A letter from the Fes Festival of Sacred Music
On a grand stage in front of Bab Al Makina, one of the gateways near the entrance to the ancient Medina (city) of Fes, an ensemble of musicians from India gathered for an evening of sacred music. The arched gateway and its adjacent citadel towers became a canvas for massive projections of Indian deities and designs that shifted and swayed to the music. Shadows of kathak dancers rose 20 feet onto the walls as the plucked strings of the sitar and the melodies of the bansuri (flute) filled the open-air venue. An enraptured audience of thousands of Moroccans and Europeans watched in delight, departing in awed deference as they disappeared into the dimmed lights of the city.
Over the past two decades, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music has evolved into an acclaimed music spectacle and for years I’d wanted to experience its reputation firsthand. As I quickly discovered, by bringing some of the biggest stars in world music to the open-air stages, palaces and courtyards of this medieval city, the festival is a feast for the senses. This year’s edition included a homage to Indian classical music, whirling dervishes from Turkey, and a tribute concert to Oum Kalthoum as well as more intimate midnight Sufi jam sessions. While most of the year Fes remains the sleepy, conservative cousin to the hip tourist haven of Marrakech, for one week, each summer, this city of minarets is bathed in light and music, stirring with a palpable creative energy.
The Fes Festival was founded in 1994 by Moroccan philanthropist Faouzi Skali in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Skali, an anthropologist and ethnologist, had a high-minded vision for a world-class event with an underlying mission to build ‘bridges of understanding’ by emphasizing the universal in the arts. The event also presented an opportunity to trigger much-needed renewal and investment in the city’s fledgling old Medina, which was built in the 9th century and is the home of the oldest university in the world, according to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Today the festival has grown into a massive production, both patronized and officially promoted by Morocco’s royal family.
In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings and the rise of Daesh, the Kingdom has doubled down on presenting itself as a rare island of stability, security and high culture.
Despite the crises next door, Morocco’s image as one of the world’s most fashionable destinations has endured and international tourism remains one of the country’s economic lifelines. A key component of that policy is the success of government-sponsored open-air festivals. Just this month alone marked the close of a critically acclaimed new edition of the Marrakech Biennale, as well as the Gnawa festival in the coastal city of Essaouira.
If you’ve ever considered visiting Fes in particular, the Festival of World Sacred Music provides an incomparable opportunity to hear some of the best contemporary artists in a timeless setting.
The packed schedule of performances is also an invitation to meander the unmarked streets of the city. If you inevitably lose your way among the city’s old alleys and riads, or houses with gardens, a young Moroccan is always ready to guide you along—at a variable price, naturally.
Fes, a once great center of Islamic scholarship and trade, is impeccably well preserved and functional. Leather tanneries, jewelry, textile and pottery makers still sell their wares out of small nooks as they’ve done for centuries.
The light filters in through souks and casts shadows onto geometric archways and massive wooden gates. When the performances begin at sunset, music fills Fes’s tiled courtyards with genre-defying collaborations and artistic dialogues.
At this year’s 22nd Fes Festival, London-based musician Soumik Datta debuted a new score for a black and white Indian film by director Satyajit Ray entitled “King of Ghosts.”
Datta performed the piece with a classical Moroccan Orchestra. After three days of rehearsals in a confusing mélange of French, English and Arabic, he says he was reminded why music remains the most universal of languages. “I think when people from different parts of the world come together, they can find solutions and music is the product of that solution and it is beautiful and it is healing and that’s the kind of music I want to make. Yes, it is for that moment but it is also something that can stay with the audience as a gift that they can refer back to when they need it.”
In addition to this year’s musical homage to India, the program put a spotlight on women artists and feminist history under the theme ‘Women Founders,’ one of the French-language forums was a tribute to the late Fatima Mernissi, whose iconic memoir Dreams of Trespass recounted her coming of age story behind harem walls in Fes.
For the opening night spectacle entitled ‘A Sky Full of Stars,’ musicians from Azerbaijan, India, and Morocco took to the stage in a lavish celebration of women’s role in sacred music.
Fes resident, Khalid Idrissi, attended that concert with his family and was especially excited to see Princess Lalla Salma, consort of King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the chair of the Qatar Foundation attend the concert.
“It was different music from different countries and it was beautiful,” he told me. “It gives the city a very warm feeling and it gives us the chance to take beautiful pictures and gives us nice memories.”
But Idrissi was one of several residents who complained that despite its grand veneer, the festival has its failings. Idrissi owns a small guesthouse near one of the city’s central squares and says he was frustrated by how little information the organizers shared with local businesses.
“The festival is very important for the city but they’re not well organized. Many people help Fes by coming to the city but it’s bad for us when there isn’t good organization.”
With tickets ranging from 20 to 50 euros ($22 to $56.5), and a weeklong pass costing 305 euros ($344), one could argue the festival targets the international and Moroccan elite.
To address those criticisms, the organizers had scheduled free concerts in the city’s open squares; but this year’s rainy weather meant many of those events were either cancelled or postponed.
Tara Stevens, a Welsh food writer who runs a cooking school out of her restored riad (hotel), tells me that the Fes Festival is integral to the city’s economy and its modern identity. She says the attacks in Paris last November have led many tourists to cancel their plans and the successful management of cultural history and security is critical to ensure that trend is reversed.
I must confess that as a first time visitor, I discovered that more than the masterfully produced and heavily guarded concerts at Bab Al Makina; the magic of Fes remains in the art of getting lost inside its sprawling Medina.
On one afternoon I wandered deep inside and heard the sound of traditional Moroccan gnawa music streaming from behind a large doorway. I’d stumbled into an overgrown and lush courtyard restaurant where the owner had stepped away and one of the waiters had picked up his gimbri—a three-stringed musical instrument—to jam with a guest from Cuba.
As her Spanish vocals blended with his impassioned playing, we became the captive audience for a powerful—and free —concert of sacred music.
Afterwards, I asked a young waiter named Mostafa Lazaar if he had tickets to any of the official programs and he responded that the performances were far too expensive and obscure for his tastes. His friend, Abdellatif Alamdaghi concurred; “To have gospel and Indian music is very spiritual but the problem is you can’t be spiritual when you’re wet and lots of people have paid so much money.”
Fes Festival of Sacred Music has evolved over the years into one of the most successful cultural events in North Africa and the Middle East. It is widely considered one of the best venues to perform traditional music among artists and critics across the world.
But perhaps more importantly, the festival has brought visitors back to this once vibrant Muslim intellectual capital—a medina where past and present blend seamlessly together and where the music of the Sufis still serves as a bridge between residents and travelers.
Editor’s note: The print version of this article incorrectly defined kathak as flute. The error is regretted.