“Now we’d like to bring out our sisters from Morocco,” gospel singer Barbara Jackson shouted from the stage of the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Theater. Seven veiled women waving henna-decorated hands joined Jackson’s blood siblings, the Anointed Jackson Sisters. “And our sister from Algeria,” Jackson added. Françoise Atlan, an elegant Sephardic Jew with long black hair, entered stage left. When Israeli and Palestinian Sufi singers — “our brothers Gabriel and Yacoub” — joined in, things became overcrowded. But it was worth it. Interfaith dialogue needs all the space it can get in a world where religions vie so dangerously for dominance.
The transformative potential of such exchanges animates the Spirit of Fez sacred music tour, which kicked off at the Library of Congress March 6 and arrives at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Victoria Theater in Newark on Friday and Poughkeepsie’s Bardavon Opera House the following evening. In Washington, D.C., across the street from the Capitol, the event brought musicians and peace activists together along with Moroccan dignitaries and officials of the World Bank. The bank, an important funder, clearly believes its promotion of capitalist fundamentalism dovetails with the secular ambitions of the Moroccan government, which would like nothing better than to develop its own world-class cultural event with worldly social aims.
I flew to Casablanca on my way to last year’s Fez Sacred Music Festival just three weeks after terrorist bombings shook Morocco. Everywhere were public-service billboards bearing the Hand of Fatima, a symbol of protection for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Scholars and cab drivers alike told me that the slogan, in Arabic and French — “Don’t lay a hand on our country” — was directed at terrorists and fundamentalist Muslims.
Set in Morocco’s northern Middle Atlas region, Fez is among the oldest of Islamic holy cities, a center of learning since the founding of Qaraouine University in the ninth century. It boasts a history of religious tolerance: Many of the Muslims and Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century ended up there. I’d arrived for a week of sacred music and consciousness-raising. Yet little prepared me for how the first sacred sounds I’d encounter would affect my consciousness. A 3 a.m. muezzin’s call to prayer, issued from mosque minarets in all directions, woke me. I’d heard this before, right down to the vocal embellishments, from the Sephardic cantor in my childhood Brooklyn synagogue.
Morocco is ruled by a monarchy, but its constitutional reforms and civil society stand in contrast to most Islamic states. Sufism, the mystical humanist face of Islam, is represented in Fez by the many brotherhoods active there. Embodied as it is in the tenor of daily life and high-level policy-making, the Moroccan Sufi spirit is akin to the voice of liberalism here — a force for moderation and inclusion.
Fez native and Sufi scholar Faouzi Skali first initiated a film festival in the wake of the first Gulf war. He dubbed it Desert Colloquium, after Desert Storm. “It was a modest response,” he told me over mint tea in Fez last year, “and it has kept on evolving.” What it evolved into is the current Fez Festival of Sacred Music. “Music seemed more elemental,” he explained, “and it got around barriers of language.”
The Moroccan festival has included Buddhist and Native American music, but its focus remains the unity of the three Abrahamic traditions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. And for the past three years, among the festival’s most resonant sounds has been people simply talking. Last year, a five-day conference gathered academics, politicians, activists, and musicians to discuss “globalization with a soul.” Senegalese prime minister Idrissa Seck, Brazilian minister of culture Gilberto Gil, and Reverend James Parks Morton of New York’s Interfaith Center all attended.
Now Skali hopes to “stimulate similar conversations in the West.” Free panels will be held an hour before the performances in New Jersey and Poughkeepsie. A discussion at the Library of Congress included Skali; Gabriel Meyer, who directs the Sulha Peace Project in Israel’s West Bank; Peter Eigen, founder of the economic watchdog organization Transparency International; and World Bank “values and ethics” specialist Katharine Marshall. Eigen, a former World Bank director, spoke of “systemic support of bribery by rich northern nations in collusion with corrupt southern leaders.” A young Moroccan American woman asked, “At the risk of sounding pessimistic, how can we link Sufi music with political change? Is it culture we need, or serious reforms?” Marshall spoke movingly of “departing from a technocratic place in an attempt to find soul,” though it was hard to tell whether that reflected a redefined mission or a PR campaign. And invoking kabbalah — “the ear is the womb of the future” — Meyer hinted at music’s power to foster constructive dialogue.
It would be impossible to replicate the Moroccan festival’s trappings — the former sultan’s courtyard under a massive Barbary oak tree, the amphitheater carved from an ancient fort’s remains. But Terrance Grace’s impressionistic short film Sawt-e-Sarmad: The Sound That Intoxicates Man precedes and contextualizes each concert. Images of Sufis chanting collide with images of scholars talking and donkeys laboring. A quote from Rumi’s Sufi devotional poetry appears, then dissolves: “We have fallen into the place where everything is music.”
Commodified though it may be in our culture, music convinces in ways that tuneless words and beatless ideas cannot. That’s how it felt at the Coolidge, where the closing number, sung in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, and English successively, capped an evening of touching collaborations and virtuosic performance. The full-house audience stood applauding heartily as production staffers showered performers with rose petals.
Meyer, an Argentine-born rabbi’s son, opened the concert in duet with recent U.S. immigrant Yacoub Hussein, the Palestinian son of a Sufi sheikh. As the two interwove Hebrew and Arabic calls to prayer, Meyer passed his frame drum to Hussein, scarcely missing a beat. Atlan combined the strained intensity of Andalusian melismatics and the graceful purity of European plainsong through stunning renditions of 15th-century devotional songs. She was accompanied by Moroccan oud master Farid El Foulahi and Lebanese American percussionist Jamey Haddad. Hadra des Femmes de Taroudant, from a small village in southern Morocco, sat on a riser, singing folkloric wedding and funeral tunes while beating out complex patterns on small hand drums. After a short solo by Haddad, the Anointed Jackson Sisters, “just some country girls from North Carolina,” demonstrated the dramatic range of African American spirituals, from the hushed “Feel Like Going Home” to the raucous “God Is in the Building.”
“It’s one thing to march in a protest,” Meyer said in Washington. “But we need spiritual activists. The people who write treaties in Geneva are usually disconnected from the local indigenous cultures. I hope we can reach people at the level that CNN cannot touch, a level that exists before and after thought.”
The Spirit of Fez tour arrives at a moment of irony and challenge. “During the buildup to the Iraq invasion, the Library of Congress expressed interest in the show,” recalls Jean-Jacques Cesbron, who booked the tour. “But they were concerned about the use of the word peace in the materials.” Since September 11, it has been so difficult for Middle Eastern males to enter the U.S. that these concerts highlight women as voices of Islam.
Now terrorism threatens the tour’s focus, with several Moroccans key suspects in the recent Madrid bombings. And as it rolls through 17 cities, the tour could lose its way, turning into a feel-good world-music rave-up or, worse, an advertisement for the World Bank and the Moroccan Tourism Board. But these musicians can prove that there is more than one Islam as they experience the multiplicity of American identities. Sacred songs, buoyed by Sufi spirit and democratic liberalism, might just drown out national anthems.
Fri, 3/26: New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, New Jersey. Concert at 7:30; panel at 6; 888-466-5722 for tickets (njpac.org).
Sat, 3/27: Bardavon Opera House, Poughkeepsie, New York. Concert at 8; panel at 7; 845-473-2072 for tickets (bardavon.org).