In paradise there is no idle chatter
There may well be life after social media, because the Quran (19:62) tells us that "In paradise there is no idle chatter but only the invocation of peace". If indeed there is a paradise, perhaps the only sound there is the reed flute. Mevlânâ Rumi's epic poem Masnavi begins with the distich "Listen to this reed flute, how wistfully it is singing! About separation it is complaining". In his poetry Rumi uses the ney - a reed flute - as a metaphor for the human race which since time immemorial has suffered from the separation caused by the egocentric human condition.
That photo shows leading ney exponent, flautist extraordinaire and composer Christos Barbas. He was born in 1980 in Thessaloniki, Greece; after studying musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of Aristotelio (Thessaloniki) and the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (London) he was taught by the renowned ney master Omer Erdoğdular, who was born in Rumi's final resting place Konya in Turkey. Christos Barbas works and records with Ross Daly and is director of Labyrinth Catlaunya in Barcelona where he now lives. He explains that "My major interest in music is its timeless power to open up – for each person - possibilities for learning, connectedness, creativity as well as its spiritual faculties that can be a valuable tool for a person for understanding himself, understanding the world we live in and ultimately our position in the world".
Together with Ross Daly, Christos Barbas is an active proponent of the new modal music which draws on diverse cultural traditions. His belief in music's power to open up our spiritual faculties is reflected in music which reflects the mystical elements of both his native Orthodox Greece and Turkey with its longstanding Sufi tradition*. The new modal music draws heavily on Eastern practices of improvisation and repetition, which contrast with the Western preoccupation with notation and thematic development. John Cage famously taught that "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all". This succinctly describes the power of repetition, which is found in Occidental traditions including the Sufi dhikr, and in Western compositions such as the Rite of Spring, Ravel's Bolero and the music of Philip Glass and Ludovico Einaudi. Christos Barbas' 2010 double album Yeden - a yeden is the seventh degree of a scale, the note leading to the next octave - is a case study in this mystic power of improvisation and repetition.
Today too much of what is loosely categorised as world music is positioned uncomfortably in the no man's land between the opposing camps of art and commerce. Christos Barbas's music has no such destination: it does not aim to occupy an existing space, instead it creates its own new unique territory. There is no better illustration of this than his new album The Mountain & The Tree; this is a very convincing demonstration of the new modal music, delivered in collaboration with Murat Aydemir (tanbur), Bora Uymaz (vocals), and Isabel Martin (percussion), and with a guest composition from Ross Daly. The Mountain & The Tree could be straight out of ECM's top-drawer with its with its Ursula K. Le Guin and T.S. Eliot quotes, and its atmospheric monochrome images by the young Greek photographer Alexandra P. Kavoura who died tragically young shortly after taking the photos. But with ECM increasingly fixated on the tried and tested no man's land between art and commerce, it is left to Christos Barbas to self-release this impressive and important album.
The mission of Sufism and other great perennial wisdom traditions is to find the hidden self from which we have become separated by quotidien virtual reality. It does not matter whether the destination is Reality, Truth, God or Emptiness. These traditions believe that humankind is not fallen, just fallen asleep; our true selves are not lost, just temporarily obscured like the sun behind storm clouds. In an earlier post I described how ubiqitous online algorithms eliminate the chance encounters that bring insight and learning. This in turn eliminates the collision of ideas from different disciplines and cultures which often sparks creativity. We will have our own views as to whether it is the music of paradise; but Christos Barbas' The Mountain & The Tree is definitely yet another example of outstanding music sparked by a collision of cultures that the internet is hiding from you. Don't take my word, listen to this sample.
* A post last year uncovered a little-known example of Sufism under Ottoman rule on what is now the Greek island of Crete.
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