Sacred Fusion: Jewish and Muslim Melodies Mingle Easily at Moroccan Music Festival

Letter From Fes

By David R. Adler

Published June 26, 2008, issue of July 04, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Earlier in the life of this historic city, it wouldn’t have been odd to hear a Sephardic Jewish melody and the Muslim call to prayer ring out and interweave simultaneously. Fes, widely considered Morocco’s spiritual and intellectual capital, was once home to Maimonides himself. One still can walk through the Mellah, or Jewish section, of the ancient walled city and see synagogue facades, a Jewish cemetery, doorways with diagonal slots that once held mezuzas. Yet, today’s Fassi Jews number between 150 and 200 and dwell in the Ville Nouvelle, a French colonial creation with sidewalk cafés; cell phone ads; modern, tree-lined avenues, and even a McDonald’s. Roughly 5,000 Jews remain in the country as a whole. Here and elsewhere, it has become hard to imagine Muslims and Jews building a common civic culture, thriving despite differences, as in the Arabo-Andalusian world prior to the expulsions of the late 15th century.

HIGH NOTE: The Belgian ensemble La Roza Enflorese played Sephardic music at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music last month.
HIGH NOTE: The Belgian ensemble La Roza Enflorese played Sephardic music at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music last month.

But strange and striking things tend to happen during the annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. Having marked its 14th year last month, the festival included everything from Sufi chants to Malian Tuareg music, from flamenco to Balinese gamelan and Christian-themed works of Haydn and Bach. And in the midst of it all, as in years past, was a Jewish component. Toward the end of the weeklong festival, in the charming sunlit courtyard of the Batha Museum, the five-piece Belgian ensemble La Roza Enflorese played Sephardic melodies in a loosely interpretive style, fusing medieval and Baroque instrumentation with percussive elements from the Balkans, the Maghreb and beyond. Edith Saint-Mard, singing in Ladino, was just finishing “A la nana y a la buba,” a soothing minor-key melody with lute obbligato, when a muezzin sounded the late-afternoon call to prayer.

A coincidence, and yet so much more. This was an echo of a lost civilization, and an unplanned illustration of how the festival tries to forge links “between the sharing of sacred musical traditions and the search for a new mode of political dialogue,” as music critic Larry Blumenfeld has written.

Not that the endeavor isn’t fraught in today’s climate. The Bukharian Jewish musician Ilyas Malayev, based in New York until his death this past May, played Fes soon after the vicious Casablanca suicide bombings in 2003, on the condition that his group receive enhanced security and not be publicly identified as Jewish. Despite a repeat bombing in 2007, no such concern seemed to hang over La Roza Enflorese, although certain ironies were hard to miss. Authorities recently arrested 11 Moroccans for allegedly plotting attacks in Brussels, La Roza’s home base. Some of the arrests were made in Fes. Just days before the festival, The New York Times carried a story on Malika El Aroud, a Moroccan-born jihadi propagandist who does her influential Web-based work in, of course, Brussels.

Like Egypt, Pakistan and other American anti-terror allies, Morocco struggles to root out homegrown extremists while maintaining some semblance of a democratic order. There’s often a dark side to this. The Committee To Protect Journalists has reported significant backsliding on Moroccan press freedom. Lawyers for Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed allege that in 2002 he was rendered to Morocco and tortured there. So the Fes Festival, held “under the high patronage of his majesty King Mohammed VI,” is in part image-management for the Moroccan state. Fes-born Princess Lalla Salma, the king’s wife, arrived fashionably late for some of the events at Bab El Makina, the idyllic open-air site of the pricier evening concerts. On her entrance the crowd would applaud and rise to its feet. When one colleague snapped a photo, he immediately had security personnel demanding to see the shot.

Of course, the festival deserves enormous credit for promoting pluralism and cross-cultural fellowship. It also highlights Fes’s role as a major outpost of Sufism, the mystical strain of Islam that arcs from South Asia through Turkey and all the way to Senegal. Music is often the first target of Islamist wrath, but when Fes’s own Aïssawa Sufi Brotherhood led a nighttime procession through the courtyard at Dar Tazi, men and women swayed and jumped together in a circle, to rollicking drums and wailing double-reed horns. Tartit, a superb Mali-based unit that played the Batha Museum, featured covered men and uncovered women, as is customary for the Tuareg (or, more accurately, Tamasheq) people. The women played hand drums, ululated and often stepped to the front for alluring dances. Here were faces of Islam hardly ever seen by most Westerners.

This year’s program also featured American opera legend Jessye Norman in an evening of sacred song; traditional Vietnamese music by vocalist Huong Thanh; Indian Bhakti chanting from Madhup Mudgal; a gospel/qawwali collaboration involving Craig Adams and the Voices of New Orleans, with Pakistani master Faiz Ali Faiz, and a heart-stopping free concert at nearby Bab Boujloud by Nass El Ghiwane, local stars whose stirring mix of Gnawa music and raw groove brought out everyone from small children to old women. Teens and 20-somethings sang every Arabic lyric and threw each other in the air.

To hear the sparsely orchestrated Jewish themes of La Roza Enflorese in this context was all the more remarkable. The group’s members — Edith Saint-Mard on vocal, Bernard Mouton on flûtes à bec, Thomas Baeté on viola da gamba and medieval fiddle, Jan Van Outryve on lute and vihuela, and Vincent Libert on percussion — came to this material via backgrounds in early music performance. Their third and latest CD, “Sekretos de Mi Alma: Kantes Djudeo Espanyoles” (Pavane), is a curious hybrid, grounded in Western classical tradition but evocative of the East in its winding scalar vocabulary and taut, syncopated percussion.

Like other exiled peoples, the Jews fashioned a portable musical repertoire, infusing it with sounds from other regions and cultures, including Morocco’s. “The melodies and text are all that’s left,” remarked Outryve, and yet La Roza Enflorese isn’t merely in the business of preservation. Since these monodic songs come from oral tradition and lack written instrumental parts, the project virtually requires creative license. Saint-Mard sings in a clear, mellow, largely unornamented style while the group plays treatments that are essentially original, leaving space for improvisation, as well. “It’s not a historical performance,” Outryve insisted, and thus the use of period instruments can be deceiving. By remaking the source material in their own way, these musicians prove a point about not only the longevity but also the adaptability of ancient Jewish music. And that’s the soundest historical approach of all.

David R. Adler writes about music, culture and politics for numerous publications.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.