Sufi festival has spirits in a whirl

Ecstatic tunes are the focus of a celebration of divine music in northern India. Adrian Hamilton experienced its rare mixwordsmith
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The Independent Culture

Of all the great traditions of spiritual music, Sufi music is the least known and yet, in many ways, the most approachable. Open, cultured and non-violent, Sufism is the mystical arm of Islam, for whose adherents music, dance, chant and song become the means of achieving the abandonment of the self in the ecstasy of being part of creation. All across North Africa, right through the Middle East and into Central Asia, traditions have developed around the shrines of saints and the homes of sheikhs, which have profoundly influenced the music of the countries around them.

All the more credit, then, to the city of Nagaur in the middle of Rajasthan, India, for starting an annual festival of Sufi music four years ago. The intention, as Lady Helen Hamlyn (whose idea it was) admits, was primarily to draw attention to the place itself – an 18th century pleasure-palace within a medieval fort being restored by the Maharaja of Jodhpur with funds from the Hamlyn and Getty Trusts. The town was home to an important Sufi shrine.

If the idea of making a complex of secular pleasure palaces built by a Hindu raja the backdrop for Muslim religious chant seems a little perverse, then it has to be said that it works wonderfully well. The palaces have been restored with great restraint and effectiveness. They and their courts form the stages for small concerts and lectures during the day and larger concerts by night, all lit by thousands of tiny oil lamps, as of old.

Place and performance are not at odds. Sometimes called "light classical" – particularly in India which has always been rather snobby about the pedigree of artistic tradition – Sufi music was never meant to be elitist or exclusive. It was intended to help the listener, and lift him or her, into a spiritual state of ecstasy. Hence it was always open to other influences – most especially in northern India and Pakistan, where a Hindu tradition of spiritual music was already strong.

After a mixed start, musically, the festival has now appointed Alain Weber, director of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, to give it better shape and more muscle. He certainly broadened the Sufi scope in his first effort in February, with performances from the Damascus Dervishes, the Gnawa Brotherhood from Morocco (the Gnawa are reputed to be the first Africans to be converted to Islam), as well as musicians and a quite fabulous dancer from the Nile, and finished with a fiercely assertive concert by a group from Kashmir.

Perhaps wisely, Weber has also broadened the remit of the festival to include spiritual music from Hindu and other non-Muslim sources. Although it made for perhaps too full a programme for three-and-a-half days this time round, it enabled the festival to bring in some of the itinerant players from the Manghaniyar, Mirasi and Meghwal communities for which Rajasthan is famous, and which Weber himself has done much to popularise abroad. They aren't a complete diversion. There is a strong tradition of north-Indian mystical song, particularly in the work of the now-fashionable Hindu poet, Kabir. It shares with Sufi poetry in Farsi and Urdu a use of the earthly imagery of love, and delight as metaphors for the spiritual.

The widening of the festival's scope also enabled Weber give space to the undoubted star of the occasion, Parvathy Baul, from the itinerant Bengali Baul community which, owing allegiance to no particular faith, performs songs of intense mystical yearning. With a lute in one hand, a drum in another, swirling a multi-coloured skirt and tossing a full head of uncut hair, Parvathy – who has appeared a couple of times in Britain – has a warmth and grace which captivates any audience. And yet there remains a fundamental dichotomy between concert performances of Sufi music and the communal intention of this school to carry the listener out of themselves into a state of oneness with the universe around. The music may be melodious and uplifting. The words – and no musical tradition places more emphasis on words that Sufism – my be seductive, but so long as you are looking at an act and judging it, you are relishing your own responses not your participation.

In the end, the most impressive of the performances were not the most flamboyant or most energetic but the most classical and refined. From Bhopal, the two Gundecha Brothers gave a superb performance of Dhrupad singing, one of the most ancient of all Indian musical styles, in which drawn-out notes and repetitive phrases build up to a mesmeric quality of devotion that only the most perfect of plainchant reaches in Western music.

That is tradition continued. For tradition refreshed and reworked, you had to listen to the opening-evening concert sung by a young and rising star of the Iranian scene, Mohammad Motamedi, backed by a couple of classical Persian musicians, None of them are Sufis as such. The players are from a musical academy while Motamedi has studied under singing masters.

"In Persian music," said one, "there is no distinction between classical and Sufi." What they produced was music-making of the highest order, as Hamed Fakouri's lute (the tar) interplayed with the voice urged on by the beat of Ali Rahimi's drum (the zarb), and Motamedi, one hand cupped over his ear to concentrate on the words and the other flung out to stress the repeated lines, sang out the words of some of the greatest poetry ever written. "Nearly all Hafez, with some Omar Khayyam inserted in the middle," he explained.

Of the arts which have flourished since the Iranian revolution, it has been music (along, more perilously, with film) which has been the most revivified. And now comes a new generation, hardly known outside Iran, re-interpreting tradition yet again. Motamedi has yet to perform in Britain. It is a fault which must be rectified, and soon. His is a real and evolving talent.

For a Sufi festival held in India, this year's programme could have done with an evening of Qawwali singing, of the school encouraged by the Chishti order, one of whose saints is buried in Nagaur. For real tradition it could also have done with groups from Sindh and Pakistan, despite the Indo-Pakistan political delicacies. It is there that the Sufis are most under threat from fundamentalists. But if it can produce a festival of this quality and make better-known Islam's most creative practice, never mind trumpet the virtues of a beautifully restored palace, it has earned its place amongst the crowded ranks of world music festivals.