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.


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