‘India, Ah..Shahrukh Khan..Chennai Express’, a greeting that starts with an inquisitive frown but ends in gratifying smile, was what I repeatedly heard from the time I touched down on Moroccan soil. It made me realise that going from the land of Bollywood has an endearing factor in certain places. I was in Fes, also called Fez, for the 21st edition of the well-known World Sacred Music Festival, a festival that set the tone for many across the world under the same tag.
Founded in 1994, the festival has enjoyed growing success year after year. In 2001, the UN designated this as a major event for promoting cultural dialogue through music. It is only apt that it is held in a city that is in the distinguished list of UNESCO world Heritage Sites. For nine days every year, the sacred sounds from various cultures across the world, comprising hundreds of musicians from over 25 countries featured in about 50 concerts, would radiate from numerous venues in the city.
The drive from the airport dotted with trees was indicative I was in olive country. After the ritual of unpacking in the riad, a traditional home turned guesthouse, I headed out through the mind-boggling narrow, winding alleyways of old medina (city), that felt like a work of Aladdin’s genie. I was on time-travel, literally walking through 1300 years of Moroccan heritage that lined with shops selling anything from camel meat to ceramics, olives, handicrafts to carpets. Amid children playing in the lanes, throng of traditionally dressed people, donkeys and mules with their loads threaded down Tala Kebira, the main thoroughfare of Fes.
Gasping for air, I finally made it to Bab Al Makina, a large open-air square and part of the Royal Palace, the venue for the opening evening. The security was tight as Princess Lalla Salma was going to chair the festival opening. Once the capacity crowd gave their respects to HER MAJESTY, the spectacle unfolded on stage with the artists and on the ochre walls of the Makina with projected images using innovative multimedia technology. Scores of artists for the evening came from various African countries, in keeping with this year’s theme of paying tribute to Africa and celebrating the travels and works of couple of Moroccan icons of the past centuries, whose journeys shaped the historical relations between Fes, Andalusia and Africa. The audience in thousands were in rapture all through the evening as they were taken on a similar journey to the sites and landscapes that charmed these two explorers of the past, with the aid of music and dance melding in an exciting series of tableaux. Though it was a bit nippy evening, the grand inauguration not only provided the warmth but a clear indication of what was to follow in rest of the festival days.
While the top acts and the ones with local patronage were hosted at Bab Al Makina, afternoon concerts were at Batha Museum, a former palace, under the cascading foliage of a Barbary oak with a dense garden as the backdrop. The shows here included Kurdish to Scottish and Flamenco to Malian and more. India’s Debashish Battacharya playing with Ballake Sissoko, a Kora player from Mali, showcased the ragas flow from the banks of the Ganga to River Niger. The museum was also the venue for the forum that took place over five mornings, where the intellectuals dissected subjects such as Spiritual paths and trade routes, Linguistic pluralism and other contemporary challenges pertain to Africa.
Then there were couple more venues where ‘Night in the Medina’ shows held – Dar Adiyel, an 18th century residence for the Governor of Fes, and Sidi Mohamed Ben Youssef Cultural complex. These places were signposted in the medina for easier access, but there were no reverse signs to get out which made some get lost in the maze. ‘The more you lose your way in the medina, the more you discover’ is the popular comfort-saying there. But it shouldn’t deter anyone as help is always lurking in the form of young kids in the corners, who are constantly looking for ‘lost souls’ to bring them out for a small price.
Mellatur Bhagavata Mela troupe gave the audience an introduction to this 500 year old dance theatre art form by performing for the first time outside India. While the informed ones and the Indophiles were in subliminal state, a lady from France walked up to me and said ‘I have seen better shows on my travels in India’. It is probably not fair to expect the electric atmosphere of the Melattur agraharam when the team is trimmed to a bare minimum for factors demanded in international tours. A packed Bab Makina saw an Arabo-Andalous melodic evening on the penultimate day but the much loved Hussain Al Jassmi of UAE brought on a high-octane finish to the festival with the young and old among more-than-capacity-crowd were on their feet all through the show.
Free fringe concerts happened at the magnificent public square called Boujloud square that attracted 50,000+ in an evening; Sufi Nights were held at Dar Tazi gardens. These shows were big draw for the locals who came in large numbers after their day chores were done with.
Weather can be variable in Fes and it is better to pack layers, something water-proof and a sun-hat. Getting to the venues is always on foot. Since there is no afternoon shows on festival Wednesday, it is the best time to take a day-trip of your choice out of Fes. It is better not to get to the festival expecting all ‘sacred’ as the artistic director Alain Webber said ‘well, I need to mix in a bit of commercial acts in order to make the festival viable’. For vegetarians, enough options on the menu and there is even a veg-riad. Being an Islamic country, dress code is in place though I saw western jeans and veil walked together.
As you walk through the medina, you plunge into the sights and sounds – traditional industries such as soap-making, flour-mills, tanneries, textile weaving, metal ware; bollywood songs meld seamlessly with Reggae and local Gnawa strains. Fes is famous for artfully painted ceramics, rugs and carpets hand-made by women in the Atlas mountain, spices, jewellery, leather goods, antiques, dry fruits and so on. Century old madrassas, mosques, Andalusian architecture, museums are all within the medina gates. And no one leaves Fes having not climbed the tanneries’ terraces despite the stench! Fes merits a visit on its own right for its historical and magical charm, but a combined trip during the festival would be a visual and aural treat.
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A report on the festival by yours truly was carried by the national daily – Please click the link below –