Pathways to Creation: Exploring Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco

21 07 2008

By Derek Beres

“Fes, yes, that festival is for sacred music from all over the world. If you want Gnawa music, you must go to Essaouira. There you hear the best. But Fes is a very good festival.”

The bald-headed clerk at the Virgin Records in the Casablanca airport was more than helpful—he even tore off the plastic from albums to allow me to sample. In the middle of Fes’ famous medina—the largest car-free zone in the world, at 24 kilometers and 9,400 streets large—I was able to listen to Gnawa, malhoun, Sufi and diffusion (electronica) at the 14th Fes Festival of World Sacred Music in June. But first I stopped in that store, where all the albums were bootlegged and cost 20 dirhams apiece ($2.60). I thanked the Virgin clerk and paid for two albums (a bit more at $10.92) before boarding the plane.

It surprised me that during ten days of programming at the Fes Sacred World Music Festival, no Gnawa bands appeared, especially considering that Gnawa is the epitome of ritualistic music in Morocco. Yet the schedule did not lack. It featured a dizzying array of genres including the indigenous sounds of Vietnam, Tunisia, Norway, Pakistan, Belgium, America, and many more, including Morocco. The idea behind Fes is to honor and share the world’s great spiritual music traditions. When they are all presented, fans can find common links between the sacred arts of varying cultures. Celebrating its 14th anniversary, and coinciding with the 1,200-year anniversary of the City of Fes, the festival has become a pivotal destination for fans of global music.

The city was founded in 808 by Idriss II, son of Morocco’s first sultan, when 800 Muslim families from Andalusia set up residence on the right bank of the Fes River. Since then it has remained a source of pride for Morocco and a disorienting mystery to the outsider. During the large part of the 20th century it underwent an identity reformation, due to its colonization by the French, and its subsequent freedom that saw both a tribal mentality cling to old rituals as well as a new fascination with Western architecture and lifestyles. It is, like most Muslim nations, steeped in religion, with the famed mosque el Qaraouiyyine in the middle; a local artisan told me there are 355 mosques in total. Surrounded by towering walls on all sides, with numerous gates (babs) serving as entry points, to descend into the medina—the word means “city”, and here refers to the older part of Fes—is to step not only back in time, but inside a cross-cultural exploration that defies much of what the Western world defines as urban.

For example, knowledge of Manhattan, with its grid system and sharp right angles, has no functional use in Fes. Many streets inside the medina are slim alleyways; you must turn sideways to scoot past others. At any moment you could be confronted by a pack of children kicking deflated soccer balls, or a donkey carrying hundreds of lamb skins on his back, its leader walking behind him, shouting wildly and flailing his arms in warning. Yet if these images seem chaotic, it is anything but—there exists a rhythm that, once found, is simple to dance to. As I was warned before traveling to Morocco, it is just safer not to walk through these streets with your iPod on, lest you not hear the clap of the donkey’s hooves, or the buzz from the motor of a small scooter approaching behind you.

Read the full article on PopMatters


The Resurrection Before Jesus

11 07 2008

By Derek Beres

According to a recent New York Times article, “Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection,” a stone tablet discovered roughly a decade ago is now under scrutiny by the academic religious community. It appears that the 87 lines of Hebrew embedded on this stone discuss the idea of bodily resurrection after three days – years before the historical birth date of Jesus. If this is true, it raises the possibility that the resurrection could be a metaphor for the redemption of the entire community of Israel, not only one human being. The case, as you can imagine, is being fiercely debated.

The most serious question the debate poses is this: Why did it take this tablet to make people – scholars no less – realize that? I’m used to the jargon of academia; it has been part of my studies for fifteen years. In fact, I even like some of it. Treating religion as history, and not as “fact,” is an important pursuit in an age that can be defined in so many ways by the term “blind faith.” But the problem with a debate like this is how poorly metaphors, much less mythologies, are understood in certain academic circles, as well as by the general population.

Hence our religious interpreters encourage the public to be more intrigued by conspiracy theories, a la The Da Vinci Code, than by understanding the mythological and metaphorical significance of these ancient stories. When you present analogies as living, breathing humans, you actually take away their humanness. Instead of personified ideas, you are left with the ideas of particular persons. This defeats the purpose of the prophecies, which is to educate and empower every individual with the lessons of religion. We spend more time wondering about what particular historical figures might have done when alive than doing what we need to do ourselves. There is a good reason “primitive” societies employed animals and imaginary figments as their gods: those figures couldn’t be mistaken as human, so humans would not make the mistake of separating themselves from the rest of the world.

Read the full article on Reality Sandwich

The Sly Fox, cont.

11 07 2008

The video for Nas’s “Sly Fox” (see post below) is now online…

Nas Gets Sly on Fox on His Latest

9 07 2008


By Derek Beres

With Fox News receiving some well-deserved bad PR of late — from their photographic doctoring of two New York Times staffers to the backlash against their aggressive public relations techniques — there is no better time for critiques of the machine that has taken the idea of “objective” media to a whole other level. Considering that the network’s ability to churn bad press against their detractors is rivaled only by the Scientologists’ practice of suing whoever speaks badly about their “faith,” more critical feedback is needed.

It’s little surprise that this poignant rant comes from Nas, a rapper already in the spotlight due to the name of his forthcoming album, Untitled — the actual name is Nigger, but after much flack (from Jesse Jackson, the NAACP and others) he bowed to pressure, stating, “the people will always know what the real title of this album is and what to call it.” On the track “Sly Fox,” he lets loose a lyrical tirade that proves to be one of the best social critiques of his nine-album career. While Jay-Z has often proclaimed himself the king of the double-entendre, Nas is equally worthy of this crown.

Nasir Jones is one of the few men in hip-hop whose career is not only lasting, but consistently relevant; fans look forward to each album, while other rappers the same age are often met with the question: “He’s still around?!” Nas not only has a penchant for titles — his last album, Hip-Hop is Dead, was equally discussed and philosophized — his ability to condense complex topics into manageable sound bytes without losing their depth of discussion is unmatched.

As Dax-Devlon Ross argues in his newest book, The Nightmare and The Dream: Nas, Jay-Z and The History of Conflict in African-American Culture, Nas is an icon in a lineage of icons that have bravely spoken to and about the black experience in America over the last century. While the predominant figures involved in his discussion are political thinkers, Ross argues that since the passing of King and Malcolm, and after the slightly successful torch-bearing by Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, the flame of black consciousness was passed on to the hip-hop generation. And while many of the so-called “political” rappers proved to be nothing more than entertainers trying to fill the vacancies left in credible leadership who shied away from engaging in serious political dialogues, Nas has made this record his platform to speak from that very pulpit.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post here

Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80 Live @ Summerstage

7 07 2008

Seun Kuti

By Derek Beres

If there were anyone who could be forgiven for stealing Fela Kuti’s patented dance style—a slow, patient step with ass facing crowd, his elbows tucked in and face puckered up—it would be his son. While the world has become accustomed to the name Femi, there is another owning this title: Seun. As someone remarked to me after his performance last year at SOB’s, “He’s more Fela than Femi.” This esoteric analogy is quite obvious to any fan of Afrobeat, a musical genre that Seun has not evolved as much as his brother, but that he has mastered nonetheless.

Femi has fought hard at updating Afrobeat in the 20th century, doing duets with Rai singer Rachid Taha and hip-hoppers Mos Def and Common, allowing endless remixes of his catalog, and creating four-minute Afrobeat-influenced pop songs that are more palatable to the radio-dominated American ear than the ten+ minute renditions the form is accustomed to. Seun has nothing to do with this—he’s even using his father’s last band, Egypt 80, on both his debut album and in concert. As one friend remarked during his performance at Central Park’s Summerstage yesterday, “They really sound like Fela’s band.”

I understood what he meant. While it is, in fact, his band, there is no guarantee that they would relight the torch the elder Kuti had blazed. Former drummer/bandleader Tony Allen went in a million different directions until he finally found the groove that Afrobeaters crave on Lagos No Shaking a few years back. By contrast Egypt 80 is still the same industrious machine, playing polyrhythms so subtle and dynamic it’s near impossible not to be drawn in and seduced. This is a craft of quietness, a seeming contrast to the blaring saxophones normally associated with the genre. Yet what’s crucial in Afrobeat is to hear the shakers, not the horns and guitars. Everything blends down so the subtle can be larger-than-life. This is Fela’s legacy, and Seun, as much a showman and politically charged performer as his father, owns up to it.

He is not wont to go off on tangents like Papa, at least not yesterday. He seems a bit more reserved, not so overly sexual. Like Femi and Fela, the need to rip off his shirt halfway through the show would not be denied; like them both, his toned body flexed while his hands gripped his saxophone sent ladies into a frenzy. (While leaving the venue, I heard one woman confide to her friends, “When he took off his shirt and the sweat glistened on his back, I just wanted to lick it right off!” Then she made a sound like a dog gnawing at a bone.)

Just as his recent record (for some reason #48 on the Amazon New Age charts—who categorizes these things???), Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80, is as hypnotizing as any of his father’s records, the live show proved equally ambitious. When he launched into extended editions of “Many Things” and “The Mosquito Song,” at one point screaming “Fire!” while the crowd pumped fists and chanted along, I realized that sometimes to evolve is to stay the same; that is, keeping it as honest and realistic as possible. His lyrics reflect his society and what we’re going through today; in that, he has taken a step into the present. Overall, people love Afrobeat so they can dance; they love the political and social meaning inherently embedded in the music; they form in large groups (another friend commented that the 5,500-person capacity was, at the very least, filled) to commune, to share, and find one another in the context of song. From Nigeria to New York, these messages live on.

Dear America, Are You Really Going To Eat That?

6 07 2008

Dear America

By Jill Ettinger

While much of the globe is constantly faced with scarcity, disease and starvation, the Western world insists on self-inflicted suffering via those American Dreams we’ve got our chubby fingers so tightly wrapped around. As strange as it may be to comprehend, many Americans are literally starving themselves through gluttonous over-indulgence. Author John Robbins (Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution) has noted that there are equal numbers of people in the world (roughly 1.2 billion of each group) suffering from diseases related to poverty and from diseases of affluence like heart disease, obesity and diabetes. There are different ways to skin a rabbit, as the saying goes — and leave it to Americans to discover that apparently even stuffing it works.

Unprecedented calls to action to “be green” are sending mixed messages and leaving consumers confused about their choices. Hybrid cars, energy credits, and recycling are mainstream topics while perhaps the biggest way we can make a difference for ourselves, our families and our community is in the foods we eat — or don’t eat. Many people in the world still grow and harvest their own food, and they have an innately organic relationship with what they put inside their bodies, yet Americans need a decoder ring for navigation through super market aisles (which can be found at the bottom of a box of Lucky Charms cereal oddly enough…).

The packaged product revolution has made a lot of people rich and a lot more seriously unhealthy. Corn syrup and refined sugars have had such an obvious, gross effect on humans, yet we as a nation seem stunned, paralyzed by the trend that’s feeding on our children like a parasite. And while the Whole Foods Revolution is sweeping the nation, it’s catering to an obvious audience and creating more questions about what’s really safe to eat in this country.

Read the full post on Reality Sandwich here