Layla and other assorted love songs from Fez

June 4, 2011

Bab Makina, a THUS place.

Thus has temporarily relocated to the heart and heat of the Arab world’s oldest medieval medina. I’ve been to Fez before so I’m skipping the tourist highlights; the tannery where they cure leather for bags and jackets with pigeon guano and human piss; the curly slippers; the New Age Frenchies. I’m staying in the eclectic Riad Damia with its vast vestibule and TWO 1940s stereograms on the edge of the oldest part of town. The Fez Sacred Music Festival, now in its 17th year,  started last night with a visit from royalty and a quarantaine of musicians recounting the miserable tale of Layla and Majnun – un amour fou et mystique. You can say that again.


I’m not sure we’ve met, but your Fez seems familiar. A whirling dervish, dressed in what appears to be a Yuri Gagarin table lamp (Thus passim).

The legend of the sloe-eyed Layla and bedouin shepherd poet, Mulawwah, who went mad (Majnun means bonkers) is a universal tale of true love thwarted by the barriers of class, cousinhood and family opposition, set in the 7th Century Arabia of the Umayyad era, only 69 years after the Hejira. It also has mystical connotations of a journey through the seven stages of emotions, desire, conquest, detachment, spiritual solitude, unity, perplexity and rebirth.

Are you with me so far?

Armand Amar composed this oratorio mundi to open the 17th Fez Festival, which has morphed from its Sufi music origins through ‘world music’ in general to become a largely Francophone celebration of the search for the spiritual through music. The 9th Century Bab Makina, a vast natural auditorium with magnificent acoustics, demands spectacle and that’s what we got. M. Amar’s fine talents as a film music composer were in evidence from the opening shimmering, evocative western and Arab strings followed by an extraordinary tympani high on the ramparts by a slip of a girl knocking seven mighty shades out of a colossal tambour. She could have gone ten rounds with Amir Khan and whupped his skinny arse.

We were not in Kansas any more. The incredibly talented, beautiful Mongolian diva, Gombodorj Byambajargal, took us to the steppes with a number warbled in indescribably sweet, sour, edge of atonal, edge of space, soaring, fluting tones. Plus, she appeared to be wearing a chandelier. I’m now her newest fan. (Check out what has to be the strangest Tantric Tibetan/Mongol Buddhist girl group pop video you will ever see).

After a brilliant solo from what sounded like a didgeridoo – but almost certainly wasn’t – the first act concluded with an equally startling aria at the other end of the scale from Mongolian throat singing legend Enkjargal Dandarvaanchig (seen here in Jamiroquai hat playing a three stringed thingy and singing a few bars in). From the tone, I think he was Majnun’s dad, telling him in no uncertain terms to pull himself together, stop with the poetry, get a job and find a nice girl – preferably not a blood relative – with a huge dowry.  And keep a eye on the sheep. I was in the zone, as one with the plot. The subtitles helped, to be sure.

The next few acts ebbed and flowed like the Sirocco caressing the desert sands, blowing up the skirts of the Bedouin and making the camels skittish. The extensive VIP section of the crowd remained entranced as Persian, Hindi and Arab chanteurs and chanteuses sang their side of the story. The arrangements reminded me at times of House of the Flying Daggers (Thus title but a disappointing movie – you spend all your time waiting for the flying cutlery and when it comes it’s nothing like as cutting as you’d imagined). There were epic reminders of the Maurice Jarre score for Lawrence of Arabia and a tiny hint of the Fry’s Turkish Delight ads of my youth (slogan: ‘Full of Eastern Promise’) which for all I know were inspired by the tale of Layla and Majnun from the POV of confectionery. There was an excellent Turkish librettist: perhaps that’s what set that particular hare racing in my monkey mind.

The oud was oud of this world.

The seven stages of love’s passion, pain, calamity and general arsiness culminated in a glorious spiritual awakening achieved by submission to the will of, and oneness with, Allah, signified by prolonged joyful chanting from the entire cast, a bit like the end of The Sound of Music. Enlightened and uplifted, I made my way through the throng into the dark, narrow, winding streets of the mysterious medina, in completely the wrong direction, as usual.

The Fez Festival, and Fez itself, is a uniquely Thus Happening. File under ‘you had to be there.’ And make a note to do exactly that next year.

  • PS. The title of this piece, in case you didn’t know, derives from Layla, by Derek and the Dominoes, aka Eric Clapton. This song of fou d’amour  concerns one guitar hero agonising about the ethics of taking the wife of an even bigger hero, his best friend, Beatle George Harrison. The coda, by Jim Gordon, is magnificent. Patti Boyd left George after five years of Eric’s attentions,  wasn’t entirely thrilled when he wrote the song, but confirms it alludes to the story of Layla, as told  in the 12th Century Persian poem by Nizami. So there you go. Who says Paddy’s thick?