Wednesday, December 13

theartsdes​k in Fes: Patti Smith and the Sufis The punk poetess and other sparkling sacred music at the Fes Festival

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“The boy looked at Johnny – he was surrounded by white and blue tiles, in the medina.” Patti Smith was improvising on her classic album Horses in her first, compelling, gig in Morocco. Smith has a history of Moroccan connections: she knew the Tangier-based writer Paul Bowles and plugged into that pre-punk Beat generation, but there were some raised eyebrows as to what exactly she was doing at a “sacred” music festival. “Birdsong is sacred,” she said when challenged on this, surrounded by the twitter of birds at the open courtyard of the Riad Sheherazade where she gave her Press Conference the day before. “And so is Jimi Hendrix”. 

Perhaps it would have been better to ask, What isnot sacred music? Certainly most of the music ofthe Festival was more obviously from a spiritual tradition. Now in its 19th year, it was set up after the first Gulf War as a way to bring differing religious paths together. As an event in a Muslim country it remains a beacon of tolerance and creativity (and an inspiring contrast to the Salafists whose black flags were in the last year taking over Mali and banning music).

Paco de Lucia plugs back into flamenco roots and the fire and passion is back

But the reason Fes has established itself is that it’s not just a powerful symbol in one of the Muslim world’s most sacred cities, with exchanges and discussions at the morning Fes Forum in what some have called “a spiritual Davos”, but a world-class music festival.

There were established international stars like guitarist Paco de Lucia, who in his advancing years really gives the impression that he is a total master of his instrument. Virtuosity is secondary to intellect and emotion. Just when things were threatening to get overly jazzy and cerebral, he plugs back into flamenco roots, and the fire and passion is back.

More exciting for a music explorer are the gems you would never have come across without Fes. Outstanding this year was Abeer Nehme(pictured right) and her group, who sang Aramaic music from around the fourth centur. A Christian living near Beirut, she has lived through conflict (her father was in the army and lost his leg), and she had the courage to tour Iraq in 2008, but her voice has a transcendent purity. The Lebanese woman next to me said, “Finally, we have someone who could be on the level of Fairuz.” Compliments don’t get much greater.

It was extraordinary how her music seemed to cut through the centuries of layers built up over Christianity, the Victorians and puritans in particular. Singing in the language of Jesus, it was powerful enough that you even got some impression of the sweetness and compassion of early Christianity. It was also sufficient for me to start looking up Antioch, the Maronites, and the early Syrian Church, which sent me off on a historical adventure.

An experiment in transporting an Upper Egypt Sufi ceremony from the village of Deir was also intoxicating – the new thing was to take a film of the village complete with kids and dogs running around under bright lightbulbs in a dusty square, and show it behind the musicians in the confines of the elegant Musée Batha under the famous Barbary Oak tree (somehow that tree with its enfolding branches seems to embody the spirit of the Festival).


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