Sound of the Soul

Sound of the Soul

Sound of the Soul (2005)

Directed by Stephen Olson


Little known in the Western world, Fez, Morocco is a cosmopolitan crossroads of cultures and religious traditions. Founded in 789 BCE, during the period of the European Early Middle Ages, Fez quickly became the home of the mystical heretical tradition of the-then new Sufi branch of Islam. Director Stephen Olsson sets out to document the ninth annual “Fez Festival of World Sacred Music” (begun in 1994) and ends up creating a portal into astonishing dimensions beyond straightforward music-scene reportage. Part travelogue, part primer on world religions, part concert film, Sound of the Soul delivers a powerful and timely message to a world increasingly seized in the paralyzing grip of self-destructing partisan (East and West) fundamentalist-fueled strife.

Olsson is a Bay Area filmmaker with an impressive string of documentaries and awards to his credit. His films include Afghanistan: The Fight for a Way of Life and Last Images of War, and awards include a Peabody and a National Emmy (for Outstanding Director). In Sound of the Soul, Olsson explores the heart and soul of Fez as a sanctuary for people of differing faiths and the mystical connections possible through art, music, and spiritual practices, which demonstrate the fundamental oneness of all peoples, united through the expression of love and spiritual longing. The music festival includes a four-day forum, sponsored by the World Bank, bringing together spiritual, intellectual, political, and community leaders to dialog on “Giving Soul to Globalization.”

The camera eye of Sound of the Soul takes the viewer down winding paths through the deeply evocative medieval city, affording glimpses of Berber life under the North African sun. Against awe-inspiring visuals, the sacred music traditions unfold. The haunting tones of Afghani Farida Mahwash, singing a Rumi poem about the pain of a reed severed from its roots, reflect the deep pain of the human soul aware of its disconnection from its source. The Sirine Choir from Russia sings early Euro-Russian sacred music and the Tallis Scholars bring back to life for the first time in nearly a millennium a liturgical Latin high mass. Echoing back, several Moroccan Sufi performers and the show-stopping Harlem gospel group the McCollough Sons of Thunder fill out a bright palette of musical diversity.

Fez is a literal and metaphorical oasis of sanity and sanctuary, and the music festival brings together an international smorgasbord of musical traditions, from Afghanistan, Turkey, Russia, Portugal, France, Ireland, Mauritania, New York City, England, and Morocco. Singers, dancers, musicians of various Islamic, Jewish, and Christian mystical religious traditions come together to embody music as the “sounds of their souls.” As a Sufi guide in the film says, “To the Sufis, God cannot be known through the mind only. The mind is like a horse that carries you to the door of the sultan’s palace, but cannot enter it without. So the mind can lead you to knowing the existence of God, but not to communicate with God and know the Essence of God – that is a different dimension.” Precisely this is the experience which Olsson’s film affords its open-minded viewer.

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Beverly Berning has recently begun her fourth career as a high school teacher of French and Italian, but her love of film remains steadfast. A former film student who aspired to be just like her idols Woody Allen, Erik Rohmer and Charlie Kaufman, she has been writing reviews for Culturevulture since 2006.