Jazz au Chellah Festival 2013

Jazz au Chellah Festival 2013
Mehdi El Mouden BY

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Jazz au Chellah Festival
Rabat, Morocco
September 11-15,2013

The evening breeze on summer nights caresses the walls of the fortress while seagulls hover all over the towers. The moon is discernible from afar. In the distance, you can spot swarms of people walking down a long alley leading to the shiny doors of the fortress Chellah. In the outskirts of Rabat, the vestiges of the old historical city of Merinids, usually visited by tourists interested in medieval ruins, is visited once a year by thousands of Jazz fans from all over the world for an annual festival held for five days: Jazz au Chellah.

In dim lights, and carpets laid next to the stage, the spectators are hosted in a cosy ambience reminiscent of Woodstock gatherings. The spectators can sit on the carpet, stand next to the stage, walk around the site, or simply sit on chairs. Annexed to the right wing of the scene, some chairs are positioned over a small hill giving a different view on the stage. When overbooked, people can sit on the stairs. As a matter of fact, the 18th edition reached an unprecedented record of 2000 spectators per concert. The venue could not welcome more and hence many people were unfortunately turned away.

Walking through the long alley to reach Chellah's ruins, one can hear various languages spoken. The heterogeneous swarm attending concerts is not fortuitous but is the result of the politics of the festival. The latter is organized by the European Union Delegation in Morocco in partnership with the Moroccan Ministry of culture. Based on the principle of this co-operation, European Jazz bands meet their Moroccan counterparts in workshops, with the purpose to come up with original songs they can perform at the closings of concerts.

Historically, the richness of Moroccan music has always been the target of great jazz figures, to name pianist Randy Weston, probably the first musician to mix jazz with Moroccan music (Tanjah, Polydor Label 1973); percussionist Jauk El Maleh whose various academic experiments are still on the forefront; guitarist Pat Metheny considered as a special guest at Essaouira Gnawa Festival; and many others such as Omar Sosa, Wayne Shorter and recently Archie Shepp who found on the variety of Moroccan instruments and sounds interesting material to produce original jazz. Based on this idea, the festival seeks to sustain the close affiliation between jazz and Moroccan music.

Day One:September 11

Naoko Sakata trio was the band to open the festival. Made of three skilled young musicians: Pianist Naoko Sakata, bassist Anton Blomgren, and drummer Johan Birgenius; the trio released lyrical sounds followed by meditative pauses. On the lead Sakata, indulged in tripping solos and then switched to experimental sounds of a complex nature. The contrast between beautiful sweet notes and natural outburst was the hallmark of the young trio.

Next up was Papanosh Quintet. Hard to classify, the versatile French musicians swayed between bebop, hard-bop, classical themes, lyrical solos, swing, French valse, and creative sounds ranging from squeaks, horns, to bird like sounds. Somewhere between the New York underground and Charles Mingus influences, but also touching upon old New Orleans orchestral renderings, Paponosh painted small portraits of Jazz genres.

Then the long awaited composer/vocalist Oum rushed onto stage followed by guitarist Patrick Marie-Magdelaine. Renowned by her openness to other musical genres, notably in the album Soul of Morocco (Lofmusic, 2012), Oum merged sweet melodies along with powerful outbursts. On a soprano note, she smoothed the Papanosh quartet frenzy through a rendition of an old Arabic song 'لما بدا يتثنى.' Oum then played new untitled songs resulting from her collaboration with the Papanosh Quintet. She also performed a new take of the famous Hassani traditional song "Taragalte" where notably vocal traditional youyous echoed breath-taking trumpet solos by Quentin Ghomari . Oum's music reverberated naturally enough with brass instruments and the animated drumming of Jérémie Piazza.

Day Two: September 12

The second evening opened with Fugara, a jazz band with a spiritual touch. The enchanting, deep and elongated solos offered by Fugara indulged the audience with a novel perspective on multicultural sounds infused with some African rhythms. Originally Dutch, German and Finnish, the four musicians voiced their vision of a worldly jazz open to many influences but unique to their improvising talent and ease at phrases with a dying fall.

Next up, livelier and burlesque, Trio Grande presented a contrasted view of Jazz. With liberties on brass instruments, Laurent Dehors released squeaks, breath-taking solos, while on trombone Michel Massot toured the stage aimlessly enflaming the audience. The music sounded at times valse, java, breathless heartbeat, a bit nervous, then relaxed but supported by the piano of Bourne, who often restored the frenzy. Able to play ballads, and quite capable to turn the scene into a total free jazz anarchy, the band was impulsive enough to fuse with Oudist Driss Maloumi's tripping music.

El Maloumi started the show off along with vocalist Karima El Maloumi, percussionist Said el maloumi and percussionist Houssain Bakir. El Maloumi gave a virtuoso demonstration on Oud, elicited fingertip responses from both percussionists, which resulted in a lengthy piece of dialogue highly cheered by the audience. Then Trio Grande and Matthew Bourne were invited to play with El Maloumi Quartet. Adding more texture and colors, Bourne and co. performed structured music attending Maloumi's oriental touch. On the other hand, in a church like manner, Karima performed a song in which El Maloumi had to adopt solos to a European baroque song.

Day Three: September 13

As the name suggests, Nuevo Tango Ensamble plays a novel tango, based essentially on the music of Astor Piazzolla. Originally from Bari, Italy, the band started in 1999 and dedicates its work at inventive interpretations of the Argentinian master. More dramatic in the beginning of the performance, the band gave free reign to spontaneity and improvisation at the end of the concert.

The second band to perform was the Tamara Obrovac quartet. From Croatia, Obrovac indigenous music found attentive ears in the audience. Her charismatic voice and moves captured quickly the audience. It took her a little while to warm up the band. Once the group kicked into gear, the music was already familiar to the audience. Then Obrovac took the reigns and completely changed the music from an Istrian Jazz folk sound into pop music she was deliberately pleased to present. Rachid Zeroual trio joined in the middle of this 'pop star' song. His bewitching flute work along with Moustapha El Aantari's percussion stirred the excitement. Highly responsive, Obrovac's band reacted quickly and most notably drummer Krunoslav Levacic, who found pleasure responding at every beat of Antari's percussion. The contest was stunning and memorable.

Day Four: September 14

Within a world music tradition framework, jazz is often associated with autochthonous traditional music with a certain rhythm similar to Jazz. In this perspective, Saturday night was the occasion to instill a touch of eastern music to the festival.

The first band to perform was Savina Yannatou Salonico quartet. Open to different languages, Yannatou's embarked in a voyage around the east. Singing in an operatic manner, the jazz flowed smoothly along her conciliatory voice. With some scatting, prominent bass, flute, and qanun, she pacified Jewish rhythms with Arabic instruments. She travelled far to Russia, went south to Lebanon, tried French then ventured a love song in Arabic.

Less open to universalism, the duet Klaus Paier and Asja Valsic enchanted the audience with a demonstration on Cello and Accordion. Deep rooted in Tango, the sounds of their instruments often bumped on each other. Shrewd improvisers, they dragged their inspiration to the maximum.

Part of the third set, the duet Paier/Valsic shared the stage with Karim Kadiri Trio. With Moroccan oudist Kadiri, bassist Hamza Souissi and drummer Najib Saleem, the duet could merge his tango to oriental music. The music seemed not to fuse but rather cohabit between the two bands. On the one hand, Kadiri's subterranean oud playing and on the other hand, the serene but often bustling music of the Paier/Valsic duet.

Day Five: September 15

It is usually the tradition in Chellah to keep festive sounds to the closure. Indeed, the organizers scheduled three explosive bands.

The much appreciated flamenco guitarist Daniel Casares and 'Guernica 75' including singer Juan Murube, dancer Sergio Aranda, and pianist Alfonso Aroca. Casares opened the set perfectly well in falsettos. Less interested in experiments, or nuevo flamenco, Casares released purist traditional sounds. The sound of his guitar resounded with force in the open space while claps of Murube added texture to the imaginative piano of Aroca. To add variety, to the Andalusia music, in a proud and upright way, Aranda performed fast footwork on the well-lit scene.

The brass band of Gourmet Sextet followed. Burlesque, buoyant and merry the Nordic band captivated the audience with their ability to touch upon all styles. From a Greek Bouzouki, a French valse, passing by Latino rhythms to a Harlem ballad, Gourmet Sextet inspired spontaneity where academia is sought. The acuity of saxophonist Mikko Innanen and trombonist Ilmari Pohjola added bop elements to their melody.

The festival ended on a special note with a burning set by Bnet Houariyet, a popular band from Marrakech. The blending with Gourmet Sextet was on paper interesting as Bnet Houariyet played music totally based on various drums while Gourmet Sextet was prominently a brass band. However, the fusion was another story especially with an over reacting audience. The Moroccan band set the rhythm with drums and vocals while the sextet jammed through. The audience, who reacted quickly to lyrics and popular sounds, pushed the rhythm faster while the sextet was often at pains to follow but the two brass soloists let the jam flow. The trombonist hesitating to play often repeated the chorus in Moroccan Arabic. Unable to follow, Gourmet Sextet left the ground for Bnet Houariyet to encore. The scene turned quickly into a dance floor as is often the case in Jazz au Chellah.

Photo Credit

Mehdi El Mouden

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