The Fez Experience

On the Go

Srajan writes about the Sacred Music Festival of Fez, Morocco, that takes place every year in May. He had traveled, in 1997, together with Pravina and, as a surprise, met Sadhana and Siddho there as well.

It is dark as we drift in late at night through the arched back gate to the majestic square of the crenelated walls of Bab El Makina. We enter a different world – 50 foot stone ramparts rise above us on three sides and the amphitheater is crammed with people. We skirt the stage and scatter, hoping to find seats before the Prince of Morocco enters. His raised dais sits just before the concert stage, covered with beautiful woven carpets.

Pravina Siddho Srajan
Pravina, Siddho and Srajan

Unable to find seats, we sit on instrument trunks to the side behind the sound crew just as the Prince and his retinue enter. He is young and handsomely wears a black western business suit. After much applause, a lone white owl darts furtively into the floodlights. The World Sacred Music Festival of Fez begins.

This year’s third annual festival is themed ‘Offerings’. Questioned about the famous Sufi Bel Abbas Sebti, the philosopher Averroes replied, “His doctrine is summarized by the fact that the entire Universe is sensitive to Giving.”

The organizers of this festival said they had ”taken to dreaming on the invisible side and hoping that the festival will be a gift in itself, an Offering.” They wished to create a scenario so profound, that for a week a bouquet of songs and music would arise in the springtime skies of Fez, as a sacred gift and offering. They wished to touch the hearts of people and in this way influence the universe.

Fez, the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities, is an important religious, intellectual, and cultural centre. It is a jewel of Morocco. The medina (old town), oddly nestled in a valley instead of atop a hill for defense, is intrinsically defensive by its labyrinthine nature. A maze of cubes and prisms crowd together and exclude the outside world but open inward into central courtyards or gardens and palatial restaurants and private homes. The narrow streets run along uninterrupted lines of blank walls that give no hint of the social standing of the homes concealed within.

We were forewarned not to enter the medina alone and certainly never at night. Its maze of streets and back alley-ways with tall walls made navigation impossible for the novice. There was always an edge of danger in the medina, nothing overt, but rather a lurking atmosphere of mystery and vulnerability. You round a corner and are met by a panoply of exotic smells and sights or a fully loaded donkey bearing down on you. “Balak! Balak! cry the donkey drivers, as you flatten against the wall, and the medina transportation system surges onward.


The merchants are amongst some of the wiliest and slickest business people anywhere. It is as if generations and centuries of breeding taught them every sales trick, every subtlety of commerce. Ask anyone who has purchased a handmade carpet in Morocco – they walk out of the showroom thrilled with the deal they have worked out. As they near the hotel they begin to wonder, and in the night awaken in a cold sweat realizing that the carpet they just bought as an antique, hundreds of years old, of awesome quality, may not have really been worth $1500. It won’t fit in any of the rooms in their home when they return. The colours don’t match anything and they only had intended to spend $400. They whisper to themselves in consolation the words given by the carpet dealers, “Remember it is not what you spend, but what you have saved!” Slightly comforted they go back to sleep.

Our carpet-buying experience was professionally orchestrated, and deeply affected everyone who participated (even those who somehow managed to resist a purchase albeit momentarily). In fact, we decided, only half in jest, to design a new course for foreign travelers to the medina. It would be called CDP: Carpet de-programming. Everyone would bring their newly acquired carpet to sit on and we would process all the doubts and feelings that had arisen within the group. It became the ongoing joke, a fun way to defuse the doubt we all felt and the feeling of being taken for a long carpet ride by some of the slickest salesmen in the world.

Tuning for afternoon concert

The festival was designed with essentially two concerts each day. The first was in the afternoon in the courtyard of the Batha Palace amidst its superb water basins and gardens planted with roses, bamboo, and ancient trees. One awesome spreading banyan formed a live backdrop behind and over the musician’s stage. The late afternoon sun played in its branches and leaves adding a shimmering backlight.

The evening performances were in the aforementioned square of Bab El Medina, the main entrance to the medina. One noted exception to this arrangement was the concert in the square of the Arc de Triomphe on the Roman site of Volubilis. That particular and fantastic setting is two hours from Fez, within view of the beautiful village of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, the first Islamic city in Morocco and home to many Sufi orders.

Village of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun
Village of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun

The site was inhabited during the Neolithic period and was occupied by the Carthaginians and then by the Romans. The Berbers took control in the 3rd century but left in the 9th century. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 left the complex in ruins. A forum, a basilica, wealthy houses decorated with mosaics, a triumphal arch and oil mills are all that remain of the ancient town of Volubilis.

Lectures and conferences complemented the musical performances. Amber Jacquard, the world renowned biologist and economist, spoke on his work to help the homeless. Souad Filal, a Sufi, spoke on Action and Compassion. Perla Servan-Schreiber of Fez, an authoress of three books, spoke on women’s rights in the Islamic world. Three films were shown, including the well-known Mircel Eliade and the Rediscovery of the Sacred. A beautiful photographic exhibit by Bruno Barbey entitled, Fez, Still and Immortal, graced the inner courtyard of the Batha Palace.

With such a rich offering, it was important to choose what was most valuable and important to attend. Attempting to take it all in was impossible. Sometimes I would skip a tour and relax at the hotel, or miss a movie to be fresh for a concert.
Sister Marie Keyrouz

And what incredible music it was! There were the pure voices of childhood with the opening performance of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim choirs. Of Lebanese descent, Sister Marie Keyrouz and the Peace Ensemble headlined the opening with traditional chants taken from two streams springing from the Antioch church: Maronite-Syro chants and Byzantine Melkite chants. Her chants are reverent, clear and accurate, and she exudes an extraordinary faith and sensitivity. Her compositions are sometimes based on Arab systems of modes: Maqams. Her voice sent shivers up and down my spine as she wove a tapestry bridging religions and epochs.

On the first full day of the festival, I was disappointed to learn that Usted Bismillah Khan was unable to attend and would not be playing at the festival. It was another example of what one had to learn so thoroughly in Morocco – be flexible. Everything happens, “God willing,” and God it seems often wills to change the program, change the hotel, change the flight, and in general turn life upside down.

And then another of Morocco’s gifts was revealed. Sometimes God delivers something unexpectedly more magnificent than imagined. In this case Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and accompanists were to take the place of Bismillah.

Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar

Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar was born in Rajasthan, India. He studied Drupad vocal and instrumental style with his father the famed Zia-Uddin Khan Dagar and his brother, Mohiuddin Dagar, the master of Rudra Veena (died in 1990). Ustad Zia who died in 2013 was the last representative of this extraordinary dynasty of master musicians who, for 14 generations, have been emblematic representatives of this style characterized by hieratic majesty.

What is remarkable is that as I report this to you it all comes flooding back to me. The sweetness of the scenario and poignancy of the moment. Tears rise in me much as they often did at the festival. At times it was just overwhelming and I would wish for a private chamber out of sight of others to allow the full flood of ecstasy, and grief, and joy to flow uncensored. At times they did and yet I could feel the crowd in check: deeply moved but unable or unwilling to give full expression but only occasionally.

Sharam Nazeri 1

Several other performances were significant. One such is the evening performance of Sharam Nazeri who was born in Kermansha in Iranian Kurdistan into a family in which music held a very important place. Initiated by his father, he has participated since the age of eight in Sufi gatherings during which he sings the poems of Jalaluddin Rumi. Rumi, the most well-known Sufi out in the west, is a great Persian mystic and founder of the order of the Mevlevi Dervishes.

Sharam is often referred to as ‘The Persian Nightingale’. His work is sublime, his passion contagious, and his voice warm and pure. He was accompanied by very accomplished and polished musicians on ‘ouds’, a form of stand-up violin, and percussion. His music was a levee of refinement above what had come before.

The following morning I was talking with poet Robert Bly, an American fellow tour member. Robert has translated the work of Rumi many times and decided during Sharam’s concert to envision the essence of what Sharam was saying and to write poems from those feelings. Robert mentioned “the pain of motherhood” as being a part of what erupted in his poetic rendering and then quoted one lucid line and said, “Well, at least I got one good line of it!”

Hamid Marnoussi

One of the additional advantages of being with Sarah Tours for this adventure was the tour leader Hamid Marnoussi. Being a Fez native of a well-known and respected family opened many doors for the tour. He seemed to know everyone, and consequently had some additional concerts arranged for us. In the evening following Sharam’s concert we gathered at Hamid’s cousin’s house, a huge columned living room with ornate mosaics and lush carpets one marble floors.

Tribal sufis

A band of 10 local tribal Sufis played wildly and raucously through the night and we danced and drank green mint tea and nibbled cookies until late in the morning.

Shazam Nazeri even showed up with some of his musicians and we wondered if they would play as well. How the two antithetical forms of Sufi music were even going to inhabit the same room was a wonder. Eventually Sharam only drank some mint tea, smoked and observed the mad wild dervishes. How amazing is Islam and Sufism to include such obliquely different forms of worship. The Sufi form of Persia is so sublime and the Moroccans, perhaps owing to their Tuareg and black African roots, so basic and uncensored.

Francoise Atlan 3

Another musician who moved me tremendously was Françoise Atlan. Her eastern Jewish roots led her to deepen her knowledge of the music of the Mediterranean Basin and more specifically the repertoire of Sephardic Romances, the precious heritage of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. She is adept at a wide range of forms and chose to sing the delicate ‘romances’, colas, cantiguas, and Judeo-Spanish lullabies at the festival.

Spring showers forced everyone to vacate the courtyard of the Palace with chairs in tow. We retreated to a long rectangular concert hall. The ceiling of this hall was made of ornately carved cedar. Stained glass circled the raised roof and beautifully adorned chandeliers lighted the space. I found myself in the very first row, armed with telephoto lens. Accompanied by Iranian ‘carb’ (a series of tambourine-like percussions), we were treated to heart-rending simple songs. I scribbled down these words as for two hours we entered the sadness of the Jew:

We felt as a body, the immense, vast grieving of it. Here jammed into this small hall, wet from rains, we had banded together. Like a people crossing Egypt if only for a brief moment, we felt the mournful pain and suffering of searching for home. And then, through the songs, and around that other, we arrived in a field of grass with a wind and sweet fragrance, and suddenly unannounced we found ourselves in a valley of delight, free and one and home at last.

ARC Gospel Choir of Harlem

The finale of the festival was the ARC Gospel Choir of Harlem. Odd you might think to find an American gospel choir in the midst of all these ‘eastern’ performances. True there had been others from the ‘west’ at the festival. There was the Paris Gregorian choir, the Arcadia ensemble from Switzerland, and the Hilliard ensemble with Jack Garbarek from England-Norway. Still it did seem unusual to have former and now rehabilitated drug addicts from Harlem closing out this sacred show.

The concert hall was jammed. In fact it was so full and so overbooked that they had to warn people not to add any bodies to the bleachers. They were afraid they would collapse. It was standing room only and those of us on chairs were jammed knee to chair, elbow to elbow.

The ARC director founder James Allen said that they had waited a long time to return home to Africa and that they were intimidated about coming to Morocco. Also, they had heard that the people of Morocco and Fez in particular were sophisticated and refined. They feared being thought of as simple. And yet what they had discovered was a great hospitality and openness. They found a welcoming and mysterious rich city of celebrants who wanted to hear their music, who were excited to see them perform. And he said that in the country of America, in the city of New York, there is a village, called Harlem and everyone of Fez can walk up the avenue to the village and they will find a home at the church there.

The cheers began. Then the music began and quite literally it blew everyone away. The three of us sitting together, Pravina, Sadhana, and I, as soon as the choir took off, so did we. We were stomping our feet and clapping our hands, swaying back and forth. Tears were streaming down our faces and we were just letting go big time. It was as if we had waited to express it all, waited to move and sing and praise the lord.

People around us were shy to clap and kept looking over at our group of three with confused smiles. Tentatively they put their hands together. The music was loud, too loud really, but it didn’t matter, as the pure power of it took over the audience. They got into it all right and before long the place was really cookin’. Sacred took on a new dimension. It felt as the city itself had taken a quantum leap of faith.

During the intermission, a tight-lipped woman leaned past me to ask French-speaking Pravina a question: “I hear their message, but why do they have to shout?” Pravina told me later that she had replied, “Because they are free at last.”

It was amazing to hear this nearly all black choir from America singing praises to Jesus in the Muslim capital at the very gates of the ancient medina. There are 275,000 people living in the labyrinth of the medina. Were they hearing this music, I wondered?

The singers had two amazing encores as the crowd wouldn’t let them go. They finally left blowing kisses back and forth, audience to stage.

The white owl, on cue, swooped into the floodlight low over the stage.

One could not help but feel the Festival as a long crescendo not unlike much of the Sufi influenced music. As I felt the stirrings in my own heart and observed the ecstatic, tragic, mournful, and blissful rapture experienced around me, it was clear that we had entered the world of the sacred. It was clear that the intention of the festival organizers to “touch the hearts of people and in this way influence the universe,” had come to pass.

The 22nd Sacred Music Festival of Fez takes place from May 6-14, 2016.

For a taster watch videos of the artists on YouTube following these links:
Sister Marie Keyrouz
Ustad Zia
Sharam Nazeri
Françoise Atlan
ARC Gospel Choir

Srajan TNSrajan Atosho searched for Chuang Tzu in Japan ’72, and had a vivid dream of Osho after a weeklong fast; studied five years with Zen masters, started Hawaii Outward Bound school, finished college, and Chuang Tzu: took sannyas in Pune in 1978, was in Rajneeshpuram and Pune 2. While visiting Mallorca he met his beloved, Pravina 24 years ago. He taught Avatar in Sedona and ran a nutritional business on Hawaii’s big island. Long fascinated by woven art and painting, they collect and market oriental carpets and Japanese silk scrolls. (Author of Voices of Awakening)

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