Fes Jazz Festival: Introducing Swinging Sounds to Moroccans
For various reasons, Fes, Morocco isn't the most obvious place to stage a jazz festival. Unlike Moroccan cities like Tangier, Casablanca and Marrakech, Fes' charms are more ancient than modern or cosmopolitan, as any traveler will discover by visiting the bazaar section of Fes el Bali, one of the oldest portions of the city. There, amid the merchants that line the medina's labyrinthine alleyways, donkeys are still among the key ways to transport assorted goods. Swinging sounds are virtually nonexistent if the music coming from local boomboxes is any indication. Generally, traditional Arabic and Gnawa music vies with its modern, supercharged incarnations, much of which is more emulative of beat-conscious Western dance music than bop.
All of this could be why the annual Fes Jazz Festival, a five-year old mini-event that took place November 14th-16th, seemed a bit like a happening hidden in plain sight. That's not to say that the festival's marquee concerts were not well-attended; this year, crowds came to hear Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quintet, Anouar Brahem's Astrakan Cafe Trio, Mike Mainieri's Steps Ahead and the Puerto Rico- based outfit Plena Libre. The billboards at various intersections in Fes Jdid, the bustling modern section of the city, are a signification of the pride its organizers take in the event, but it's instantly apparent that the evening concerts are programmed for tourists and the local (and, honestly, French-speaking) elite. For any student or scholar of jazz history in surreptitious basements and after-hours speakeasies, there's something both familiar and strange about entering the concert space in the Riad Mnehbi, a converted open-air townhouse replete with floor-to-ceiling mosaic tiles and a non-working fountain.
It's safe to say that Fes is growing accustomed to going about its business as foreigners descend to hear music from around the world. The Nice-based Frenchman who books the festival, Gerard Kurdjian, is also the brains behind the much more extensive Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. The program booklet gives its subtitle as "The best of Northern and Southern Jazz" (as in hemispheres), even though, varied as it is, the fest includes no band that hails from below the equator. Nonetheless, the variety is astonishing for a city that doesn't see an overwhelming amount of world-class jazz.
Perhaps it's fitting that Randy Weston got things underway. At 82, the stately, Brooklyn-bred pianist is well-known throughout Morocco, owing to the fact that he was settled there from 1968-73 and still considers the country his home away from home. He's given concerts in the States that featured his band augmented by a troupe of master musicians from Morocco's Gnawa people, but in Fes, Weston performed a rousing set of Afro-blues with his longstanding quintet (T.K. Blue, reeds; Benny Powell, trombone; Alex Blake, bass; Neil Clarke, percussion). Given this lineup's two-plus decades together, its cohesion should surprise no one, but it is Weston's ringing piano clusters that always manage to impress. He spoke to the crowd in marvelous French, dedicating his famed piece "African Sunrise" to newly-elected president Barack Obama.
The jazz idiom's ability to stretch would be on display for the rest of the weekend event. The oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem, an actual native of neighboring Tunisia, offered a set that was ideally suited to the Francophone Arab world. One could imagine that the Riad Mnehbi had been host to musicians wielding his classic 11-string lute for hundreds of years, artists who referred to the process of improvisation by its local title, taqsim. Brahem's famed Astrakan Cafe Trio is clearly mined for maximum Mediterranean impact. Turkish clarinetist Barbaros Erkose's lines alternate between maintaining close harmonies with Brahem or snaking around the oud player's sprinting plucked figures. Percussionist Khaled Yassine's rhythms on the bendir, a frame drum, also served a dual function: They were rollicking enough to give the music momentum (some in the crowd collectively gasped when the music shifted gears) while also maintaining its meditative qualities. The audience couldn't get enough encores.
Kurdjian staged a coup by tapping bassist Gary Nunez' 11-piece ensemble Plena Libre to close out the festival on Sunday afternoon. The location shifted to the garden of the Batha Museum. One of the organizers commented that it was a bit ambitious placing a makeshift, red carpeted dance floor in the gulf between the stage and the rows of chairs, despite Plena Libre's fleet mix of Latin jazz and folkish rhythms like Puerto Rican bomba and plena, Cuban rumba and Colombian cumbia. "Audiences here are spectators," opined the organizer. "They don't participate."