04/28/2014 08:39 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music Is A Transcendent Experience (PHOTOS)

via Fes Festival

A blind man of truly awesome height and girth moves towards the stage – led with tenderness by a respectful acolyte. Said Hafid, the master singer from Egypt, eases his bulk onto a chair, grasps a microphone and launches into a hymn of praise to the Almighty with a level of emotional intensity that causes tears to flow from many eyes.

Hafid performed at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music in 2005. He is one of hundreds of spiritually inspired artists who have contributed to the festival's worldwide reputation for excellence during the 20 years of its existence.

People from five continents make pilgrimage to Fes –smart European bourgeoisie, young Antipodean backpackers, American intellectuals, black African families, elegant oriental ladies and Moroccans who have probably saved up their dirhams to buy some musical ecstasy. Some become ardent aficionados, returning year after year.

All who heard Hafid and, to quote a few more examples, the UK's Tallis Scholars, Cantus Koln from Germany or Lebanon's Abeer Nehme -- are transported out of their everyday anxieties into a state of transcendent delight. This, in essence, is what the Fes Festival aims to achieve.

The first edition of the Sacred Music Festival took place in 1994 – the brainchild of a Fassi (native of Fes) Sufi intellectual called Faouzi Skali. Sufism is an esoteric, pluralist tradition, rooted in Islam and practiced across Asia from Indonesia to Turkey and throughout north and west Africa. It is also established in Europe and the Americas. It is known as the Way of the Heart and its most famous exponent is the 12th century sage and poet Jallaludin Rumi.

Faouzi Skali was appalled by the First Gulf War. With considerable prescience he understood the implications of it and, he says, “I felt I had to do something to focus on spiritual and humanitarian values.”

There was an emblematic opening performance that featured a Palestinian singer and a Jewish guitarist. As we now know , Skali's foresight turned out to be tragically accurate, with a sizable segment of the Muslim world and many western democracies polarized into bitter opposition. Skali's initiative did not stop this happening, but the festival he founded occupies a firm position on the moral high ground. Skali symbolizes Fes as a cup; “In physical terms because the city sits in a bowl, surrounded by protective hills. In Sufi terms, because a cup represents the heart – a vessel where spiritual love can be nurtured and distilled”.

The 2014 20th anniversary festival runs from 13 to 21 June. This year's theme is The Conference of the Birds – a profound Sufi story by the 13th century sage Farid Ud-Din Attar. It showcases a specially commissioned opening spectacle inspired by this theme, together with a palette of world music performances including Youssou N' Dour, Rokia Traore, Johnny Clegg, the Celtic ensemble Altan, Bardic Divas, and the Blues maestro Buddy Guy. The festival also includes the Forum “Giving Soul to Globalization”, free concerts for the people of Fes and Sufi Nights that go on into the small hours.

Information and online bookings are at

Introduction and captions by Mary Finnigan. Photos by Lynn Evans Davidson and Omar Chennafi, with research by Helen Ranger, Lynn Evans Davidson, Eziza Sid'Ahmed.

  • The opening and closing concerts and the big crowd events at the Fes Festival are held in the Arabian Nights splendour of the Bab Al Makina palace courtyard. Castellated walls enclose an area that seats 3,000 people. King Mohammed VI's wife Princess Lalla Salma usually attends the opening night.
  • The 2013 opening night showcased the original creation “Love is my Religion” including, speech, song, dance, solo and choral music and illuminated drummers high on a Bab Makina wall.
  • In 2002 The Lebanese Maronite Christian nun Sister Marie Keyrouz performed her devotional songs with a full orchestra to a rapt crowd at the Bab Makina. Sister Marie says “every time I sing, I pray twice.”
  • Afternoon performances in Fes are staged beneath the branches of a giant Barbary Oak in the more intimate surroundings of the Batha Museum gardens. Here the Bulgarian orthodox choir Sveti Ivan Rilsky. Conducted by Koitcho Atanassov, sing psalms from the Bulgarian liturgy.
  • The whirling dervishes from various Sufi lineages feature in most editions of the Fes Festival. They come mainly from Syria and from Turkey. As they turn they enter a state of equilibrium – stillness and meditation in movement.
  • The Bab Makina stage sits in front of a Moorish arch. Lighting designers enjoy devising subtle colour changes that enhance both architecture and mood. Here the late, great sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar plays exquisite ragas with his formidably talented daughter Anoushka.
  • One of the highlights of the 2011 festival was an electrifying performance by Parvathy Baul. The Bauls of Bengal are India's troubadours. Inspired by Hindu, Tantric and Sufi mysticism, they wander from place to place as individuals or in groups. Parvathy gave up her graduate studies to follow the Baul path and has performed worldwide since 1995.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    In 1959 the Chinese takeover of Tibet forced thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns into exile in India and beyond. Since then they have recreated their institutions and spared no efforts in their determination to maintain their culture. One dramatic aspect of the monastic year is the Lama Dances. Here a monk from Sechen monastery in Nepal dances with the demons of ego and attachment.
  • BERTRAND BECHARD / MAXPPP / Captions by Mary Finnigan
    When Islam spread to Indonesia, the indigenous Buddhist traditions survived and thrived on Bali. Tantric Buddhist in essence and flamboyant in expression, the Panti Pusaka Budaya ensemble received a standing ovation at the Bab Makina in 2008.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    For several years in mid festival week, the action moved to the Roman ruins at Volubilis, 40 kilometres from Fes. Here a performance is in progress beneath one of the well preserved Roman arches. The Volubilis trek was replaced by the Nights in the Medina. For three nights music lovers wander the alleyways of the Fes medina, from one concert venue to another and one musical delight to another.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    In 2002 Sacred Music Festival founder Faouzi Skali decided his mission to generate positive spiritual and humanitarian energy would be enhanced by exchanges between academics, religious leaders, activists and philosophers. The first Fes Forum under the rubric “Giving Soul to Globalisation” took place that year. In 2005 Rabbi Eliyahu MacLean and Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari from Jerusalem Peacemakers were enthusiastic delegates.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    Another speaker at the Fes Forum was the French scientist turned Tibetan Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard. He has devoted his life to contemplative practice, translation of Tibetan sacred texts and interpretation of Vajrayana Buddhism for the modern world.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    The French singer/songwriter Enzo Enzo. She performed at the Bab Makina in 2011 in the Cantata for the Mare Nostrum with the Momeludes Children's Choir.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    Za Ondekoza is a Japanese troupe specializing in taiko drumming, founded in 1969 on Sado Island. Ondekoza's performances helped spread interest in taiko through North America and beyond. They performed in Fes in 2011. The style of wearing only a loincloth was originally started by Ondekoza, when fashion designer Pierre Cardin suggested the physique of the drummer be exposed.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    The Mtendeni Maulid Ensemble from Zanzibar performs a visually arresting style of Sufi religious devotion called Maulidi ya Homu at the Baba Makina. The form has roots in the ancient Arab world, but today survives only in Zanzibar. Over time the performance has become distinctly Zanzibari, blending local traditions with more general Islamic elements.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    Tengir Too from Kyrghistan performed at the Batha Museum sponsored by The Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia. Their traditional instruments, engaging personalities and music evoking the atmosphere of the steppes was one of the highlights of the 2005 Fes programme.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    Joan Baez acknowledges applause at at the Bab Makina in 2012. The iconic American folk singer presented a panorama of much loved folk-rock classics, accompanied by fine instrumentalists
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    The lights fade up and thirteen barefooted dancers come on stage. They begin a low chorus, building up to the moment of Bjork’s entrance at the start of her Biophillia extravaganza. The quirky Icelandic star threw just about every trick in the stagecraft manual into the show – Tesla coil lightning bolts, psychedelic images on giant screens, flashing strobes and ultra avant garde music.
  • Captions by Mary Finnigan
    The festival day ends with Sufi Nights in the Dar Tazi gardens. Sufi orders from all over Morocco and the Islamic world give ecstatic free performances, to wild enthusiasm from tourists and local people alike. Here the Tanoura Dancers from Egypt whirl in dervish tradition and colourful costumes, with each band of colour representing a separate Sufi tariqa.