Spirit of Fes Brings Peace to the Middle East at the Barclay

Musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds came together on Tuesday, Oct. 24 to celebrate each other’s rich religious and musical heritage at the Spirit of Fes in UC Irvine’s Barclay Theatre.
For the first half of the event, Moroccan-American guitarist Gerard Edery, Lebanese-American percussionist Jamey Haddad, New York-native vocalist Susan Hellauer, South Indian vocalist Aruna Sairam, and Palestinian-American oud (a Middle-Eastern lute) player Zafer Tawil shared the stage.
These musicians played and sang numbers from the Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Sephardic Jewish traditions. All pieces were performed in their native tongues.
The extremely talented singers and instrumentalists performed in colorful outfits reflecting their native traditions and played off each other like an old group of friends who had been jamming together for years.
Haddad, who served as the rhythm section for the first half of the concert, drove each piece with complex beats produced from simple but eclectic hand percussion instruments.
Sairam was a truly inspired vocalist. One of the first highlights occurred when Sairam sang ‘Tilana,’ a poem about Lord Krishna’s dance over the five-headed snake Kalinga. The 16th-century poem included a long breakdown where Sairam rapped faster and more articulately than Eminem.
While the poem was not in English, the joyful tone of the composition translated itself beautifully across the language barrier.
In the last number, ‘Rocking Jerusalem,’ all the musicians performed together on what the program guide described as ‘an unusual intertwining of songs from three seemingly disparate faiths: the Hindu, Christian and Muslim traditions.’
The Spirit of Fes program continued with the Daqqa Roudania of Taroudant, a group of men performing rhythmic Islamic Sufi poems. Despite the repetitive rhythms and chanting during the second half of the concert, even without the help of a familiar language there were still some standout moments.
Separate clapping, dancing, percussion and spoken word would sometimes be performed simultaneously in different rhythms.
In an especially spirited poem, three of the Daqqa Roudania danced and encouraged the audience to clap in common time. While the Barclay audience maintained the beat, two percussionists played separate rhythms while other performers recited the lyrics to a poem. The chanters would sometimes add their own offbeat clapping as well. The result was a gleefully dizzying whirlwind of expertly played rhythms.
For the grand finale, the Daqqa Roudania shared the stage with the band from the first half of the program to send the audience off in peace.
The Spirit of Fes gives American audiences an idea of what Morocco’s ‘Fes Festival of World Sacred Music’ is like. Mark Levine, professor of history at UCI, has spent extensive time in the Middle East and North Africa and has attended the event. He considered the culturally exported experience a great cross-cultural success.
Levine said that many times religious groups on campus fall into an ‘us against them mentality that’s been so ingrained.’
‘These musicians were getting together and creating something new musically and culturally,’ Levine said.
Levine added that the event was especially powerful because ‘the musicians have to trust each other, and that’s a metaphor for what people everywhere need to be doing. This is what music does better than anything else: bring cultures supposedly at war together.’
The Spirit of Fes was an amazing display of talent and an opportunity to get a glimpse of diverse artistic traditions in their original Eastern forms. The musicians taught an invaluable lesson in the acceptance of different points of views and traditions.