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Sacred in Fez
Drenched in exoticism and orientalism par excellence

Written and photographed by Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh
July 16, 2003
The Iranian

Fez. Morocco. Fez fez fes fess. Fes Fes Festival. Festival of Sacred Music. Sacred. Sacred sacré. Sacré sacré. If not musique sacrée, at least sacrée musique. Sacrée moqadas. Moqadas. Moqadas. Moqadas mystic. Mystic Sufi.

Ah! Sufi. We know Sufi. We know Sufi music, we know Sufi food, we know Sufi clothes. We know Sufi attitude. There is a demand for it in this hyper-tensioned globalized world. We buy Sufi from We jam stage performances of the Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes.

We come with our Hugo Boss and Prada suits to the Asia Society in New York, we turn off our cellphones and watch the dervishes whirl in monotony. $75 khalseh. In the summer, we put on our baba-coul shirts, sandals and big straw hats and go to Fez, Morocco, to the World Sacred Music Festival, for more authentic whirling. $1,500 Khalseh. We, the Urban Sufis, We need rapture.

On the menu for our exalting pleasure this year at the 9th festival are three windows: afternoon incantations under a majestic oak tree in the Bathaa Museum, evening concerts in the open air fortress of Bab El Makina and late night "soirée soufi" where we bridge the day into the next with different Moroccan Sufi Tariqas. The kinds that recite their Zikr in public and let us twirl our tresses.

We affix the adjective Sufi to everything and we drop in on a familiar word: the electric guitar of Gilberto Gil, a stunning mirror dance of the Odissi tradition performed by the Indian Madhavi Mudgal, opera by Julia Migenese, forceful drumming by the Senegalese Doudou N'Diaye Rose with two dozen of his 42 children, Gospel by the Anointed Jackson Sisters (transformed into a rock concert by the itsy bitsy-clad dancing Fez teens packing the venue) and even political correctness with the Iraqi Farida and the Maqam Ensemble.

We venture into the glory of Islamic chants with some genuine whirling by the Syrian Sheikh Habbush and the Al Kindi Ensemble, some serious percussions and vocals by the Moroccan women's Ensemble of Taroudant, and the names of Allah sung by the Moroccan Abdelhadi Belkhayat and the Egyptian Said Hafid both accompanied by 50 strong orchestras, complete with electric guitar, synthesizers, oud, violins, a women's choir and the inevitable mini dervishes sharing the stage.

We are even introduced to the Ilyas Malayev Sheshmaqam group, the Bukharan jews who emigrated to Queens decade(s) ago, as the "ancient Judeo-Islamic tradition of Central Asia", who sing for us the crème de la crème of mysticism: Ei dokhtareh bi faranji (veil), ye gap begam naranji... Ei dokhtarakAneh TAjik, gol dar boustAneh TAjik.. with an Indian rendition: Rouham ei kojA miravi, on ghadar bA nAz miravi, to del o jAneh mani, jAn o jAnAneh mani...

We float in inter-religious global musical mystical ecstasy, our senses threatening overdose from the sounds of the concerts and those of life being lived in the crowded Medina, hammers on artisans' trays, water crashing in fountains, donkeys galloping in narrow alleys, children and more children, the smells of incense and feet and food and rose water and orange peels and colors of tiles, colors of saffron and salmon and indigo and azure. Drenched in exoticism and orientalism par excellence, we are having a Sufi experience.

Ah, but then, there is Shajarian father & Son, Alizadeh and Kalhor this year on the menu. The Great Masters of Classical Persian Music. Sacred sacré. Sacré tradition. Tradition classic. Classic Sufi? Ah! Persian Sufi! Mystical tradition. Mystic Islam.

Dozens of journalists ask: Mr. Shajarian, what is the influence of Arabo-Islamic tradition on your music? Mr. Kalhor, do the youth of Iran attend your Sufi performances openly or in clandestine? Mr. Alizadeh, how does it feel to play in Fez, the ancient seat of Islamic tradition, in between the sound of the muezzin coming from the 8th century Medina?

June 9th, the day of the concert. Curiosity in Fez among the Moroccans and the mostly French culto-tourists: What is the Persian version of Islamic chants? Sacred sacré, sacrée musique, musique sacrée, musique soufie, Islamic Republic of Iran Sacré, sufi, tradition. Allahu Akbar. Yahu Ali Madad sacré. We want exaltation, grand dafs, shaman drumming, crescendo, dum dum swiff swiff, dum dum swiff. Dum dum swiff swiff, dum dum swiff....

Quietly, calmly, the four enter the stage in dark outfit and sit four-legged on the carpet. Alizadeh's tar dribbles a salute like moving water. Kalhor's kamancheh cuts the path then flows down parallel, the tempo urged steadily by Homayooun's tombak. And then, serenely, gradually, taknavazi and hamnavazi by the Shajarian father and son, bridging the equity gap between very deep and deep: saman bouyAn ghobAr-eh gham cho benshinand, benshAnand; pari ruyAn gharAr az del cho bestizand, bestAnand...

The group had chosen a repertoire in the rast panjgah, shur, abu ata and homayoun modes, ending in rast panjgah. Poems by Hafez, Saadi, Qajar period Ghorrat'ol Ein and a very lyrical Shafii Kadkani. Two compositions by each of the Masters Alizadeh and Kalhor, and a Soal va Javab improvisation by the two.

A shorter version of what was recorded in their 2002 Los Angeles Tour as the CD FaryAd, but to a large audience mostly without prior knowledge of classical Persian music, certainly without the benefit of understanding the classical poems in Farsi. And, yet, 2,993 non-Iranians became accomplice to the Masters on stage, for this was a musical tradition learned from chest to chest, transmitted soul to soul, and dedicated from heart to heart from performer to his listener and back again. Gradually, simplicity calmed the nerves. Gradually, purity was born. Gradually, the Instant was improvised and then immortalized.

The Shajarians' velvet voices soared the words, the KalAm, and put them up on the sacred pedestal, while the winged Kamancheh and Tar kept them floating where they belonged, on top of the Bab El Makina open air fortress, up on top of the Fez Medina, up on top of the World Sacred Music Festival, up on top of this hyper-tensioned globalized world. A smooth ascend, gradual, linear, safe, pure, cerebral, emotional and physical.

Instead of instant-mix exhaltation, slow simmering Love in creation. Love. Love. Sacred Love, love of the sacré. Musique sacrée, amour sacré. Eshq, eshq, eshq. Religion of love. Then, an unexpected foroud brought the audience to its feet. Dream interrupted. Coitus Interruptus. We could have easily died while reaching perfection.

Excuse me sir, but, We, the Urban Sufis, are now confused as to whether what we heard was the end or the means for devotion. We still don't understand what took us up there that night without the grand dafs, the Ya Ali Madads and whirling Iranians: the words or the melody, sAz yA AvAz, the vocals or the words, the lyric of the language, the meaning of the poems of Hafez and Saadi, those pieces of wood with strings, our predisposition for flight, or our love for God, whose name was not even mentioned but evoked, and Its creations celebrated, that night, June 9th, 2003, in Fez, Morocco. Le mystère sacré, un sacré mystère.

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By Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh



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