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Is Patti Smith a sacred object?

She appeared at the Festival of World Sacred Music in Fes.

Report by Mary Finnigan. Video by Lynn Evans Davidson.

The week of intense experience that is the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is over for another year. The main reason why newcomers to the festival are awestruck is the extraordinary (maybe even unique) musical panorama on offer in such a short time frame.  In one day you can go from ethereal sounds from the mountains of Bhutan to Zen and the Art of Fan Fighting, to Sardinian polyphany meets Mongolian overtone to hard rock free concert — and end up with ecstatic Sufi chanting that continues into the wee small hours. You can eat in 5 star restaurants and stay in luxuriously restored guest houses in the heart of the traffic-free medina. No wonder people like me become addicted and return year after year. But one question that arises on a regular basis is how do you define sacred music — as distinct from profanemusic or secular music? A British journalist asked the African diva Angelique Kidjo, who performed in Fez one year, if her driving, brassy rock genre could be described as sacred. She replied “All music is sacred” — and proceeded to perform her usual repertoire. I’m not convinced that this is entirely correct, because it seems to me that music which is created by cynical recording companies with the sole purpose of making money, cannot be classified as sacred. Its not just the fact of how it is made, but more the absence of “feeling” inherent in studio manufactured chart material. Some people would call it the absence of soul. Even the populist free concerts in Fes do not fall into this category — and nor does anything chosen for the main festival programme — for which you pay a relatively modest £200 for an all-events pass. Fes does include performances that are specifically sacred — Gospel for example, European Baroque and of course Sufi from many cultural backgrounds — Pakistani qawwaal, Turkish dervishes, Syrian shiekhs and Moroccan tariqas. But it also extends a welcome to music that comes simply from the heart of the people who create it — which lifts audiences out of the mundane and into an altered state. Singing in the ancient Occitane language of southern France, Lo Cor de la Plana from Marseilles did just that on the afternoon of the last day in Fes.

And the grand finale from 66 year old “Queen of Punk” Patti Smith? Hardly possible, one might think, to include that as sacred? Absolutely wrong! She was magnificent in every sense of the word. She was backed by possibly the best amplified musicians available for hire in contemporary America, she still has a mighty powerful voice and an unassuming stage presence that instantly endeared her to the multi-national audience packed into the Bab Al Makina. Patti spoke about politics, sang about life, love and poetry and the music was superb. The most sophisticated  live rock I’ve heard since The Grateful Dead. She sent us away in a state of bliss.

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