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 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.
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!