Fes Festival of World Sacred Music – Sylvia Smith
Each year for more than two decades, the Imperial city of Fes has flaunted its unimpeachable spiritual connections in a festival that welcomes sacred musicians and dancers from around the globe. The Festival of World Sacred Music has become something of an institution appreciated by audiences in the imposing setting of Bab Makina or the peaceful gardens of Jnane Sbil.
A multitude of musicians, colourfully-attired dancers, sumptuous yet simple the festival offers rhythm and harmony in the middle of Morocco’s most evocative city.
The magic and mystery of Fes is captured in the sights and sounds of this unique festival mingling fleetingly with glimpses of the oldest extant medina in North Africa. Time for a magic carpet journey.
Founded in the 9th century and originally divided into two fortified areas separated by a wadi (river), Fes coalesced into Morocco’s cultural and spiritual centre. Its medieval medina was created during the early centuries of the Islamisation of Morocco and is inscribed by UNESCO on its world heritage list. Ancient trades and crafts are still functioning as they did centuries ago allowing tourists to encounter first-hand those who inhabit a traditional old town. Nine kilometres of narrow, car-free passageways lead from religious and sacred shrines, to art galleries and boutiques, to stalls selling fruit and vegetables all enlivened by the raw energy of those who make their living there.
An image of the old city of Fes projected on to the Bab Al Makina, a monumental gate built towards the end of the 19th century and main entrance to the Royal Palace. The Bab Makena has been the setting for every opening ceremony of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. In 2016. the festival was devoted to women.
Parvathy Baul is one of the few female practitioners of a traditionally male spiritual practice. A singer and dancer who now commands respect from her male counterparts, she is a pioneering force in the Baul tradition. “We need to create an archive of published material,” she says. “We also need to have students and I have made a small school in Trivandrum in southern India. In future we plan a larger space in Bengal – the land of Baul.” Teaching women and girls, Parvathy is encouraging the feminine aspect of the tradition, having learned the hard way that to be accepted as a Baul requires determination and extreme sacrifice on the part of a woman.
Maloya music was once banned on the island of Reunion by the French authorities. The majority of the population are Creole descendants of the slaves who worked the island’s sugar plantations. With its connotations of slavery and trance-inducing rhythms, Maloya was also frowned on by the Catholic Church. Christine Salem defied the odds to become one of the first female practitioners of Maloya, connecting so immediately with her ancestors that she went to Madagascar, the Comoros and Zanzibar, researching the roots of the form, and experimenting in modernising it. “When people first heard me they thought a man was singing because I have such a deep voice,” she says.
One of the more unexpected performances. One half of the band Oy, from Ghana and Switzerland, the drummer wears an extravagant mask that entirely covers his head. An avant-garde band Oy play pre-recorded electronic sounds that they overlay with hip-hop and European and African influences.
An ornate, historical interior in one of the many madrassas, mosques and shrines that typify the medina of Fes. This example is a finely crafted column set against a half-tiled wall decorated with calligraphy, ornate plasterwork and traditional zillig (mosaic tile work) in the colours of Fes. Nearby Moroccan artisans still pursue the same traditional crafts.