Courtesy Fes Festival of World Sacred Music
The Hadra des Femmes de Taroudant, a group that performs the traditional music and dance of the Houariayat, an ancient tribe of women from southern Morocco.
Courtesy Francoise Atlan
Algerian Jewish singer Francoise Atlan
Ten years ago, after the Gulf War, two Islamic scholars decided to start an interfaith music festival in Morocco to promote peace. The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is now a celebrated institution in world music circles, and for the first time, it's going on a 17-city tour of the United States. NPR's Neda Ulaby attended the event at its first stop, in Washington, D.C.
More than 1,000 years old, Fez is the world's most ancient medieval city, and has been a meeting point for countless cultures since the 8th century. Reflecting the city's history, the Fes Festival (the French spelling of the city's name) celebrates the mixing of cultures and world faiths. Emblematic of this interchange is performer Francoise Atlan, who sings the music of Sephardic Jews displaced from Spain five centuries ago. She performs at Fes with two Arabs — one an American Christian, one a Moroccan Muslim.
The festival has never been just about music; it has always had a socio-political side. Performers have included Brazilian Gilberto Gil and South African Miriam Makeba, both political exiles at some point. Past festivals have also featured whirling dervishes, dancing monks from Tibet, Russian Orthodox and British Anglican choirs, and an American gospel group from Georgia.
As accessible as the festival tries to be, not everyone can travel to Fez. That's why on its 10th anniversary, the festival has hit the road. Festival founders felt a particular urgency to broaden the audience given the intensified conflict in the Middle East. The event promotes discussion, both informally and through public colloquia where artists, authors and academics gather to discuss music, democracy, development and religion.
Ultimately, organizers hope to highlight the common values that link world faiths — despite the many atrocities, large and small, that have been committed in the name of religion.