Mohammed Bennis and the Hmadcha Ensemble
Saturday, 8 p.m.
Sunday, 7 p.m.
UMMA Apse, tickets $40, student rush tickets available

Courtesy of Mohammed Bennis and the Hmadcha Ensemble

For centuries, traditional Sufi chanting of the Near East has been used as a way of expressing religious devotion. Sufi music has also been appreciated in concerts and films in a form that is accessible even to non-believers. This weekend, Mohammed Bennis and the Hmadcha Ensemble will make Sufi chanting’s hauntingly captivating sound resonate through the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Apse.

The performance is sponsored by the University Musical Society, and though UMS and UMMA have collaborated in the past, this performance marks the beginning of what will be an ongoing partnership now that the museum has reopened.

The Hmadcha Ensemble was founded by artistic director and poet Mohammed Bennis, whose goal was to preserve the traditions of the Sufi chanting of the city of Fez in Morocco. Their presentations in Ann Arbor will be performed in a style similar to those featured in the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture in Morocco and the Festival of World Sacred Music.

The Festival of World Sacred Music is an annual week-long festival of exhibits, lectures and performances featuring some of the most renowned musicians in the genre of spiritual music. The festival becomes a meeting ground through which not only music, but ideas on religion and democracy, can be exchanged. The event works to recognize the importance of allowing varying cultures and religions to interact with one another.

This open-minded atmosphere certainly resonates with the goals of this weekend’s performances. The large open space of the museum Apse not only has great acoustics, but, because there is no stage, it creates a setting where the performers and audience are able to interact on a more intimate level.

The audience will be arranged throughout the space, allowing it to view the stage at multiple perspectives from different levels of the museum. With the performance out of the context of a concert hall, the museum’s setting emphasizes the possibility of experiencing the ensemble not only aurally, but through a different visual perspective. Bennis and the Hmadcha Ensemble will be treated as an actual exhibit in the UMMA that will come to life through song and dance.

“It will challenge us to think about how performance changes not only acoustically but experientially when you move it into a different type of space,” said UMMA Director James Steward.

“It’s not just the space which changes the performance, but the performance changes the space,” he added.

The setting will ask viewers to stretch their preconceived notions of the function of an art museum. It will also suggest more holistic ways of approaching art objects in traditional museums, taking into account the culture from which such objects are derived. In the case of this weekend’s performance, the museum’s international collection — and more specifically its Islamic art — will be given another means through which it may be understood and appreciated.

The ensemble will perform five songs, beginning with incantations and progressing into chanting and movement. The chanting consists of spiritual poems devoted to the Prophet Muhammad and other noblemen and is hypnotically beautiful, transporting the audience to another world. The songs celebrate and praise the divine through a collection of echoing voices.

It isn’t uncommon for Sufi chanting to be absent of instruments as more emphasis is placed on the intonation and pace of the voices. Traditional percussion instruments are occasionally used during performances, and the final song by the ensemble will feature a guenbri guitar — an instrument commonly heard in Gnawa music, which is heard in Arabic and sub-Saharan African songs.

Steward said that elements such as historic Turkish carpets would add to the setting’s décor and provide a firm framework that this music would have originally been heard.

“We wanted to reinforce the cultural character of the art that is being performed rather than putting it into a neutral space,” he said.

This weekend’s performance is an opportunity to witness the beginning of this space’s transformation. But even more importantly, it’s a way to hear an ancient form of music that is inspiring as a global entity, and enthralls its listeners beyond Morocco’s borders.

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