In one of the ancient centers of the Islamic world, a peaceful oasis exists amid the seemingly endless eruptions of violence between certain Muslim factions and the religious adherents they oppose. It's not a watering hole in the middle of the desert but an international gathering of multicultural discovery and interfaith celebration. In the wake of bombings from Baghdad to Bali, it sounds impossible. And yet it's been happening for a decade, in Fez, Morocco.
The Fès Festival of World Sacred Music—or "the Fès"—has brought together musicians from around the world since 1994. The festival was founded by Dr. Faouzi Skali, a Sufi professor of cultural anthropology, and Mohamed Kabbai, a member of Morocco's Royal Cabinet, in response to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and to growing religious friction around the world. Since then, the 1,200-year-old city of Fez, long a center of Sufi spirituality, has hosted the gathering, which takes place over a week or more in June. Besides featuring singers, musicians, and dancers from across the continents, the festival also offers a separate free concert and the "Fès Encounters" colloquium, which brings together religious and political dignitaries to explore themes such as this year's "Harmonies."
Performing at the festival for the first time this year are the internationally renowned singer Salif Keita of Mali, the Ondekoza Kodo drummers from Japan, a group from Iran, Turkey, and Syria performing an homage to Rumi, and much more. Of course, for most of us, Morocco is a long way off. But even if you can only dream of attending this unique event, which opens June 2, you can experience it in two ways, closer to home: by watching a new documentary about the festival or by attending a performance of "The Spirit of Fès," a U.S. concert tour showcasing past festival performers.
Sound of the Soul, an hourlong film by San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Stephen Olsson, provides a rapture-inducing introduction to the Fès. Containing footageshot at the 2002 and 2004 festivals, it covers the city's history and the festival's background and includes excerpts from interviews with performers. The extensive concert footage—which documents, among other acts, a chorus of African Berber women, a thrilling vocalist from Afghanistan, and the McCullough Sons of Thunder, a brass gospel band from Harlem, New York—is so infectious that viewers will find it difficult to stay seated.
"The Spirit of Fès"is scheduled to kick off in early October and will visit more than a dozen American cities, including Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Nashville, and Austin. Listed performers include Susan Hellauer of the American ancient-music ensemble Anonymous 4, singing Vedic chants with South Indian classical vocalist Aruna Sairam; Lebanese American world music percussionist Jamey Haddad performing with Palestinian American oud player Zafar Tawil; and a Jewish Andalusian vocalist accompanied by Tawil on oud. Each concert will end with the performers onstage together, singing passages from sacred texts of similar meaning but of varied traditions.
Like the Fès itself, the aim of the tour, says its artistic director Zeyba Rahman, "is to show the interconnectedness of peoples and cultures and religious philosophy. Because underneath all that philosophy is humanism—we are all human."
Indeed, diverting and enjoyable as the performers are, the meaning of the Fès goes much deeper. "The festival is a backdrop for a deeper story," Olsson says. "And that is, there is a place in the Arab world that invites and celebrates artists of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, and other faiths. Fez is a bastion of tolerance in the Arab world, and this is so critically important today, when people have a limited impression of Islam. Fez is a state of mind that reflects tolerance and acceptance of the other." The genius of the festival, he adds, is its use of music's transcendent power. We're wired for it. We know that the arts is a doorway to the transcendent, and it's wide open, not limited or in competition with other doorways. The Fès combines the power of music with the power of spirituality, and it's a totally rejuvenating experience.
Phil Catalfo plays what he considers sacred music on the guitar at his home in Berkeley, California.