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Re-Enchanting the World: American Jazz Legend Archie Shepp Dazzles at the Fes Sacred Music Festival in Morocco
- Published on Monday, 11 June 2012 12:21
- Category: Music Events
Fes: The Imperial City. Driving into the medina from centre ville, it’s easy to get the impression of travelling backwards in time to a magical era where easy living was customary and where cell phones, iPods and the electronic devices that dominate life today seemed like unnecessary advancements in technology. The smell of kefta, hashed, grilled meat, wafts through the air and Moroccan men sip tea, sitting quietly among the tourists that have descended on the kasbah from nearly every part of the world for the 18th Annual Fes Sacred Music Festival — a week-long concert series that brings together some of the world’s most talented musicians to promote musical and cultural harmony.
Here for a four-day stint, I managed to make my way to Bab Makina, a huge outdoor space that is fronted by what used to be the entry gate to the royal palace. The evening concerts all take place there and on Saturday night, The Archie Shepp Gospel and Blues Ensemble took the main stage, wowing the audience of a few thousand with an array of old-school gospel tunes, jazz standards, even a world premier arrangement.
Shepp hails from the “sunshine state,” Florida, and rose to fame in the 1960s by syncing up his wailing saxophone melodies with music that articulated injustices faced by African-Americans during the civil rights era. “Afrocentric” music, as it was called, typified his early career and attracted other well-known musicians, including the legendary John Coltrane, to collaborate with him. Before his concert, Shepp said, “Black music speaks to personal problems and also to those [problems] of the whole world.” Now at age 75, he’s still going strong and has incorporated his church roots into his grooves, bringing together a touring ensemble that is just as comfortable playing virtuosic works like “Giant Steps” as they are reinventing traditional hymns.
Check out an old-school video of Sheep and some jazz legends here
Shepp’s ensemble grooved for almost a full two hours, and while everything they performed was in the pocket, there were two tunes that especially stood out and captured the spirit of this enchanting festival. The first was a hip, upbeat arrangement of a gospel tune called “You Gotta Call Him.” Him, as it turned out, referred to Jesus. The opening lines begin: “When you need a friend, call on Jesus, he’ll be with you ‘till the end. When you’re down and you feel you’ve got no way out, call on Jesus, he’ll show you what’s this all about.” The irony, and perhaps the real beauty, is that in this Muslim-majority country Jesus is not considered to be divine (and thus “calling” on him for help fruitless), yet the audience responded enthusiastically to the piece. Such respect for different faith traditions is quintessential of the Fes festival and archetypal of Moroccan society at large where large populations of Jews and Muslims, for example, have lived alongside one another for centuries and do not let their political or religious differences divide them.
Accompanying Shepp on a black concert grand piano was Amina Myers. She not only provided a solid addition to the rhythm section but complemented Shepp’s vocals by adding her own particular flair to various selections with hair-raising harmony and chord choices. Dressed in a beautiful traditional African robe, she commanded her perch at the keyboard and enamoured the audience with her nearly 15-minute rendition of “Motherless Child,” a traditional spiritual that expresses the anguish of slavery and being torn from one’s parents. “I know the depths of your suffering and I know it’s all you can bear,” the lyric goes, “so rest, rest enough your troubles and your cares. You’ve done your share.”
In a world that has become increasingly disenchanted with the collective problems we face, the Fes Sacred Music Festival’s “Re-enchanting the World” theme is a reminder that, as Shepp himself said, we may speak different languages, but music is a common language that unites us all.By Nathan Lean, Aslan Media Editor-in-Chief