Against the magnificent backdrop of the keyhole gate to the royal palace in Fez, Morocco, Youssou N’Dour gave the live premiere of Egypt, his most groundbreaking album in years. With Egyptian strings and Senegalese percussion, his incantatory voice soared into the warm night sky. The album is about Islam, the Mouride brotherhoods of his native Senegal and their message of peace. The occasion was the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music in Morocco (this year’s event runs from June 6 to June 15, fesfestival.com), and the shrine of one of the saints he was singing about was just a few minutes away in the labyrinth of lanes that form the medina.
Music festivals have mushroomed. There are those, like Exit in Serbia or Benicassim in Spain, that give you pop and rock stars, indie bands and DJs, but the ones I prefer are those that spring from their location and give you a window on the culture.
Fez is the artistic and spiritual capital of Morocco. It’s a glorious city in its own right, with a mosque and university dating back to the 9th century. All roads lead to the Kairaouine mosque and shrine of Moulay Idriss II in the heart of the medina, and en route you can enjoy getting lost in the best-preserved medieval Arabic city in the world. There are leather-workers, tailors, carpenters, donkeys laden with mint and piles of olives and fruit. You are bombarded with colors, smells and, during the festival, a glorious variety of music.
The festival was started as a reaction against the polarization of the Arabic world and the West. The idea is simple: to juxtapose sacred music of all cultures and religions. These take place in atmospheric venues like the huge Bab Makina (where Youssou performed), the intimate garden of the Batha Museum, free concerts in the city and late-night Sufi groups in a tiled garden pavilion. Non-Muslims are not allowed into mosques and shrines in Morocco, so it’s a great way to get a taste of the thrilling sounds of Islamic Sufi music — very strong in Morocco — and mix with the locals.
An excuse to travel
Perhaps the festival of this kind that has most successfully captured people’s imagination is the Festival in the Desert — deep in the Sahara beyond Timbuktu in Mali (festival-au-desert.org, Jan. 8, 2009 to Jan. 10, 2009). Its cult status comes from the almost mythical status of Timbuktu, its inaccessibility and the fantastic music that’s played there — the late Ali Farka Toure and Touareg rockers Tinariwen have played there. The fact that Robert Plant, Manu Chao and Damon Albarn have also made the journey has given it added kudos. But Mali has another one to offer — the Festival on the Niger in the pleasant riverside town of Segou (festivalsegou.org, Jan. 29, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2009). It’s much easier to reach and very laidback. Segou, on the banks of the river Niger, is the old capital of the Bambara kingdom and is reinventing itself as a center for the visual arts and crafts. There are puppet shows — a local tradition — alongside dance and music. In a location like this, the music and the society that produces it start to fall into place. Scheduled for next year are Salif Keita, Bassekou Kouyate, the excellent local band Super Biton de Segou plus musicians from Guinea and Mexico.
With many of these festivals, music isn’t the reason but the excuse to travel. Around the world, music is a socializing force and something that enriches the travel experience. Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina, with its famous bridge, is one of the jewels of the Balkans, but often just visited on a day trip from Dubrovnik. But stay a few days during the Mostar World Music Festival (Aug. 5 to Aug. 7, worldmusic.ba), hang out on the shady terraces with grilled meat and local wine, and you start to get a deeper insight into the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian mix of this town, which they never believed could be torn apart by war.