Every June since 1994, music fans from around the globe have been flocking to Morocco for the annual Fes Sacred Music Festival. Attendees are seduced by the medieval Moorish ambiance of the walled city, where green-tiled imperial palaces have been reborn as luxe hotels and daily life goes on in the twisting alleys of the medina much as it has for generations.
Concerts are held among nearby Roman ruins, or in an Andalusian-style walled garden, or against the backdrop of a massive medieval gate. Unsurprisingly, the festival has attracted some of the biggest names in world music: Gilberto Gil, Francoise Atlan, Miriam Makeba, and Youssou N’Dour have all made the pilgrimage. This year, Malian superstar Salif Keita and Tibetan chanteuse Yungchen Lhamo joined their ranks. But the real draw every year is the “Sufi Nights,” which are midnight concerts featuring performances for a different local Sufi brotherhood each night.
Held in the walled gardens of the Dar Tazi, a 14th century library at the edge of the medina, these performances showcase the music and ritual of the many different tariqas, or Sufi brotherhoods, for which Fes is famous. Sufisim is an esoteric tradition within Islam that offers a direct connection to the divine through ascetic living and ecstatic ritual practices. It is thought to have originated in Iraq sometime in the latter half of the seventh century, and was brought to Morocco by Arab invaders not long after. Sufi sects are present throughout the Islamic world; the best-known are the Mehvlevi “whirling dervishes” of Turkey.
When the city of Fes was founded in 808, it was intended to be a both a capital city and a center of Islamic learning, and Sufi brotherhoods were a part of the mix from the beginning. Today dozens of different Sufi sects call Fes home, and their shrines and lodges are scattered throughout the medina, which reverberates with the sound of their prayers every Thursday night. It’s worth noting that these brotherhoods provide their members with more than just religious sustenance: Many of them also combine resources to assist needy neighbors in a country that lacks a social safety net.
But Sufis are best known for their religious rituals. Known as dhikr (or “remembrance of God”), these ceremonies can vary widely—from sung poetry to rhythmic breathing and chanting, or thundering hand percussion accompanied by athletic dancing. Instrumentation also varies from group to group, but the goal is always the same: to create a fever pitch that will bring participants closer to Allah.
This year, the festival’s Sufi program included performances from such local tariqas as Tariqa Qadiriya, Tariqa Skallia and Tariqa Hamdouchia, as well as guest appearances from Casablanca’s Tariqa Derkaouia and Ouazzane’s Tariqa Ouazzania Ahl Touate. Fes’ own Tariqa Aïssaouia stole the show with their supremely hypnotic trance groove.
While all of these groups gave concertgoers a chance to witness rituals that are rarely open to outsiders, it was often hard to focus due to the omnipresent TV cameras. Luckily, some intrepid festivalgoers were offered a special treat this year—an “unplugged” Sufi healing session in the heart of the medina. Word of mouth led the lucky few to a meeting point, where they were led through the serpentine alleys of the medina to an authentic Sufi lodge. There, in an arched courtyard lit by lanterns, a Sufi healing ceremony unfolded.
The brothers arrived in a white-clad procession (preceded by trumpets) and kicked off a litany of prayers and songs that lasted from 10 pm until well past midnight. Unleashing a battery of different instruments, the brothers chanted, sang, drummed and danced in ever growing anticipation of the evening’s climax: the blessing of a glass of milk that was drunk by the supplicant seeking blessing.
There was something deeply moving in this simple gesture of faith, and attendees considered thems