Classical musician's brave journey from Mozart to Morisco

In the 1950s a number of prominent jazz musicians converted to Islam, including - to use their adopted names - Ahmad Jamal, and Sahib Shihab, Yusef Lateef. One of the most notable converts was the drummer Art Blakey, while the very personal heterodox cosmology of the most celebrated jazz musician of that period John Coltrane was influenced by the beliefs of his first wife Naima, who was a Muslim convert. Many of the musicians who converted were African Americans endeavouring to escape from the shadow of Western colonialism; they saw Islam as an attractive alternative to Christianity within the Abrahamic tradition, and jazz at that time was heavily influenced by music from cultures beyond the Judeo-Christian world. These circumstances were unique to the 1950s, and fewer jazz musicians have taken the path to Islam since. But those who have include the bass player Danny Thompson who converted in 1990; he has played with many great musicians, including Nick Drake on the legendary Five Leaves Left album.

Given the rise of Islamophobia, it is not surprising that few classically trained musicians have publicly embraced Islam. However, one rare example is the violinist Ali Keeler. Born in London in 1973 to English Muslim parents, Ali Keeler started learning the violin at the age of seven, studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and played in a string quartet and youth orchestras. But his career path then took a very unusual turn: he moved to Syria, where he switched his studies from the performance traditions of the West to those of the Muslim world. Ali now lives in Granada, and performs Sufi music from Andalusia, the Arab world and Turkey with the intercultural Firdaus Ensemble, which he founded. Our paths crossed at the this year's Sufi Culture Festival in Fez, Morocco, where Ali was playing. The Sufi master and poet Rumi tells how when we hear sublime music "We listen and are fed with joy and peace*". Joy and peace were in abundance during Ali Keeler's set in Fes, and it was clear that his music, and the story behind it, deserved to be shared. So I talked to Ali when he brought Al Firdaus to England recently.

Bob Shingleton – Ali, let's do this the right way round and start at the beginning. You went to the the Royal Northern College of Music in 1991 to study violin, and played in several ensembles including a string quartet. Tell us about your time in Manchester and about the music you played there.

Ali Keeler - I studied under the Russian violinist Lydia Mordkevitch. As is frequent with new teachers, it was back to basics and I was only allowed to play simple pieces for several months to work on bowing I seem to remember. While at the Royal Northern I teamed up with other musicians from the second year to form a string quartet. I particularly remember enjoying performing a Mozart quartet. At the weekends I performed with a different group of musicians in quintet formation, busking in the centre of Manchester to earn some pocket money. In terms of composers my deepest love was for Bach, and I used to love playing the solo sonatas and partitas in the chapel at the halls of residence.

Another interesting musical encounter I had at the Royal Northern was with a German guitarist/composer who introduced me to blues, something I was unfamiliar with. I used to listen to him improvise and try to follow. My classical teaching up until then had been to play what was written and nothing more. I had a deep longing to break out of that mould. Already, I had misgivings about following a career in which I would have to play the music that was on the program, irrespective of whether I liked it or not. At the same time the local Muslim community which became my family from home were totally against music, following the strict deobandi school. It was the first time I had ever lived near a mosque, so I could even attend the dawn prayers at the local mosque. Almost everyday I was invited for meals at different houses eating more curry and chapatis than at any other time in my life. They introduced me to another form of Islam, simplistic and black and white which was attractive to me for for a time, and led to my sudden change in direction. I remember when I announced my decision to leave the Royal Northern to the director he was shocked and said to me, “How are you going to earn your bread?” My response was to quote a saying of the Prophet that if we really had complete trust in God we would be like the birds that leave their nests and always return with their provision without any preoccupation.

BS – In the 1990s you played on two of the albums by the trip hop group Archive. How did those rather unusual gigs come about?

AK - Darius one of my elder brothers took a very different musical path starting his rock career on the drum kit and later forming and leading a London based band called Archive in which he is the composer, lyricist and keyboard player. My brother invited me as a session musician to record on his first two albums Londinium and Take My Head, in which I had to improvise a few solos over a chord sequence. My main contribution was on a track from Londinium called “Old Artist”. That was my first experience recording in a studio.

BS – From Manchester your career went in a rather surprising direction, and you moved to Syria in 1995. What triggered that change of direction?

AK - From a young age I had a deep love for the recitation of Quran. Among my father´s large collection of records of traditional music from all over the Islamic world were records of some of the great Egyptian Quran reciters. I used to love to listen to the recitation of Sheikh Mahmoud Al Hussary who was invited to London to recite at the Royal Festival Hall during the World of Islam Festival that my father organised in 1976. Unfortunately I was only three at the time so I didn´t get the opportunity to listen to him live. At the age of fourteen I remember saying, I would like to become a violinist or a Quran reciter.

After giving up music college, I went back to college to do my A levels in Cambridge where my parents had moved. When I completed my A levels, instead of studying at a university in England, I decided to travel to Damascus to study Arabic and the Islamic sciences in a more traditional environment. I had already travelled to Damascus on my way to Mecca in 1991 just before starting at music college, and visited an institute which had an Arabic program for foreigners, so I returned to this institute and registered there with a group of ten students from Birmingham. It is interesting that the majority of the students in our group had musical tendencies and started to learn traditional Syrian songs. After a year most of the group returned to England, and later formed the well-known nashid groups Sham and Aashiq al-Rasul. I would spend another ten years years in Syria, between work and studies.

BS – In Syria you studied tajwid, the art of Quran recitation. This beautiful form of prosody is little known in the West. Can you explain this art form to our readers?

AK – The tradition of Quran recitation goes back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad who used to love to listen to the Quran recited by one of his companions Abdullah bin Mas'oud who possessed a beautiful voice. The Prophet was known to have said “Whoever does not recite the Quran melodiously is not one my people”. Tajweed means to recite with excellence. The first step to reciting with tajweed is to give each letter its right, pronouncing it clearly and correctly and revealing its true character. The Arabic alphabet has a rich range of sounds employing every part of the mouth from the throat to the lips. Some letters are soft in character and some are stronger. Before reciting with melody it is important to pronounce the letters correctly.

Other important components of tajweed are the observation of the long vowels, which are measured in what is equivalent to beats. A short vowel without any prolongation is one beat. The length of the vowels range from 1,2 4,5, and 6 beats. The observation of vowel lengths and doubled letters is what gives the recitation its rhythm. Then there is also the science of where and how to stop during the recitation. As long as these principles are observed the Quran can be recited in different melodic styles. I recently recorded a recitation of Quran in a Celtic mode. The science of tajweed is learnt from masters, in an oral tradition with an unbroken chain of transmission going back to the Prophet, like in all of the sacred sciences of Islam.

BS - In Damascus and Aleppo you learnt to sing in the tradition of the maqam in the zawiyas; these are the Islamic religious schools which in Syria are also associated with Sufism. In 2008 you made the now sadly deleted album Ruh: the Sufi Spirit, with the group Al Kauthar, and you perform with Sheikh Hassan Dyck's sufi ensemble Muhabbat Caravan. Tell us about your involvement with Sufism, which is the inner-directed dimension of Islam that is often described, rather simplistically, as the mystical dimension of Islam.

AK – The zawiya, also called tekke or dergah, is a place dedicated to reunions of dhikr (remembrance of God) and the teaching of the sufi path. These gatherings are typically directed by a Sheikh or sufi master. Though the methods may differ between tariqas, such as the use of musical instruments or dance in the ceremonies, the principles of sufism are the same for all tariqas, the quest to acquire a pure heart, perfected character and ma'rifa ( knowing God). The zawiya is also a place where the disciples from other cities can receive lodging and food. At the age of fourteen, I embraced Islam at the hand of a Sufi Sheikh of the Naqshbandi tariqa. Later in Syria, and Yemen I got to know and studied at the hands of other masters from different tariqas such as the Shadhiliyya and Ba Alawi.

In Damascus and Aleppo I used to attend gatherings of dhikr of the Shadhiliyya in which the art of singing and changing maqam depending on the moment during the gathering, is highly developed and it is in these gatherings that I started to learn to sing. My first experience of the use of musical instruments other than the drum used during a Sufi ceremony, was in Istanbul at the Jerrahi Tekke which has produced some of the best known musicians in Turkey. One sheikh explained to me that the different tariqas were like different coloured cups. What is important is the drink that the cup contains, which is one. A lot of sufi poetry talks about the pre-eternal wine, referring to Divine love. The true sheikh is the one who pours the metaphoric wine into the cups of his disciples according to the capacity of the disciple and when the disciple is ready. The cup needs to be empty and clean before it can receive that wine.

BS – Ali, this talk of Islamic religious schools and Syria will be making some readers uncomfortable. So let's confront the dead moose in the middle of the room. How does your Muslim faith, which you celebrate so powerfully in public performance, square with the violence perpetrated in the name of Islam that dominates the media?

AK – The roots of extremism leading to violence, whether in Islam or any other religion is a lengthy topic. Throughout history man has used religion to justify violence. However, if we study the example of the great Prophets and founders of these religions we realise that these extremists are going against religious principles. Controlling anger and patience are at the heart of the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. One of the most cited sayings of the Prophet is: “Have mercy on the creatures of the earth, so that the One in the heavens may have mercy on you.” Then when war became legitimate to the Islamic community it was accompanied by strict conditions. In warfare it is strictly forbidden to kill innocent civilians, women, and children and priests or monks. However, extremists, act out of anger and frustration and are blind to the true teachings and wisdom of revelation.

BS – While on this thread we should confront another dead moose. Some scholars quote evidence in the Qur’aan and Sunnah that music is haram (forbidden) in Islam. But you obviously believe and practice that it is halal (permissible). What is the basis for your belief that within Islam music is not only permissible, but should also be celebrated?

AK - There are no verses in the Quran that condemn music explicitly. However there are hadiths, (sayings of the Prophet) that condemn musical instruments in a particular context. The scholars who defend the permissibility of some kinds of music look at the context of the hadith. In the hadiths musical instruments are condemned in the context of wine, dancing girls and lewdness. The Prophet's mission was to free his companions from a state of heedlessness and immorality, and guide them on the path of rectitude and consciousness of God in every situation. Whether it is the voice or any other instrument, its permissibility depends on its purpose and also its effect, which can differ from person to person. Music becomes haram when it stirs the baser passions and induces what is haram such as the consuming of drugs or licentious behaviour.

However, music which helps to awaken our consciousness of the Divine or inspires higher principles such as love and compassion, just like other forms of art is not just halal (licit), but recommended. It is also of great importance that there is an alternative to the soulless base music which is all pervasive today. Art has an important role in refining and cultivating our appreciation of beauty, and our sensibility to the world of subtle meanings which connects us to the spiritual. The traditional word for sufi music is samaa' which means 'to listen'. It is only when we are able to listen not just with our senses but with our heart that we can understand the higher realities and read the signs of God.

BS – Your music studies in Syria followed an orthodox route. Yet your music is an unorthodox mix that – as I experienced in Fez - includes Celtic riffs. Do you see this kind of multi-cultural fusion as the way forward?

AK - Modal music whether it is Celtic, Chinese, or African is universal because it is connected to the natural order, and traditional cultures in harmony with that order. Fusion can easily lead to confusion if not done carefully, and the music can lose any clear identity. As we have in our band musicians from different cultural backgrounds; Moroccan, Spanish, and English, embracing diverse musical styles such as Celtic, Western classical, Flamenco, Arabic and Andalusi, my intention is to continue producing music which is rooted in these traditions but has at the same time an original sound identifiable as Al-Firdaus.

BS - What violin do you play?

AK - My violin was made by a Hungarian violin maker and London resident Béla Szepessy in the year 1896. I bought it from my violin teacher Clarence Myerscough, while studying at King´s School Canterbury with a generous donation from my grandparents, may they rest in peace. I must have been about 14 years old at the time. While on the Hungarian connection, after leaving school, I went on to study with a Hungarian teacher called Eszter Boda Katona who prepared me well for my music academy auditions. Eszter Katona and her husband Béla Katona,also a violin teacher were friends of Sir George Solti who was a close friend of my aunt. It was Sir George Solti who recommended me to study with Béla Katona, but as he had a position to teach in Japan I ended up studying with Eszter.

BS - Ali, in 2006 you moved from Syria to Granada in Spain. It was in that year that the violence that escalated into the current terrible civil war in Syria started. Was it the unstable political situation that forced you to leave, and what are your hopes for that conflict torn country?

AK – My move from Syria was way before the political strife started. In fact when I left Syria there were too many foreigners moving into the old city where I lived for my taste. It was a very popular place to study Arabic and also full of journalists. My move to Spain was at a time when I needed a change in my life. It is difficult to see how the Syrian people will recover from this conflict. It will take years. But historically, it is nothing new. The Mongols and Crusaders also devastated this area. Apart from the human disaster the extent of the destruction of Syria´s historical monuments is a great tragedy which will be nearly impossible to recover. Many Syrians have started new lives in other countries and it will be difficult for them to return, especially when their children are brought up in those countries. Syrians are very resourceful and are great at business, so where ever they settle they will prosper no doubt. There are so many foreign interests in Syria fuelling the war on all sides it can no longer be considered as a civil war. The first step to peace will be when there is a real interest from the international community, especially the main players involved in fuelling the conflict to withdraw.

BS – In 2012 you founded the Al Firdaus Ensemble [- seen above]. You have travelled widely performing with them, and the Ensemble's first CD Safa has been very well received. What next for Al Firdaus?

AK - We are here on our first tour in the UK, and that is going really well. We are planning a tour of the US for February 2016 and hope to be able to tour Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia in the near future. Our second video clip for the song Celtic Salawat will be released soon. Our CD Safa is released on our own label, and now we are looking for an international distributor to handle online digital and physical sales of that album and others that will follow. Hopefully with an international distributor our music can be heard by a wider audience.

BS – Ali, finally a question that reflects a recurring theme On An Overgrown Path. You started your career in Western classical music. Winning a new young audience for that art form is a major preoccupation at the moment. What are your views on how Western classical music can rejuvenate itself?

AK - It would be good for Western classical music to connect with other living traditional forms of music and introduce rhythmic elements which are more stimulating and attractive. Another element that is lacking in western classical music in general is improvisation. It is important that this creative element is given a space in classical pieces. This could be a key to its rejuvenation. Then there is also the stuffy elitist image that classical music has which puts off a lot of people of all generations from this genre. Having said that classical music is much more popular and accessible than it used to be.

BS - Ali, listening to you recounting the story of your musical and spiritual journey reminds me of this advice from the pioneer of comparative religion Huston Smith: "Beware of the differences that blind us to the unity that binds us". Thank you for finding the time to share your story with my readers, and let's leave them with Al Firdaus' musical tribute to the Moriscos, the persecuted medieval Spanish Muslims.

* Rumi quotes comes from translation by R. A. Nicholson in ‘Persian Poems‘, an anthology of verse translations edited by A.J. Arberry, Everyman’s Library, 1972. Header photo (c) Zoabir Ali. Other photos from Al Firdaus website. Interview is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2016. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


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