Tomorrow the English-language news channel of Arab TV station Al Jazeera starts broadcasting. With four studios around the world, and presenters including Sir David Frost, Dave Marash and Darren Jordon the new service has summarised its ambitious plans as ‘building a bridge between cultures’ and ‘a forum for the West to speak to the Muslim world’. Impressive sounding rhetoric, but it is worth telling the story of how a 17th century scholar achieved exactly these aims using music instead of satellite broadcasts.
Wojciech Bobowski was born a Pole in 1610 in Lwów, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and now part of Ukraine. He was raised as a Protestant and trained as a church musician. These were times of great instability, with Lwów suffering frequent raids from Crimean Tartars. In one of these the eighteen year old Bobowski was taken prisoner by the Tartars, and his musical training meant he was sold to the court of Mehmed IV in Constantinople, whose reign saw the first flowering of Ottoman-Turkish music. Bobowski was a particularly valuable property as his enslavement in the sultan’s seraglio coincided with the growth of Calvinoturcism, a religious movement which is now forgotten, but interestingly stressed the common elements of Islam and Protestantism in opposition to the Catholicism of the Habsburg Empire.
The sultan (portrait below) provided an excellent education for Bobowski, with the result was that the Pole converted to Islam and took the name Ali Ufki. He learnt fourteen languages including Arabic, French, Greek, Hebrew and Latin, translated the Anglican catechism and Bible into the Ottoman, and wrote a Latin explanation of Islam. But today he is remembered primarily for his music. From his Protestant upbringing Ufki knew the French melodies of the Genevan Psalter. In a fascinating example of 17th century cultural bridge building he composed fourteen Turkish Psalms by notating them using the Turkish modal system and translating the texts into Ottoman Turkish. Ali Ufki’s unique psalter, Mezmurlar, remains in performance today, and has been brought to a wider audience by German vocal ensemble Sarband.
After 20 years in captivity Ufki regained his freedom while visiting Egypt. He continued to live there, and became an important dragoman in the Ottoman Empire. A dragoman is defined as “an interpreter and guide in the Near East; in the Ottoman a translator of European languages for the Turkish and Arab authorities”, which brings this Overgrown Path full circle.
* Visit Al Jazeera’s English channel homepage via this link, and listen to Psalms 5, 6 and 9 from Ali Ufki’s Turkish psalter on the excellent Sacred Bridges CD released by Signum Classics. As well as excerpts from the Ufki’s psalter the King’s Singers and Sarband also sing Protestant and Jewish settings of the psalms by Salamone Rossi, Claude Goudimel, and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelink. Here is a 30" MP3 sample from Ali Ufki's setting of Psalm 9 -
* Also highly recommended is - G. I. Gurdjieff, Sacred Hymns played by Keith Jarrett (piano). Although Gurdjieff is known for his advocacy of Sufism, which is a mystic tradition of Islam, he claimed to have studied more than 200 religions, and his compositions are linked to Greek liturgical music. Keith Jarrett made this recording in 1980 with the support of followers of Gurdjieff.
* And in a week when bridges between cultures are big news folk singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stephens, has released his first album for 28 years. As Cat Stephens the singer had a string of hits including Moon Shadow, Peace Train and Morning Has Broken. He converted to Islam in 1977, and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, but has denounced terrorist acts. Yusuf Islam’s new album, An Other Cup (sic), has received lukewarm reviews.
* With Al Jazeera getting all the attention this week we should not forget that France 24 launches on Thursday. This is the long-awaited French government-backed global 24-hour French language satellite TV news channel which Jacques Chirac has described as 'CNN à la française'.
For more on music, religion and politics take An Overgrown Path to The Pope has another Regensburg moment
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