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.


taamarbuuta said...

I completely get what you're saying. I attended the festival in 2004, then lived in Morocco during it for '06 and '07 and didn't bother. Not because I don't love the music - I've been fortunate enough to attend relatively authentic gnawa, Hamadcha, and other events. And even though these are often populated by foreigners, it's quite different from the experience at the festival...many of the festival-goers are there to see and be seen (as opposed to smaller events, which are intimate and by invitation, typically). The influx of Australians and Brits to Fez is, to me, not necessarily a good thing - granted, many of them, some friends of mine, have taken to restoring old homes that might otherwise go to ruin, and living a rather Moroccan lifestyle - I appreciate that. But far too many go in with a sense of ownership over the medina, and that just breaks my heart.

Jesse B-H said...

Yup, yup, I hear what you are saying, too. I'm glad to know that I am not alone in this analysis...