Thursday, March 26, 2015
Music beyond the Western straitjacket of twelve notes
That photo was taken in Sidi Ifni during my recent travels in southern Morocco. Prominent on my playlist during those travels were recordings by Ensemble Al Kindi and its founder Julien Weiss. After a period on the fringes of the counterculture, French born Julien Weiss converted to Islam in 1983 and took the name Jâlal. In 1995 he made his home in a 14th century Mamelouk residence in Aleppo, which is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and was, until the recent terrible civil war, an important cultural center. Latterly Julien Weiss was based in France, appearing with Ensemble Al Kindi at many prestigious festivals and making acclaimed recordings for Le Chant du Monde. Despite this the Syrian musicians of Ensemble Al Kindi - but not their French founder - were refused entry visas for the UK to perform at a festival in 2013.
A priceless 2005 interview with Jâlal Weiss quotes him as saying his conversion to Islam was "partly social - I wanted to be more than an outsider and become part of the Sufi community here" and revealing that he was drawn to Arab music because he came to hate "the straitjacket of twelve notes imposed by Western music, where everything is standardised". Peter Culshaw concludes the interview by explaining that while Jâlal Weiss was not the most devout Muslim - expecting a Frenchman to give up women and wine is a tall order - his spiritual path was through music.
The death of Julien Weiss from cancer in January at the tragically early age of 61 passed almost unremarked. However the Sufi Cultural Festival in Fez, Morocco next month includes a homage to him as well as a performance by Sheikh Hassan and his Muhabbat Caravan, who featured in a recent post. Public celebrations of Sufism - a liberal form of Islam considered heretical by fundamentalists - are being targeted by Islamic extremists; as was evidenced by the killing of six Sufis in Afghanistan earlier this month. Despite this I will be in Fez with my wife for the Sufi festival, listening with the ear of the heart.
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