World Festival Honors the Sacred in Music

In just its third year, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music has become a role model for other music festivals. No other festival - not even the WOMAD event dreamed up by Peter Gabriel - has such a wide range of performers and styles.

Only here can you hear Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek on the same day as Francoise Atlan, a Sephardic Jewish singer accompanied by an Iranian percussionist.

This year's Fes Festival, which ran from May 24 to 31, opened with a riveting performance by three children's choirs - one Muslim, one Jewish, one Christian. At one point, Atlan and French-Moroccan vocalist Aicha Redouane joined them on stage to form an operatic symphony.

"It was important for me to perform here," says Ms. Atlan, who has an Algerian father and a Spanish mother. "I was very happy with opening night because it was such a symbol of unity."

Symbolism is an important facet of the festival, which Mr. Skali started in response to the Persian Gulf War. Disturbed by the conflict, Skali (an anthropologist who teaches in Fes) first put together a film and book festival that featured Muslim, Christian, and Jewish artists. That evolved into the nonprofit Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, which has film events, photography, and art exhibits as a sidelight.

Since "sacred music" entails such a broad swath of music, Skali has a flexible mandate to fill the festival's schedule, which averages two concerts a day. This year, for example, the Arcadia Ensemble of Switzerland, a baroque group that plays Bach and Vivaldi, was followed the next day by Monajat Yulcheva of Uzbekistan, who chanted and sang Sufi hymns and songs. Yulcheva and Atlan (who also gave a solo performance, featuring coplas, contiguas, and Judeo-Spanish lullabies) are the sort of singers who are ideal for the Fes Festival: relatively unknown, their concerts are so stunning that the audience walks away feeling it has witnessed genuine greatness.

"I think (Yulcheva) has the quality of a major star - major diva material," says Harvey Redding, a graphic designer from New York who flew to Fes with a group of 100 Americans. "It's so entertaining, it's almost hard to believe it's sacred music."

Yulcheva's concert took place in the courtyard of the Batha Museum - another aspect of the Fes Festival that's unique. Barring inclement weather, each concert is set in a spectacular, outdoor venue. The Batha Museum's courtyard is laden with 100-year-old trees, from palm to oak, and has the feel of a royal patio.

Most afternoon concerts are in the Batha, while evening concerts are at the larger Bab Maqina, a facility that resembles the palace of an old, Moroccan dynasty. During evening concerts, the Muslim call to prayer can be heard echoing from the mosques near the Bab Maqina, and every concert features the sounds of swallows who live in the walls and trees here. The natural elements of Fes, Morocco's oldest Imperial city, give the concerts an intimacy that's hard to find anywhere else.

That's not to say that the Fes Festival is perfect. Tickets, which cost between $10 and $20, are out of reach for much of Morocco's working class.

And some of the festival's classical performances are monotonous for Westerners who come to Fes hoping to hear more diverse, pulsating music. But as an all-inclusive festival of world sacred music that is uncommercialized (among the languages in which musicians performed: Hindi, Hebrew, Bulgarian, Syro-Maronite, Arabic, Berber, and - represented by the ARC Gospel Choir, which closed the festival - English) the Fes Festival has no equal.

Directors of musical events throughout Europe scouted the Fes Festival, which makes it more likely that Yulcheva and others will be heard at future concerts. An American recording company, Boulder, Colo.-based Sounds True, released a CD of last year's festival and also recorded this year's. French, German, and Canadian television also recorded the concert for broadcast - another sign that the Fes Festival is attracting international attention.

There are fears that as more World Music fans discover the Fes Festival (attendance this year was up 30 percent over last year), it will become more of a "show" and less of a week-long series of musical paeans. But as long as Skali is in charge, the Fes Festival will never turn to selling T-shirts, posters, and pennants.

Explaining this year's theme of "offerings," Skali says it's to promote the idea of "giving without expecting something in return - to do something other than profit. That's the hope for the 21st century." Says Skali's wife, Catherine: "This is our little answer to what's happening in the world."

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