Cherifa in Fes

I walked onto the Bab Boujloud square late last night with great anticipation, since this was the first concert I was able to attend in the “Festival in the City” series that the Musique sacrées du monde puts on every year in Fes, Morocco.  Although I had attended other concerts during the festival and heard various groups through my hotel window near the square, this one was one I anticipated because of the fêted Cherifa.

Cherifa performs for Bab Boujloud, 11 June 2012

Cherifa performs for the audience of the square of Bab Boujloud on 11 June 2012.
Copyright Joan Titus.

Cherifa Kersit is a celebrated shikha (sometimes spelled cheikha) of the Middle-Atlas region of Morocco; that is, she is a singer of Berber, or Amazigh, background who sings the culture of her home.  I had known prior to this concert that she is well-known and beloved across the world; but when walking on the square at Bab Boujloud last night, I could feel the admiration and intense excitement while amidst the crowd.  The audience consisted mainly of local Moroccans of all ages, including many families with young children, and very few foreign travelers.  Over my brief observations of major summer festivals in Morocco for the past few years, I have observed parents occasionally bringing their children to festivals.  This concert was different—it appeared to have a striking abundance of young children, between the ages of 3–5, many of which were girls.  The excitement was not limited only to these young ladies and their families, however; I was approached by an elated group of young boys on their way to the front of the crowd who exclaimed to me in French, “Cette festival est très gentil!”  (This festival is very nice!), and continued to politely question me to make sure that I was going to the “other” (read: paid) concerts in the city as well.  With huge grins, they wiggled into the crowd, dancing with complete abandon.  They were just one group among the crowd; so many others shared this direct and supremely happy enthusiasm, and it was delightfully infectious.

I go on about the nature of the crowd if only because I am ecstatic to finally see a group of people at this festival who were visibly engaging the music, the musicians, and each other directly and without inhibition.  Although Cherifa only sang for a brief time (about a half hour) she sang continuously, and with a full chest voice associated with other female singing traditions in the world (I am thinking here of certain traditions in Russian village music, where women sing outdoor songs in full chest voice, equivalent to powerful and controlled shouting/singing).  Cherifa’s voice was indeed powerful, and physically overwhelmed those closer to the stage (including myself), reverberating through their bodies, and forcing some to plug their ears.  Meanwhile, I observed many parents, men and women, encouraging their young girls to dance to Cherifa’s singing; one of which was perched atop her father’s shoulders attempting to mimic Cherifa’s moves, while a young boy (to the left) was playing his balloon guitar in exact rhythm to the lotar (long-necked lute) player.

Children at the Cherifa concert on Bab Boujloud, 11 June 2012.
Copyright Joan Titus.

Suffice to say these children were engaged, and strongly encouraged by their families to celebrate this singer and her mighty voice.  There was no doubt that she is a well-loved celebrity among this audience.

Cherifa is among many female musicians, artists, and dancers at this year’s festival, showing a strong interest in women from Morocco and abroad as performers of the spiritual—a perspective that places them in a special category.  To accompany this dominant female presence are men who performing the spiritual self as well, particularly the popular Sufi nights concerts at Dar Tazi (see here for more of the festival programming).  Other internationally renowned female musicians, some from Europe and the U.S., include Joan Baez and Bjork.  Both will perform at the end of the festival later this week.  

It is interesting to see women’s music and music performed by women connected to the festival’s theme this year, “Re-enchanting the World.”  It undoubtedly raises many questions about musical meaning, gender, and the self.  Stay tuned!

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UNCG Human Rights Film Series

Check out the UNCG Human Rights Film Series!  The series has been going on for a few years, and the fifth film of this year’s series is being shown next week!  Come one, come all if you’re in the ‘boro!!

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The Times, they are a-changin…. by Joan Titus

Hold onto your Fes-es…It is only my second full day in Fes, and I have already witnessed some interesting political events. Two nights ago, the King released an hours long announcement of changes to the existing constitution, apparently allowing for more power to the people. Last night, the evening of Sunday June 19th, the streets of Fes lit up with people, marching down the main drags, ending up at Fiat (Place de la resistance, as it is formally named), just in view from my apartment. I stood there, in the windows and on the terrace, watching the hordes of women, men, and children in arms or strollers walking with signs and flags, chanting in response to the leaders. At one point, one of the leaders waved his hands for them to stop chanting momentarily — and they did, absolutely falling silent. I couldn’t believe my American eyes and ears — people were responsive, calm, and orderly. It was the most laid-back yet effective march I had ever seen.

It was difficult to make out the shouting and chanting, but the signs were mostly visible, and photos are appended below. According to the central sign (Ya Matt, thanks for the confirmed translation!), in the middle of the crowd, this march was in favor of the reforms demanded of the King on February 20th, and fulfilled by the King a day or so ago.

There was even a Berber flag towards the end of the line of marchers, included among the signs, and reminded me of the discussions of human rights that had recently been in the news, and of the protesters that I saw in Rabat. Berbers, from what I have heard around town, have been slowly asserting more of a national identity over recent years, culminating in the development of a written alphabet, a symbol, and a flag among many other markers of identity formation. Human rights are an issue in Morocco as they are in any country in the world, so it was interesting to see this flag marching along with the people, with the Berbers (Amazigh) being represented as a hopeful(ly) significant part of the State.

Following this line of marchers was the police, in vans, completely closing in the marchers. They all ended up at Fiat, still chanting, and eventually seemed to move along.

I happened upon a similar event in Rabat just a day or so earlier. This event had been ongoing, for at least 23 days when I arrived. Mostly men were gathered on Mohammed V, and sitting in the grassy mall with signs in Arabic, English, and French. They read “Sit in,” and, “We love our King. We want our Rights, our Rights for War prisoners.” At one point, the first evening I was there, there was singing in call and response, changing between a repertory of at least three songs, if not more. Chanting morphed into singing, and it continued for hours on end.

Usually the chanting began in the morning, late-ish, and would occasionally pick up at certain points of the day depending on the heat. The day I left was a hot one, and I heard less protesting and saw fewer people along the mall, sadly unsurprisingly.

And then came the news programs. Just last night, I was sitting with my host family and watching the news coverage of the Fassi march, and marches across Morocco, in all of the major cities. People were elated. The constitution had been changed for the better, and they were happy to celebrate it. Every interviewee was ecstatic, of course (would the State news cover people who protested the changes I wonder?), and reported happiness with the new state of affairs. It was refreshing. Back in the U.S. we don’t see this side of things — we don’t really see anything at all about Morocco in our news; maybe about Libya, and sometimes Egypt, and it’s often bad. There are positive changes going on, and they’re in my current backyard. That all said, the skeptic in me is poking through, and waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m hoping it’s just me, and not Morocco. I want to believe that leaders listen, and the people will be heard, that increased democratization will happen with the nudges that people assert. That all said, it was the correct political move. I wonder what would have happened if the King had said ‘no’ to their demands, especially in the wake of Egypt and Libya. Theses are fascinating times for sure, and yes, they are a-changin’.


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The Inaugural Entry — “The Afropop Blog: More protest songs from Egypt” by Joan Titus

This is the first blog entry for this new site, and I thought it would be appropriate to start with protest song, and the recent activity in the Arab world. 

Surely, we have all been anxiously watching the political shifts in Egypt, and awaiting the news on what will happen next with the new government.  As a trained Russianist, I had feelings of déjà vu watching and reading about the various changes, and thinking back on my early Soviet history and the serious changes and fears of the new Soviet government as it slowly took form over the course of the 1920s.  The parallels between the Russian Revolution and Egypt’s uprising were firmly in my mind when I started to read the flurry of articles about revolution in Egypt, how to characterize it, and what there is to be done (or,  “Chto delat’?” in the words of the 19th-century Russian writer Nikolay Chernychevsky, said to have been quoted by Vladimir Lenin).

Yes, I imagine we are all wondering ‘what is to be done,’ not only in the case of Egypt, but the rest of the Arab world that is grappling with challenged governments and angry mobs.  Much remains to be seen; but speaking as someone who has spent many years studying historical politics, I am simultaneously a little uneasy and excited by the new developments that could lead people towards better lives, and fulfilling basic human rights.

Until then, there is music.  That’s right, music.  What better way to comment, persuade, rally the people, and instigate change than through something as seemingly harmless as music (anyone thinking back to the 1960s)?  I’m imagining some varied responses to that sentence, so I welcome your comments!

Until then, take a look at what AfroPop Worldwide is publishing — some protest songs from Egypt.      The Afropop Blog: More protest songs from Egypt.


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Greetings from the new blog “At the Interstices of Arts and Human Rights”!

Hello All!

As promised, here is the beginning of a new blog that attempts to raise awareness about the relationships between arts and human rights.  It was originally going to be about music and human rights, but, one can’t avoid the inter-relationship of all the arts!  So, here it is…

I will be doing two central things with this blog — gathering websites and sources on the web that highlight the relationship between arts and cultural policy, human rights, and so forth; AND, inviting guest bloggers from various backgrounds, disciplines, and interests to write about their personal experiences or insights into their new research or work.  So, if you’re interested, drop me a note!  I hope for this blog to serve as a forum for discussion, open to all.  So, do please chime in — don’t be shy!


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