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A Sama'a Concert: Music For The Soul In Fes, Morocco

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Two storks perch high on the castle ramparts, watching intently, it seems. Thousands of swallows spin in long arcs through the air, darting in and out of their nests in the walls. Thirty musicians, men dressed (most of them) in white robes and turbans, carrying lutes, violins, drums, and other instruments, shuffle onto the stage that is centered on the arches of the ancient city gate. The restive audience breathes a sigh of relief: the concert's delayed start is over. The show begins.

The evening of Sama'a music Sunday night was a pivotal moment for the 18th annual Festival of Global Sacred Music in the magical city of Fes, Morocco. The festival's goal is both noble and ambitious: through the diversity and the power of music from different spiritual traditions to loosen prejudices and open hearts and minds, and thus to ease tensions and conflicts. It has a still more audacious goal: to inspire ways a movement that will "give globalization a soul" by bringing spirituality into the technocratic and too often sterile discussions of world affairs. Instead of a clash of civilizations the Festival, and Morocco, aspire to a harmony, a music of civilizations.

Faouzi Skali, the Festival's inspirer and director, describes the Sama'a tradition as one of the purest forms of prayer and worship in any faith traditions. It is a popular Moroccan and Maghrebian practice, and draws on elements from Arab music and poetry and from the flare of Andalusian style. He points to it as an expression of the Sufi traditions that are a large and vital part of Islam, though they are quite poorly understood in many quarters. Skali, an anthropologist and proud Sufi, argues that the Sufi traditions are truly the heart of Islam, the broader tendency, something to nurture and to celebrate. The Sama'a concert performed in Fes, Skali says, would never be heard in the parts of the Muslim world where the religious atmosphere is more severe. The Sama'a conveys a sense of joy and energy. It is open and driven by love of God, and respect and caring for humankind.

Sama'a concerts are marked by spontaneity and thus the unexpected. Sama'a literally means listening, and the musical style, dikt, means remembrance. The Persian poet Rumi is said to be the original creator of the art form, and it has been known since the 10th century and it is found in many places, India among them. Some elements are common to all: the recitation and repetition of Koranic phrases, some musical refrains. There are also musical virtuoso performances. The musicians recite poetry. They fall into a state of trance. Thus the Sama'a is a spiritual and mystical journey that takes many turns.

The Fes concert last Sunday was in the great Bab Makina, a fortress at a city gate of this medieval city. The fortress housed the King's arsenal, but today the high walls and the gate are the theater for the Festival's prime concerts, that take place in the evening, outside, as night falls and the stars come out. The wind ruffles the musicians hair and their music scatters. This Sama'a brought together musicians from Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and Tunisia, as well as Morocco. Differences in dress marked the different national styles: some wore ties and suits, others colored robes. The great blind Egyptian Sheikh, Said Hafid, is an unmistakable presence. But the white robes that most of the artists wear reflects the common traditions that different nations share, their common Sufi heritage.

The Sama'a epitomizes the Fes Festival's artistic ethos, combining ancient traditions set in the living history of Fes and Morocco with the excellence of modern technology (gorgeous lighting, for example). It is a magnet for music lovers and spiritual seekers alike. But the Festival's ambition goes much deeper and the Sama'a concert is its epitome: the goal is: to offer a deeper understanding of both the calls of the spirit but still more of the worlds of Islam. Seeing and hearing the music, watching the joyful audience, young and old, moving in time to well-known songs, quiet during poetic and lyrical moments, it's hard not to hope that Skali's vision of Islam, moved by love, poetry, and music, welcoming all to share its heritage and its joys, will prevail.