Last night the Fes Sacred Music Festival opened in the former imperial city of the Moorish Empire, Fez. This year, the audience was treated to a spectacle of sounds, projections and artists from across the African continent. The theme for this, the 21st edition, is “Fes: An African Reflection” and the opening night’s concert reflected the full spectrum of African music, traditions and customs as well as a broad selection of the artists playing in Fez over the coming 9 days.
The evening was narrated by Leo Africanus (Hassan el Wazzan), an Andalusian traveller and Moorish diplomat who is known for his chronicles of Africa, Description of Africa, written in the 16th century. He took us on a journey across mountains, deserts, plains and oases from the northernmost tip of Africa to Senegal at its westernmost extent. A second storyteller, an African wise man, joined the trip as we travelled further south.
The key highlights for me were the Moroccan oud player, Driss el Maloumi, who started us on the journey with a fable that paid homage to the Moroccan Amazigh culture and to the tradition or oral storytelling. First in French, and then sung in Tamazight (the Berber language), he told the story of the sad moon. A man met the moon, and – unable to console him – carried the moon on his back for miles and miles. He meets the sandman, who asks why he is carrying the moon on his back and tells him to rock him to sleep.
Our travels took us to Burkina Faso, where in the shade of an enormous baobab tree projected on the Bab Makina walls in the moonlight, the Masks of the Moon arrived on stage to the percussion of drums and an enormous xylophone which looked like the bottom of a fishing boat, complete with dangling buoys. The dancers performed an incredibly energetic and ritualistic dance. With the familiar African 5-beat in the background, it was easy to see how such rituals travelled across the Atlantic with slaves and morphed into the orishas dances of Cuba or the Voodoo practices of Haiti.
On to Senegal, where lions once pitted their strength against brave men. The Simb Lion dancers, dressed in fur and feathers, leaped around the stage until they had proven their might.
The return journey brought us via Bamako, Mali, where Al Maloumi’s erstwhile colleague in the 3Ma string collective, Ballaké Sissoko, greeted the audience with an orchestra of 10 koras. These magnificent instruments – made from a large calabash gourd strung with no less than 21 strings to create a kind of lute. With such a great potential for creating chords, the kora’s sound is soothing and melodic.
Finally, we arrived back in Fez, spiritual capital of the Moroccan Empire and final resting place of Sidi Ahmad el-Tijani, the other inspiration for this year’s festival. Tijani was born in present-day Algeria and was the founder of the Tijaniyya Sufi brotherhood. Although he created it in North Africa, the brotherhood is an important link to West Africa and beyond, being widespread in countries such as Senegal, The Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Niger and others.
After a spectacle which was both familiar and strange, comforting and confronting, it was good to be home, back at Bab Boujeloud in the heydey of Fez. (Even if the gate wasn’t actually built until during the Protectorate)!
The Fes Festival of Sacred Music continues until Saturday 30 May. For more coverage in English, please see the website of The View from Fez. For another review of the opening night, please see my blog for Travel Exploration.