, the ticket-holders at the Fes Festival could be applauded for having such a tolerant, global outlook. In the world of today, one that is growing smaller and smaller each day, yet alarmingly more xenophobic and isolationist, it is so essential to have certain individuals who seek to bridge the cultural barriers between the East and the West. After for this reason alone, I do support certain aspects of the Fes Festival.

Yet, there is a very thin line between attending a "sacred" music performance because of genuine, academic interest, and attending the said performance for reasons because it is “chic.” Seldom did everyone in the audience stay for the full show: a very disrespectful act, especially considering these were “sacred” music performances. Would you walk out of church, synagogue, temple, or mosque while the religious service is still going on?

I readily admit that many individuals that attend the festival do not deserve to be grouped as “jet-setter” types. While I know it is unfair to label all of the attendees as one, I merely am reflecting my observations from a week of attending performances at the festival.

Clearly, I have very strong feelings about the essence of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. Believe it or not, as you will read in future posts specifically about my experiences at the performances, I genuinely enjoyed the festival – despite my many, many reservations about it. Take what I wrote with a grain of salt: as Man Ray once said, “All critics should be assassinated.”

Reviews of various shows, with photographs and videos, will be posted shortly. Also, please ignore the "date" of this post (6/13); I am not sure why it says that, as I wrote it yesterday, on June 17th.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Last week, I attended a Hoba Hoba Spirit concert in Rabat. Held at the Moulay Abdallah Sports Complex, the show was a private event; nonetheless, there was still over a thousand people in attendance. As always, the band was on fire: considering the concert was a sports arena, the sound was quite good. Below are some photographs from the show; it seems the tech crew went a little crazy with the fog machine…

Saad was amazed to learn that Morocco had a cricket federation.