When the Blind Boys of Alabama hit the stage recently in Fez, Morocco, surrounded by the massive ancient walls of the majestic Bab Makina amphitheater, the four septuagenarian American gospel singers had an audience of about 5,000, many of them Muslims, stomping their feet and clapping their hands to songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head.” It was the group’s second appearance at the annual Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, one of the world’s most eclectic music events. For 10 days — from June 4th to the 12th — music fans from around the world gathered to watch performances by everyone from Malian pop duo Amadou and Mariam to Sufi mystics to androgynous Indian acrobats, not to mention artists from political hotspots like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Korea.
That kind of cross-cultural communication is what Moroccan anthropologist Faouzi Skali hoped for when he founded the Fez Festival in 1994, troubled by media stereotypes of Islam in the wake of the first Gulf War. Seven years later, the United Nations honored the festival as one of the world’s “Unsung Heroes of Dialogue.” Since the festival’s earliest years, attendance has grown from about 100,000 people for concerts at exclusive venues like Bab Makina, to some 300,000 people this year for performances across the city, including free shows in public squares where the thump of Moroccan hip-hop appeared back to back with the snaky melodies and ecstatic voices of Islamic Sufi singers.
“We always thought the best language was music,” says Fez Festival president Mohamed Kabbaj, the former governor of Casablanca. “When you hear people playing the music of their cultures, you can’t distinguish between, for example, the drums of Korea and the drums of Burundi. Music speaks to hearts and to minds.”