Sacred drift - music on the margins of Islam

The cover blurb for the 1993 City Lights' first edition of Peter Lamborn Wilson's Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam explains how the book proposes a set of heresies, a culture of resistance that dispels the false image of Islam as monolithic, puritan, and two dimensional. It then describes how Peter Lamborn Wilson takes a 'romantic' view of Islam to radical extremes, to an exotic viewpoint that may not be 'true', but is certainly a relief from academic propaganda and the obscene banality of simulation. The essays range from a scathing critique of 'authority' and sexual misery in puritanist Islam, to exploring the Sufi tradition of travel.

Peter Lamborn Wilson (occasional pen name Hakim Bey) describes how "this is my brand of Islam: insurrectionary, elegant, dangerous, suffused with light - a search for poetic facts, a donation from and to the tradition of spiritual anarchy". Those false and two dimensional images extend to the music of Islam; so, as a small contribution to dispelling these falsities I am sharing some highlights of my recent listening to music on the margins of Islam. Not only because as Rumi exhorts in a translation quoted by Peter Lamborn Wilson: "Music: the tranquility of life's spirit: but known only to those who know life's spirit's spirit... Turn your face towards Mecca, yes, but know this: - music is this world, music is the other world". But also because we cannot ignore the accelerating sacred drift. In her new book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World Shelina Janmohamed points out that the global Muslim population is growing more than twice as quickly as overall world population growth. Of 11 countries forecast to join the elite club of economic superpowers this century, six have a dominant Muslim majority and two substantial Muslim minorities. Two-thirds of Muslims are under the age of 30, representing a huge and rapidly growing market.

Bigotry comes in many different guises, and one of these is the myth that art music is a strictly Judeo-Christian property. Members of the rapidly growing generation M are young, affluent, and, despite popular stereotyping, in tune with the zeitgeist. Any industry, whether consumer or cultural, cannot ignore them. So here is a personal selection of art music from the margins of Islam...

Marcel Khalife was born in 1950 in Amchit, Lebanon. He studied the oud at the Beirut National Conservatory, and went on to teach at the conservatory from 1970 to 1975. As well as being a leading exponent of the oud he has composed a number of orchestral works including a symphony and concerto for oud. For four decades he collaborated with Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) who is widely regarded as the Palestinian national poet. Mahmoud Darwish acted as a spokesperson for Arab opposition to Israel and until the Oslo Accords of 1993 was a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Three times between 1996 and 2003 Marcel Khalife faced criminal prosecution by senior Sunni Muslim clerics in Lebanon for his song 'I am Joseph, O Father', which set the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. The prosecution alleged that Khalife insulted Islamic values by setting a two-line verse from the Qur'an. But he was acquitted, with the judge concluding that "it is necessary to note that human societies have always known – since the advent of religions until this day – forms of behavior that touched the various aspects of life while not always observing all religious rules or abiding by them without that necessarily forming a desecration of the religious sanctity of the texts from which these rules have emerged". On his latest album Andalusia of Love Marcel Khalife sings settings of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry and plays the oud, accompanied by piano, kanoun and percussion. He describes the album as "an hour of unlimited spirituality upon which I have built my heaven... We live in a world that is drenched in garbage and I take refuge in a garden of flowers and butterflies. I have written and still write my life as I see it, documenting my dreams as music".

The poem by Rumi quoted in my opening paragraph is titled The Spiritual Concert. A recent post lamented how the Southbank Centre's forthcoming Belief and Beyond Belief festival - "a festival of music inspired by spiritual belief" - ignored any belief outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. Others have taken a less narrow-minded view; notably the 2008 Zurich festival which brought together Die Freitagsakademie, Bern with soloists and conductor Howard Griffiths, and a Sufi Ensemble led by Burhan Öçal. What makes this project special is that it is not the usual uncomfortable fusion of East and West. Two Bach cantatas - BWV 93 and 107 - are given impeccably authentic performances by the period instrument Die Freitagsakademie and solists. These cantatas bookend a condensed Sufi semā with ney, quanun and kemençe improvisations.

On the recording made in Kirche Neumünster, Zürich the discrete segue from the quanun and kemençe improvisation into the opening chorus of BWV 107 reinforces Rumi's message that "music is this world, music is the other world". The CD was released by Guild, who are best known for their recordings of English cathedral organs. Unfortunately the label delivered the double-whammy of the naf artwork seen above and the clunker of a title Sufi/Bach, which is possibly the only album title ever to use a forward slash. Predictably but unfairly the Sufi/Bach CD sunk without trace. But copies can still be found, and are worth seeking out as an example of how the music of two great spiritual traditions can be successfully juxtaposed without compromising artistic integrity. Incidentally, before the Southbank Centre dismisses my advocacy of syncretic concert programmes as box office death they should note that the performances - and I quote - "riveted the Zurich audiences in the fully packed church". And just to prove the point the syncretic programme is being repeated this year; in fact next week to be precise.

Like Marcel Khalife's, Kamilya Jubran's music is also infused with the agony of the Palestinian people. Born in Israel to Palestinian parents, she is recognised as a voice of Palestinian resistance, and has contributed to a a new style of a Arabic song that is part of a developing artistic-political process. For twenty years Kamilya Jubran was leader of the Sabreen ensemble that became the musical voice of Palestinian resistance. On her latest album Nhaoul' - seen above - she is joined by French bassist Sarah Murcia and a string ensemble for settings of contemporary Arab poets and and traditional Bedouin poems from the Sinai and Negev.

Sufism, which is often viewed as a liberal expression of Islam, is a leitmotif through Peter Lamborn Wilson's writings. Master musician and Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was a key figure in bringing Sufism to the West, has been mentioned here many times. His son Hidayat Inayat-Khan (b. 1917) studied at L'Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris where his composition teachers included Nadia Boulanger. Hidayat Inayat-Khan's music expresses the syncretic beliefs of the International Sufi Movement of which he is a senior member, and its tonal idiom is very much out of fashion. Which is a very good reason for exploring works such as his five movement 'Message Symphony' for orchestra and organ, which quotes from Le Sacre du Printemps in its third movement. The episodic nature of the five movement 'Message Symphony' means it lacks a coherent overall structure. But when viewed as five interlinked tone poems the work deserves serious consideration. For instance the fourth movement 'To soothe body, heart and soul' which inhabits the same sound world as Alan Hovhaness and Ferde Grofé could be programmed successfully as a stand-alone work.

The 'Message Symphony' is dedicated to spiritual liberty and was premiered in 1969 by the Munich Philharmonic. The privately released CD seen above with the Netherlands Promenade Orchestra conducted by Jan Stulen is available from Sufi Movement's offices in The Hague, and the symphony can be heard in its entirety via this link. It is also available in another performance coupled with other works by Hidayat Inayat-Khan including his Gandhi Symphony from iTunes. All the scores of Hidayat Inayat-Khan's music, including his 'Message Symphony', can be downloaded from the composer's website. (Incidentally Hidayat Inayat-Khan is missing from a very useful recent listing of Asian symphonies on MusicWeb International).

A recent post mused on the decreasing appeal of international travel. Despite this my peregrinations continue and I took the photo below during a recent visit to Sidi Kouki in Morocco. The village takes its name from a Sufi saint and the photo shows the darîh (shrine) of the marabout (saint). Like the Sufis, the Gnawa form ecstatic brotherhoods that verge on spiritual anarchy. In 1999 the album seen above from jazz saxophonist Patrick Brennan, Gnawi M'allim Najib Sudani and African American percussionist Nirankar Khalsa titled Sudani was recorded direct to a Sony DAT recorder in Sidi Kaouki and the nearby village of Henchen in Morocco, and as an early and persuasive example of jazz/gnawa fusion it has achieved legendary status. Travel, both physical and metaphysical, plays an important role in Sufism, and the Sufi way is seen as a path that ultimately leads to a Truth transcending religious orthodoxies. In the final essay in Sacred Drift Peter Lamborn Wilson reflects on the history and poetics of Sufi travel, and concludes with this observation:
Does Travel have a future? If we are to believe Ibn 'Arabi, it must. We are "all of us wayfarers," he says in the Futuhat, "for there can be no end to wayfaring." This being so, any pessimism would ill suit and serve us. It is always morning, the caravan is always departing. All we can do is share the Prophet's prayer - "O Lord increase our amazement" - and set forth into the Bewilderness.

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