Music Festival Aims to Spread Tolerance

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music was founded during the first Gulf War, with the hope of promoting tolerance and understanding through music. At this year's festival, a New Orleans gospel choir performed with a Sufi chanter from Pakistan.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

To Morocco now and to an annual event called the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. The festival was founded after the first Gulf War and it's hosted gospel choirs and whirling dervishes, Argentine rabbis, and Sufi sheikhs. Not to mention, Ravi Shankar, Miriam Makeba, and The Blind Boys of Alabama. The goal is to promote cultural and religious understanding. The 14th Fes Festival was this past week and reporter Susan Owensby sends us this report.

SUSAN OWENSBY: Fes is actually two cities. There's what's called the New City built by the French in 1912 when most of Morocco came under French control. Then there's the 1200-year-old walled city center, the Medina where the Moroccans live. The Medina is also home to the oldest university in the Arabic speaking world.

In the shade of an ancient Barbary oak in the courtyard of the Medina's Batha Museum, Tartit, a group of Tuareg nomads from Mali, gave an afternoon concert.

(Soundbite of Tartit concert)

OWENSBY: Some groups give solo concerts. Others are brought together by the festival to see what happens when different religions and their musics interact. The event was started after the first Gulf War with the hope of engendering tolerance and understanding through music making. Fes Foundation general director Fatima Sadiqi says that the festival's mission since 9/11 and the current war is all the more important.

Ms. FATIMA SADIQI (Fes Foundation): Fewer and fewer people are exposed to other religions so the festival has one its missions to create this curiosity of people. Say, we want to hear this Christianity or Islam. I heard this a lot from members of my family and from people that say what is in common? Aren't we supposed to be enemies? Yeah, so when you hear that this can be done through music, I think that if this happens once, I think that's a great victory.

OWENSBY: To that end, the festival paired Craig Adams and the Voices of New Orleans with Faiz Ali Faiz, a Sufi Qawwali chanter from Pakistan and his ensemble. The concert opened with a set by the gospel group, the Pakistanis followed, and then both groups took the stage together.

(Soundbite of song)

OWENSBY: Craig Adams says what happened then opened his ears and his heart.

Mr. CRAIG ADAMS (Musician): Sometimes you could just get caught up in what you believe and there's nothing wrong with that because people can believe what they want to believe. However, what I think is it allows me to respect further everybody else's beliefs.

OWENSBY: The final piece the two groups perform together was built around the traditional gospel hymn "Amen." Muslims end their prayers with a similar word, it's just pronounced differently, amen.

(Soundbite of hymn "Amen")

OWENSBY: For Faiz Ali Faiz, this is the whole point.

Mr. FAIZ ALI FAIZ (through translator): It all began from my school days when even when I was student at school, I used to cooperate and collaborate with my Christian friends. And we used to sing together in praise of God. And we want at the end that this music should be universal and we should not separate the faiths and it should be all one faith and one music. And perhaps it is possible.

(Soundbite of hymn "Amen")

OWENSBY: And watching very modestly dressed Muslim women swaying and clapping their hands listening to gospel music, maybe it is possible.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Owensby.

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