Sufi concert presents music from Islamic mysticism

BY SHUBRA OHRI
Daily Arts Writer
Published April 7, 2005

A treat for the senses in the form of mystic music will be available to University students next weekend. As part of the final weekend of the Arab World Music Festival, three artists will perform their music at Rackham Auditorium under the title “Songs of the Sufi Brotherhood.” The musicians featured at this event are Hamza El Din from Nubia, Hassan Hakmoun from Morocco and Rizwan and Muazzam Qawwali, two brothers from Pakistan.

Fine Arts Reviews
Rizwan and Muazzam Qawwali, front, along with their uncle, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (not shown), brought Qawwali music -- a form of Sufi music from Pakistan -- to American audiences. (Courtesy of UMS)

These artists represent three different forms of Sufi music. Followers of Sufism, a sect of Islam that practices mysticism, believe that the only way to truth and spirituality is through a direct and immediate experience with the spirit. Hence, the slow, meditative beginnings and entrancing, virtuosic developments characteristic of Sufi music are beginning to attract an American audience.

“Although these three traditions contrast, they share a common thread. Their music invites the audience into a trance, similar to African-American Pentecostal music,” Vice President of Folklore Productions Matt Greenhill said of Sunday’s upcoming performance. With each artist adopting his own style of Sufi music, audiences should expect an eclectic mix of a style that dates back nearly 1,000 years. Although Sufi music carries a long history, the genre has only been represented in the United States by the Whirling Dervish of Turkey. “Songs of the Sufi Brotherhood” looks to offer a fresh, different perspective on the sounds of Islamic mysticism.

The traditional music that the artists play has been heavily shaped by their individual experiences and histories. Hakmoun is the son of a mystic healer; he gained musical experience by playing alongside snake charmers and street performers in Morocco before moving to New York, where his music was influenced by rock and funk. El Din collected his songs by traveling around on a donkey throughout the countryside of Nubia. Widely popular in the Middle East and Asia, El Din considers himself a citizen of the world.

Perhaps the most notable performers of the group, the Qawwali brothers hail from a 500-year-old tradition of Qawwali singers. They are the nephews of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, perhaps the most internationally recognized of Qawwali singers. The brothers are accustomed to playing six-hour sets but plan to shorten it considerably for the concert on Sunday.

The music presented by Din, Hakmoun and the Qawwali singers is intended to pull at the heartstrings of its listeners by setting classical Islamic poetry to music. “Their (poetic) verses deal with images of romantic love as metaphor for the spiritual journey,” Greenhill said. With pieces featuring rhythmic, trancelike beginnings and escalating climaxes, it’s hard for the listener to feel anything but touched.

Sufi music, often used in healing ceremonies, can also be utilized to engage the senses. It is easy to appreciate the dynamic pulse of the Tabla (traditional drums) and the melodious sounds of the Oud, the predecessor to the modern flute. These two instruments are fully utilized by El Din and Hakmoun. In addition to the instrumental performance, the Qawwali brothers will engage in hypnotizing vocal acrobatics. “Songs of the Sufi Brotherhood” will present a performance that combines different variations on the same mystical Islamic ideas.