On my recent trip to Morocco, I did more than just sing. I was swept along on a tidal wave of song and music that has been swelling to gargantuan proportions, thanks to the royal decrees of King Hasan V. This perspicacious young ruler — and I am no fan of monarchies or monarchs — has been fanning the flames of musical madness as an antidote to extremist Islam in
This was my first visit to the Maghrebian kingdom. I was bowled over by the country that has seduced many before me, including the writer John Bowles. His Orientalist novel, The Sheltering Sky, popularised further by Bertolucci’s filmic version, certainly has done its bit to pique the desires of many westerners for the exotic “Moslem” Arab world. But of course, this is now part of a fast-receding past, however imaginary, to be replaced by the very real present of a world increasingly under the sway of religious revivalism, including a virulently fanatical, pleasure-hating puritanical strain we are witnessing particularly (though not exclusively) in the Muslim world.
Music, with its magical propensities to touch the human soul and soften even the hardest of hearts and open the most closed-off of minds — represents a particular threat to the forces of obscurantism, whose aim is precisely the opposite: the shutting down of thought. Bodies and minds swaying to the rhythms of the universe, in sync with the spirituality which resides in all of us and which wants to celebrate the life-source, the beating heart — these bodies, these hearts, these souls, participating in the exchange of musical breath — these are anathema to the killjoys who want to snuff out life itself.
King Hasan of Morocco seems to have realised that we are indeed in the midst of an epic battle between the forces of light and darkness, pleasure and pain, music and fanaticism, music and militarism. Thus, a few years ago, he decided to create public venues for the promotion of music all over the country, and the result today is a cornucopia of festivals dedicated to many local and international genres of music. The most well-known of these is perhaps the Festival of Sacred Music which this year marked its 16th anniversary. It takes place in the month of June in the ancient city of Fez, which also boasts the oldest, continuously-functioning university in the world, the Keraouine, which I had the pleasure to visit, although, sadly, I missed the festival. I did, however, make it in time for the Mewazine Festival which is on its way to becoming a huge world music festival, held in the imperial city of Rabat.
My friend and I careened around one night, taking cabs, two women alone, no problem, from place to place all over the city, attending free concerts in “plein air” as they say in French. Huge open-air stages with high-quality sound systems, offering free music in various neighbourhoods from the lower-class to the well-heeled, attracted audiences in the thousands representing all classes and age groups. I saw old women with heads covered, young girls in jeans and t-shirts, and men and boys of all ages, including young ones kicking soccer balls around while music blared and performers gyrated on stage and on giant screens. We heard a new group called Outlandish from Germany and then raced off to catch the latter half of Sir Elton John’s concert.
Despite angry protests against inviting a homosexual singer to perform, voiced by members of the religious right, the king and the festival organisers stood firm in their resolve. It’s the music that matters. That was their message — one, all Muslim governments and people need to heed. Singing my own mixture of Sufi-pop in the 14th century Kasbah Palace of Tangiers, I felt spiritually cleansed by the moon bath of my Moroccan musical journey. A journey which is already opening my heart and mind in unexpected ways.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2010.