There’s something hidden deep within music, an intangible highly emotional way of connecting with the human spirit, not just the mind, but also the libido and perhaps more importantly the soul. If you think of the ecstatic jazz of John Coltrane‘s later work, such as a Love Supreme (1964) and Ascension (1965), extremely visceral powerful pieces that are said to be his attempt to communicate with his God. Then there’s his wife Alice, who continued his legacy with some gorgeous highly spiritual albums such as Transfiguration (1978) and Transcendence (1977) before retreating into a Southern Californian Ashram and becoming a spiritual leader. In fact the spiritual beliefs of this generation of artists called for new names such as Devadip Carlos Santana or Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.
The concept of music being a way to communicate with your supreme being is not a new one. All you need to do is wake up bright and early on sunday morning and tune into Peter Miles amazing Gospel Show on PBS FM which delves into roots, blues, funk and soul for a weekly burst of teachings from the good book. Religion of course has recognized the power of music for years, harnessing it for its own purposes in rituals whether by chanting, hymns, or chorals. And just like in Footloose they’ve also recognised that music (or in Kevin Bacon’s case dancing) has the power to corrupt, just ask Marilyn Manson. Yet occasionally organised religion even targets groups who you would have thought were on the same page.
Sufi music is a centuries old tradition, and may possibly be where Coltrane got his idea to use music as a tool to be closer to God. The very act of playing music is prayer. Sufi music recognises the emotional and communal power of music, that trance inducing ego-less power to lose and elevate oneself. For the Sufi’s this new state brings them closer to God. It’s absolutely fascinating and the music incredibly powerful, even if you don’t understand a single word, because that’s the beauty, you feel the power and ecstasy regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof. “Sufism is an antidote to all the the negative stereotypes of Islam,” offers English enthusiast William Dalrymple in his excellent documentary Sufi Soul (World Music Network/ Planet Company). “Since the very earliest days of the faith the Sufi’s have produced some of the most beautiful art poetry and music,” he continues. The Sufi’s he explains have always experienced condemnation from Islamic hard-liners who see music as a distraction from God, yet it has spread across the Muslim world. In Sufi Soul Dalrymple travels through Pakistan, India, Syria, Turkey and Morocco discussing how Sufism merges with local cultures to produce idiosyncratic new forms wherever it travels. He visits the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey, noting the irony that whilst it’s out and proud for the tourists, Sufism is still officially banned (though tolerated) in Turkey. Thus brotherhoods meet all over Istanbul in secret after years of oppression, such as the one Dalrymple visits in a nondescript apartment block. The music in this documentary is amazing, such as the raw minimal highly percussive chanting in Syria, or the Qawwali music of Pakistan as exemplified by legendary singer Nusfrat Fateh Ali Khan. It’s these intimate performances in homes, courtyards, on the street or in temples that provide a rare insight of the important role music plays in daily life.
He visits the famous tanneries in Fez (Morocco) and interviews one of the Gnawa trance musicians before we get an incredible driving percussive performance in his house. This music has healing properties. “As soon as they hear the right music they have to do the trance dance,” one of the musicians offers, “Even if you bound them with chains they would have to dance.” He remains in Fez for the great festival of Sacred Music, a festival established after the first gulf war, prompted by the increasing polarisation of the Arab and Western world. It’s a festival which juxtaposes religious music from across the world. Dalrymple highlights Senegalese vocalist Youssou N’Dour who performs here with an orchestra, and notes that music can correct the false notion that violence is somehow intrinsically linked with Islam. It’s a fascinating and healing journey, and another remainder of the power of music, particularly when it’s not just used as a tool to sell you cosmetics and perfume.