Music as a way to understand Islam

By Adam Hansell. Mr Hansell is enrolled in Dr. Mirakhor’s class “Writing in the Age of Terror(ism)”.

Before attending the Sufi music performance, I found myself wondering what type of performance I was about to attend. Although I was aware that it was a music performance, I was fairly sure it was not going to resemble a huge rock concert or techno rave. When I arrived, I was surprised to see an arrangement of different musical instruments on stage, including several hand drums, two electronic keyboards, and a sitar which closely resembled a big guitar. The music was extremely relaxing and slow, and it was quite clear that playing this music was a spiritual experience not only for the musicians, but also for some of the audience members, who bobbed their heads back and forth, transfixed by the sound of the instruments. I was intrigued up until I heard it, as Professor Babou who introduced the music mentioned that Sufi music was meant to be not only spiritual, but also music that people have danced  to.  Ultimately he said that Sufi music is about practicing to control the lower self, “freeing oneself from their body and lifting the soul.”

A major fan of relaxing music, I was quite surprised that I had never heard of Sufi. However, the musicians explained that while very little is known about Islam, even less is known about Sufi music, which they claimed was due to a lack of exposure. They went on to explain that the objective of their work did not consist merely of pleasing people, but of also spreading a greater understanding of Islam, which is a religion that most Americans are familiar with, but few understand or are even aware of its doctrines. I certainly felt that I learned a lot about Sufi Islam by simply watching the performance. Certainly more people would learn more if it involved listening to Sufi music.

Performance Setting and Authenticity

By Denise Rotavera-Krain.

Please imagine for a moment that you are in 18th century Europe and humor me for a few paragraphs.  Much of Georg Phillipe Telemann’s works were intended for amateur musicians in 18th century Germany.  For example, Canonic Duets for Two Flutes, was specifically designed to be performed in the home, meant to be played on wooden flutes of the day, and enjoyed by amateur musicians and their friends and family.  What happens when you take that work and its performers (out of the 18th century) and put them in Carnegie Hall, on a street in London, or on a stage in a middle school?  What challenges would these musicians face to provide an authentic representation of Telemann’s work?

Aside from the obvious problem of sending 18th century musicians into the future, these musicians would need to make certain compromises and/or adjustments to reach their intended audience.  In Carnegie Hall, for example, traditional wooden flutes may need to be connected to the sound system to be heard throughout the hall.  On the misty streets of London, a musician may not want their wooden instrument warped by the moisture and may opt for a silver flute instead.  In a middle school, perhaps repeats in the music might be avoided so that the program would fit into the daily bell schedules of the school.  Or perhaps, the musicians would arrive in period dress to fit into a history unit the students are studying.  While none of these settings suggest the intimacy of a small family gathering, do these compromises make the performance less than authentic?

Dr. Karim Gillani and Moussa Dieng Kala have been gracious in allowing us a brief glimpse into the beauty and wonder of Sufi music from a number of Sufi orders.  In bringing their music to the College of Wooster campus, they will share with us their expertise, their culture, their religion, and their love of Sufi music.  For sure they will have to make adjustments and compromises to accommodate their mostly college-aged audience.  McGaw Chapel is a very large venue for music that is meant to be intimate.  How will they create that intimacy in a space that seats so many?  Their time on stage may be limited to the time allotted by the Forum series.  How will they use that time? Instruments they use at home (and for that matter the accompanying musicians) may not be available here in the States.  Are there other instruments that will work equally well?  Will it be hard to find local musicians to fill in?  Can a performance with so many adjustments and so many compromises truly be authentic?

Of course the most authentic performance of Qawwali devotional music would likely be held in the Punjab region of Pakistan.  However, what truly makes a performance authentic is the intent of the performers and their motivation for performing.  If the performer’s goals are to share their culture, educate others about their faith, and perform with their heart, their performance is authentic despite any compromises they need to make.  Furthermore, if the musicians remain faithful to the purpose of the music, their performance should be considered an authentic representation of that musical tradition.

I for one am looking forward to experiencing Sufi music first hand next Tuesday, October 23.