Sunny days, Sufi nights

The Moroccan city of Fès is the perfect setting for a sacred music festival with a strong political purpose, says Mary Finnigan
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Ten years ago, the Moroccan Sufi scholar Faouzi Skali woke one day with "a very bad feeling" as the first Gulf War raged. He realised that "culture and religion were being manipulated for political purposes, to create conflict". He wasn't alone in that view, but he stands out because he did something about it.

Ten years ago, the Moroccan Sufi scholar Faouzi Skali woke one day with "a very bad feeling" as the first Gulf War raged. He realised that "culture and religion were being manipulated for political purposes, to create conflict". He wasn't alone in that view, but he stands out because he did something about it.

That something has grown from a small, predominantly Sufi event into the acclaimed Fès Festival of World Sacred Music, with star performers eager to appear and tickets in great demand. Patrons include King Mohammed VI of Morocco, the Prince of Wales and Prince Albert of Monaco.

Next Friday, art, religion and politics converge at the festival in Morocco's ancient holy city of Fès. Last year, Brazil's Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil, wore both his hats in Fès, as a Latino musician and as a politician wooing the media. This year the veteran Syrian MP and musical hero Sabah Fakhri makes his third visit, with his songs of spiritual love. Palestine has a voice; so does Israel. Tibetan exiles are a regular feature.

But politics still harden and conflicts proliferate. How does Skali feel now? He's created a successful festival, but what of the high ideals - the celebration of cultural diversity and encouragement of religious tolerance? Does he still believe he can influence world events?

"Without doubt," Skali says, "we all have a responsibility to play our part. We have to offer something positive, not leave everything to people who have power. Music is a great vehicle for this; sacred music even more so, as it's a common denominator. All cultures contain a sense of the sacred."

After September 11, Skali decided that appealing to the human spirit was not enough: there was a need to challenge the mind too. In 2002, the festival hosted its first dialogues, under the banner "Giving Soul to Globalisation." Participants include the World Bank, development agencies and governments, and priests, monks, rabbis and sheikhs. This year This year, fresh from his efforts to form a caretaker administration in Iraq, the United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will share a platform with French Foreign Minister Dominque de Villepin.

Opinion on the colloquium is divided. A journalist called it a "self-indulgent talking shop". Others, such as the environmentalist Lynn Evans Davidson, are enthused: "We went away believing we really could make a difference."

Plenty of festival visitors catch the colloquium at the Batha Museum each morning, but probably as many start their day with the afternoon concerts under the shade of a Barbary oak in the Batha gardens. Creepers cascade over classic Moroccan tiled walls and a profusion of birdsong adds to the atmosphere.

Concerts at the Batha are usually by smaller ensembles or individual artists. This year, they include Iraqi mystical songs from Hussein Al Adhami, Britain's Tallis Scholars with the Splendours of the Tudor Royal Chapel and the Sirine Choir from Russia.

When night falls over the Fès medina and thousands of swifts swoop and screech into their nests, the mood changes from the intimacy of the Batha to the drama of the Bab Makina. This walled palace courtyard seats 5,000, with room for a tented refreshment zone with divans and carved tables.

Bab Makina performances are an eclectic melange, from stars with amplified bands (this year Miriam Makeba and Youssou N'Dour), through Pakistani and Turkish Sufi ensembles to a finale from the Arc Gospel Choir from Harlem. Simon Broughton, the editor of Songlines magazine, tips N'Dour as the highlight: "It's the live premiere of Egypt, his amazing new album of Sufi prayers."

For one concert, performers and audience pile into buses to drive 45km outside Fès to the Volubilis Roman ruins. There they'll hear a Basque choir and songs from Morocco's Atlas mountains.

There is a whiff of élitism about the festival - it's more Glyndebourne than Glastonbury - and with tickets costing up to £30, most shows are beyond the ordinary people of the city. To address this, there will be free concerts in the vast Bab Boujloud square, and at night Sufi brotherhoods perform for free in the tea gardens of the Dar Tazi palace.

These Sufi nights come from the heart of Moroccan culture and are much loved by locals and visitors. As the wild music builds to ecstatic climax, the boundary between those who play and listen disappears in waves of chants, wailing horns, percussion, clapping and ululations.

"I can't think of a festival where location and musical content are so well matched," Broughton says. "Fès is the best-preserved medieval Arabic city in the world. It's an Arabian nights adventure, and I hope the festival will help Fès to gain recognition as one of our great cultural cities."

Fès Festival of World Sacred Music, 28 May to 5 June ( www.fesfestival.com)

Comments