Fes Festival Part One: Sacred Music Sparks Dialogue

By: Katherine Marshall

June 8, 2011

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is in full swing in Morocco. Launched after the first Gulf War, this renowned musical event is now in its 17th year and, despite the troubles of our times, draws a large audience from around the world.
The ideals and ambitions are no less than world peace and understanding. But there are some hard elements here in Fes that lend these utopian hopes some reality. Music does stir the soul, and you could not find a better illustration of humanity's diversity and rich history than in its sacred music. Ancient music from India and Sardinia, contemporary music and film from Africa, Brazil, Europe, and the United States are all on the packed program of this festival that runs from June 3-12. So the idea is that savoring the diversity of music will inspire people to see difference differently and more positively. The diversity of spirituality commands a new look at what religion means, individually and to humanity.

And the city of Fes holds proudly to its role as a spiritual capital of Morocco and, even more, as the keeper of the ideal of Andalusia, where knowledge and wisdom flourished and peoples from different religions lived in harmony. After 1492, Muslims and Jews fled to Morocco, many to Fes, and the traditions of music and art have flourished ever since in this city that blends past and present.

Integrated in the Fes Festival since 2001 is a forum that also has high aspirations. The forum is held outside (as is most of the festival, except when it pours rain as it did last night) at the Baatha Museum courtyard under the branches of an ancient and enormous barbary oak. There's something magical in listening to a political activist from Egypt debate a French philosopher with birds singing and leaves gently trickling down.

But the idea is not debate but to do something that is so tough in today's world: to bring very different, often passionately opposed ideas and people together in a civilized atmosphere where they will listen. The idea is that the inspiration of sacred music amid the beauty and rich history of Fes will make people think differently about tough problems, whether relations among religious communities, environment, social justice, or democracy and governance. People speak as individuals and listen as individuals. Miraculously, the formula often works, and new ideas and relationships are hallmarks of the forum's history. The forum was dormant for four years but is now revived. It's perhaps a dream to set a place where ideas can be freely exchanged, passion and wisdom blended, inspired by the spiritual and the profane and voices from all corners of the world. But it's a dream well worth pursuing.

The Fes Festival this year has as its theme a 12th century poem, "The Conference of the Birds," by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. Its message is wisdom, and the search for wisdom over different stages, disappointments and hope. That's the theme woven through the festival's programs.

Part of the forum since its inception, I am absorbed in the five days of morning exchanges, with the task of summarizing each day's explorations and themes. Subsequent posts will take the five themes, day by day.
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