For the 20th anniversary the festival’s opening was spectacular, a tempting taste of what is to come and was a suitable metaphor in itself for what Fes has uniquely done in bringing cultures and faiths together in the politically polarised Arab world
Towards dusk, Fes buzzes with a frenzy of swifts swooping and swirling before they settle down in their nests in the city walls. It’s a spectacle in itself and was also a fantastic prelude to the opening concert of the Fes Festival of Sacred Music inspired by the Conference of the Birds. It was a wonderful show, specially created for the 20th anniversary of the festival which has come to define Morocco as a place of spirituality, tolerance and openness in the contemporary Arab world.
The Conference of the Birds is a celebrated Persian poem written by Farid ud-Din Attar in 1177. It’s an allegory in which the birds of the world, lead by the hoopoe, join together to search for their leader (God), and in their quest visit seven valleys before seeing in God a reflection of themselves. It’s a metaphor of the Sufi message that God isn’t something external, but to be found within us all. For Fes, the metaphor was extended with 70 musicians representing a journey through seven geographical regions and faiths. So the Valley of Yearning was represented by Africa and Senegalese singer Musa Dieng Kala; the Valley of Perplexity fell to South America, and Quechua singer Luzmila Carpio who, literally, can sing like the birds; while the Valley of Knowledge was represented by Judaism and a powerful performance by Sephardic singer Mor Karbasi.
The Valley of Love was evoked by the Christian choir of St Ephraïm from Hungary who entered through the audience ringing bells before performing Byzantine, Slavonic and Hungarian religious songs. The Valley of Unity was Islam which ended in the musical highlight of various Sufi vocalists including the magnificent young Youssou-like Marouane Hajji from Fes soaring like a bird in flight over voices and percussion as white-robed dervishes whirled beneath the crenelated towers. The show opened and closed with Chinese Shaolin acrobats who added colour and spectacle if little in the way of spirituality. Inevitably, the show was over-long, but contained real musical treats and moments of theatricality – a figure defying gravity and calmly walking up the wall of the Bab Makina gate and the whole ca st on stage at the end around a silhouetted bird.
The following day, Rokia Traoré (pictured below) gave a thrilling intimate show, which will surely be a highlight of the festival. Her encore piece was also inspired by birdsong – a theme that really seems to be running through the festival.