A Walk Through the Medina

4 08 2008

By Derek Beres

While it did not surprise me to hear Hassan Hakmoun blasting from giant stereo cabinets suspended from metal chains inside Fes’ medina—the largest non-automobile city on the planet—I was a little more taken aback to hear Souad Massi. Not that it should be odd; Algeria is a stone’s throw from Morocco. It’s just that inside a city playing such upbeat music—plenty of Gnawa and Arabic tunes, as well as the occasional hip-hop and even Nine Inch Nails—the sensual strains of “Raoui [The Storyteller]” was a nice break, especially blasting from the rooftop café near Bab Bajloud where I sat many a night drinking mint tea and soaking up bread in the broth from the couscous.

While covering the Sacred World Music Festival for PopMatters (much more detailed coverage will be posted soon), I was expecting to be greeted by a musical culture. It is true; there were plenty of stores blaring various sounds, and my petit cab drivers played music that ranged from recitations of the Qu’ran and horrible Arab electronica to Pink Floyd and some form of disco that shouldn’t have been created in the first place. I found it odd that a number of them asked if I wanted to hear American music—that was the last thing I wanted to hear in a country as sonically rich as Morocco. Cross-cultural fascination works in both directions, however.

So while my assignment was to cover performances at festival venues, my real fascination was with uncovering local music that I couldn’t find anywhere near New York City. This task was accomplished, for the most part, although it proved more of a challenge than I expected. Being that I speak little French and no Arabic, communication was a problem. Fortunately, I found a great little record store just inside the medina that did not care if the plastic wrappers stayed on the CDs. They gladly unwrapped any album, playing it inside that bass-heavy cabinet that I smacked the back of my head into (twice) during my time there.

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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.

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