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Live Reviews

World Sacred Music Festival
June 19, 2008

By Robert Hilferty

Fez, Morocco

The best thing to come out of the first Persian Gulf War was Sufi scholar Faouzi Skali’s idea for a World Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco, now in its 14th year. The philosophical underpinning is to bridge differences between Islam and the West—there’s a serious conference and lecture series as part of the 10-day-long festivities—but it’s just plain fun to immerse oneself in glorious music from all corners of the globe, presented at different venues around the world’s biggest, bustling medina.

After a disappointing opening night at the biggest venue, Bab El Makina—Afro-American soprano Jessye Norman was consistently flat while delivering Bach and Handel arias, in addition to being out of synch with the orchestra, and only fared a little better when doing a few gospel tunes—things bounced back the following day at an afternoon concert in the geometrically tiled courtyard of the Batha Museum. Underneath the gigantic oak, Lebanese singer Ghada Shbeir offered Christian chants from the first to fourth centuries A.D., many of which were sung in Aramaic. Her supple, clear voice was accompanied only by a qanun (zither), a non-well-tempered instrument, deliciously peppered with quartertones. At one point, there was an exquisite relay between qanun and voice of mesmerizing melismas.

The Festival programmers like to play matchmaker with groups not normally heard together, expressing the festival’s goal of common ground. This year they brought together Craig Adams and the Voices of New Orleans and Pakistan’s Faiz Ali Faiz, bringing together black gospel and qawwali. After presenting sets separately, the two came together near the end and better than expected—a buoyant, syncretic affair that did its job well enough without a whole helluva lot musical daring.

More of Faiz Ali Faiz’s qawwali artistry was on display, undiluted, as part of  Sufi Nights, which occurs at 11pm each night in the gardens of the palace Dar Tazi.  Faiz is clearly the heir of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and offered a joyous night of layered sound, ecstatic relays between different voices and instruments, plus other phenomenal details of ever-changing vocal textures.

Back at Batha, I was treated to a Lapp singer from Norway, Mari Boine, the musical ambassador of the Sami people who have animist tendencies. This interesting tradition was fused with some jazz elements, as in the song “Brother Eagle” in which a Miles-Davis influenced trumpet player flickers his tones, some of which are sampled and recycled, with Boine’s voice. She’s capable of extended vocal techniques, and can do some “Joik” throat singing. She also did some rather earthbound Lapp dancing.

Another highlight at Batha was the Malian group Tartit. Composed of five Tuareg women and four men, it was interesting to note how physically similar the women were:  light-skinned, broad open faces, sensuous lips, and beautifully beaded and braided hair. Sisters and cousins? The men, however, looked ethnically distinct: tall, thin, and darker—and they cover their faces, not the women! The women play the drums and clap hands, while singing with mesmerizing voices, occasionally producing those high shrills Arabic women are famous for. Absolutely hypnotic.