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WORLD MUSIC REVIEW

So many ways to offer praise

The voices of varied religions unite in a touring version of Fes sacred music festival.

October 28, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music -- which annually brings musicians of every imaginable religious background to Morocco for a transcendent spiritual and cultural get-together -- seems like a virtual anomaly at a time when much of the world is ablaze with confrontations between differing forms of religious fundamentalism, more eager to emphasize differences than share common ground. But the touring mini-version of the Festival, "Spirit of Fes: Paths to Hope," at UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday offered a very real image of the warm, integrative qualities of music.

The opening half of the program was dedicated to ancient Hindu and Christian music, as well as material from the Andalusian Jewish tradition. Each song represented a different cultural vision of spirituality, from praise for the Universal Master in a 300-year-old Tamil work, "Satileni," and a Latin tribute to God by Hildegard of Bingen to a Ladino "Shalom Alechem" and the 13th century Galician-Portuguese "Des Oge Mais."

The music was performed by an ensemble that was similarly diverse. American singer Susan Hellauer, a founding member of the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, applied her luxurious timbre to a lovely "Ave Maria." Moroccan-born guitarist-singer Gerard Edery found the inner depths of the Abrahamic song "Kochov Tsedek." Lebanese American oud-violin player Zafir Tawil and Palestinian American percussionist Jamey Haddad provided authentic support across the many musical styles, with Haddad contributing a gripping, Sufi-style frame drum solo to open the second half of the concert.

Best of all, there was the gifted South Indian singer Aruna Sairam, singing with a mesmerizing combination of sheer inventive abandon and virtuosic musical precision. Her solo on the seven-beat pulse of "Satileni" was an astonishing display, its passion and probing intensity reminiscent of the penetrating, exploratory improvisations of John Coltrane.

The program's second half was largely devoted to a collection of pieces by the Daqqa of Taroudant, a Sufi ensemble. Using a collection of small percussion instruments, a pair of double-reed neffars and their own collective vocals, the nine male members of the Moroccan group performed a group of numbers convincingly illustrating the ecstatic, trance-evoking music of the Sufi tradition. Joined onstage by the other festival participants, they performed a climactic "Sidi Habib/Eli Sh'ma Koli," a Judeo-Muslim song used in both communities, here serving as a spreading tent of musical and spiritual togetherness open enough to include Sairam's tribute to the god Muraga and Hellauer's traditional ballad, "Wayfaring Stranger."

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