A Night To Remember With Sufi Music and Ritual Dance: Whirling Dervishes of Damascus

By Kathleen Hood

WHIRLING DERVISHES OF DAMASCUS

Shaykh Hamza Shakkur and Ensemble al-Kindi Perform Sufi Songs and Ritual Dance from Syria
March 18, 2001, Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles

The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus, vocalist Shaykh Hamza Shakkur, and Ensemble al-Kindi performed to a packed house on March 18, 2001, at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall. TURATH and the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology presented the concert jointly with the support of the Syrian Arab American Association and the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Since the mid-19th century, various Muslim mystics, or Sufis, organized brotherhoods that incorporated music and poetry recitals (sama' or listening) into their religious practices as a means to achieve divine ecstasy and unity with God. While not as well-known in the West as the Turkish Whirling Dervishes, the Dervishes of Damascus nevertheless belong to the same Sufi brotherhood (Mawlawiyya in Arabic, Mevlevi in Turkish), which was founded in Konya, Anatolia, by the poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (1207-1273). The Mawlawi ceremonies were originally performed in meeting places, known as takiyya or zawiya, but not in mosques, where instrumental music is not allowed (with the exception of some percussion instruments that are sometimes used in the courtyards).

The concert at UCLA consisted of four suites (wasla) from the Syrian Sufi tradition featuring Shaykh Hamza Shakkur as vocal soloist accompanied by the al-Kindi ensemble, a vocal choir (Suleyman al-Keshn and Abdallah Shakkur), and four Dervishes (Hatem al-Jamal, Maher al-Jamal, Hisham al-Khatib, and Ghassan Janid). Shaykh Hamza Shakkur, a muqri' (Quran reader) and the choirmaster of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, is considered one of Syria's foremost vocalists of Islamic sacred music. The Aleppo-based Ensemble al-Kindi, named in honor of the great philosopher and musician of the 8th century, was founded by Julien Jalal al-Din Weiss in 1983. Weiss, a Frenchman who converted to Islam in 1986, plays qanun (plucked zither) in the group. The other members of the ensemble are Ziyad Qadi Amin from Damascus, Syria, who plays nay (reed flute); Muhammad Qadri Dalal, the renowned oud (plucked lute) player from Aleppo, Syria; and Adel Shams al-Din on riqq (frame drum with jingles), who is originally from Cairo, Egypt, but now lives in Paris.

Shaykh Hamza Shakkur, with his rich bass voice, began the concert with a moving cantillation (tartil) of the Quran. Joined first by the chorus and then by the instrumentalists, Shakkur continued with a dhikr, the rhythmic mentioning of God's name. Eventually, two Dervishes came forward, dressed in white garments and tall red fezzes. As the dancers began to spin, slowly at first, then gradually picking up speed, their wide skirts flared out to form a perfect circle. Each began their dance with their hands crossed over their chests, but as they spun, they assumed a variety of different hand positions. Near the end of each dance episode, the music increased in tempo and the dancers spun faster and faster, finally stopping somewhat abruptly with arms crossed over their chests when the music stopped.

The first wasla continued with a taqsim, or instrumental improvisation, on the nay, an instrument whose plaintive sound is symbolic of the soul yearning to be united with God. After the taqasim, the ensemble played an instrumental composition called a bashraf, a form typically performed in the Turkish Mevlevi ceremony known as the ayin or sema. The wasla finished with two sacred muwashshahat (originally a type of Arab-Andalusian secular song form) from the repertoire of the Umayyad Mosque.

The concert proceeded without intermission, perhaps to sustain the spiritual mood of the performance. The three remaining wasla included sacred vocal improvisations, known as ibtihal, performed by Shaykh Hamza Shakkur; instrumental taqasim performed masterfully by Ziyad Kadi Amin, Muhammad Qadri Dalal, and Julien Jalal al-Din Weiss; vocal muwashshahat performed by Shakkur and the vocal choir, as well as dancing by the Dervishes. In addition, the program included two sama'i, composed instrumental forms from the Ottoman secular tradition, illustrating that in Sufism there is little differentiation between sacred and secular music.

For those who were not able to attend this concert, the music of Shaykh Hamza Shakkur and Ensemble al-Kindi is available on the compact disc entitled "Hamza Shakkur and the al-Kindi Ensemble: Sufi Songs of Damascus," Long Distance Music #662294-WM332. AJ

These reviews appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, No. 35 (Spring 2001)


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