Spotlight on Fes: World Sacred Music Festival

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Among the deluge of festivals on offer each year, even the international scene is brimming. But we bet you haven’t heard of this one. In Part II of our dip into bohemian Morocco, Karen Yates trots off to put the Fes in festival…

It’s 9pm, daylight is fading fast and there’s a buzz of excitement in the air for two good reasons. First, the 21st Fes World Sacred Music Festival, the reason we’re all here, is about to start; past performers include Ravi Shankar, Patti Smith and Björk, so expectations are high. Second, at any moment we will be joined by royalty in the form of HRH Princess Lalla Salma, whose husband HM King Mohammed VI is patron of the festival.

The eager audience comprises music-lovers from Morocco and all over the world plus a sprinkling of hippies, some of whom look like they weren’t even born in the Sixties, including a chap I seem to see wherever I go, possibly because it’s hard to miss his enormous afro ’do and assorted tie-dye T-shirts – today’s has Bob Marley on the front. He later turns out to be with a German film crew; this is a truly international affair. The two ladies sitting to my left are wearing plenty of kohl eyeliner and cheesecloth and tell me they left Australia 20 years ago to live in arty Deia in Mallorca. They come here every year and love “the vibe”.

Overhead, hundreds of swallows dart about the darkening sky like bats, encouraged by insects in the warm air and scaffolding holes deliberately left in buildings all over Fes for them to nest in. The walls we are facing belong to the Bab Al Makina, the open-air parade ground in front of the Royal Palace, and provide the backdrop to the show. Just as the light fades completely and the birds start to settle, the audience gasps with delight and stands respectfully for the arrival of red-haired Princess Lalla, who walks up the centre aisle surrounded by security men, smiles, waves and takes her place in the front row to applause and the flash of thousands of cameras.

Fes Festival In Search of Africa

It’s show time. The title of this year’s week-long festival is Fes, an African Reflection, and tonight’s opening musical In Search of Africa tells the story of the great mystical travellers who forged links between Fes and the rest of Africa – Fes and its medina long being the crossroads between Andalucía and Africa ­– thereby establishing Fes’s importance from both a spiritual and trade point of view. The musical tale is inspired by The History and Description of Africa by Leo Africanus (circa 1490-1550), also known as Hassan Al Wazzan or Yuhanna Al Assad in Arabic, who is often quoted as saying, “man’s spirit is so much greater than his body”. The story also highlights the history of the Tijani Sufi brotherhood, whose founder Sidi Ahmed Tijani (1737-1815) is buried in Fes.

The impressive backdrop to the show, a frequently changing light projection on the aforementioned walls of the Bab Al Makina, takes us from Fes to Timbuktu, to the Caribbean and back to Africa via a mosque, a fortress and a Bedouin camp, through desert, river, mountain, water, sand and more. Among the many performers are 14-year-old Nouhaila El Kalaa, whose powerful voice belies her years, along with singers from Egypt, Mali, South Africa and Mauritania. Dancers include the enchanting Doudou Ndiaye Rose Children’s Group from Senegal and my favourites, the spellbinding and otherworldly Masks of the Moon from Burkina Faso, who had never performed outside their country before. There’s also a captivating performance by sand-shuffling tap star Tamango, whose quick steps carry us to Cuba and hold the audience’s attention simply by dancing wildly and rhythmically in sand on wooden boards.

Fes Festival Masks of the Moon

After a couple of hours of superb singing, dancing and storytelling, the lighting backdrop changes once more, this time to mosaics and we’re back in Fes, the entire audience singing along cheerfully to Mohammed Bajjedoub and a Tijani song. The message, I suppose, being there’s no place like home.

Other events taking place in venues dotted around Fes in this year’s festival included The Fes Forum on Africa’s Spiritual Paths and Trade Routes, where people gathered to discuss topics including linguistic pluralism, Africa and the sacred, and challenges in education, health and geostrategy. There were also many other music concerts, with artists including Tunisian heartthrob Saber Rebaï and Scottish singer Julie Fowlis, who sang songs that were 500 to 700 years old, all in Gaelic, alongside a beautiful Gaelic version of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird. We saw the German chap with the big hair here, too, this time sporting a John Lennon T-shirt.

One particularly memorable evening was spent at Sufi Nights: a Spiritual and Musical Journey into Sufism. A few of the more hippy types, including our German friend, tonight in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, congregated at this free event that took place in a park and started at 11pm. The seven-piece ensemble came from Pakistan, each song lasted a good 15 minutes, and the local audience and Euro Hendrix fans clearly enjoyed the music and the joyous, trance-like state it put them into.

Fes Festival Ensemble de la Zaouia

Events took place all around Fes and acts from all over the world, even the Temptations from the US, came to play their part in this much-loved cultural event. If you’re a festival-lover and want to get ahead of the Glasto crowd or are simply aiming to go to Morocco next year, I’d recommend timing your visit to coincide with the Fes music festival. Tie-dye rock-star T-shirts optional.

Abercrombie & Kent offers a three-night package to Fes from £599 per person. The price includes international flights from Dublin, accommodation at Riad Fes based on two people sharing a deluxe room, hotel transfers and a half-day tour of the medina with a local guide. For more information and reservations, call 01242 855127 or visit www.abercrombiekent.co.uk.  

For further information on Morocco go to www.visitmorocco.com.

For details of the Fes Festival 2016, visit www.fesfestival.com

Ryanair flies directly to Fes from Stansted airport. 

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