World music: Singing the prophet's praises

Sheikh Yaseen El Tuhamy's mystical Sufi songs have made him one of Egypt's top stars. By Michael Church
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A HOT night, and the moon full over Cairo: it's the birthday of the 13th-century poet Ibn Al Faridh, and I'm squatting among 40 other men chatting over their water-pipes in a smoky little flat off the main bazaar. Our host, the top contemporary singer of Al Faridh's songs, is about to lead a moulid - a huge public celebration of his hero's life.

With more than 100 tapes on the market, and devoted followers all over Egypt, the white-robed Sheikh Yaseen El Tuhamy is a hero himself, but no Western pop star was ever so unassuming. Al Faridh was a Sufi, and El Tuhamy is a Sufi singer, and in this mystical strand of Islam there is no room for ego.

What does he feel when he performs? "I feel as though there is a cord attaching my heart to the heart of God, and to the saints who wrote the poems I sing. When I have an audience, that cord grows stronger, and I feel more and more ecstatic. I can sing for five hours and never get tired, because that ecstasy is food to my soul."

How did his career begin? "By following the example of my father, who was also a munshid [a Sufi singer] and an admirer of the great Om Kalthoum. I became glued to the radio every night, just hoping to catch her voice." He himself did not sing, but he became a noted reciter of the Koran. Egyptian Sufis would never talk of anyone "singing" the Koran, but that is what reciting it - when well done - amounts to. As his primary school's star he was invited to recite for local dignitaries in the nearby town of Assiut, and he began to enjoy performing. In his teens he combed the countryside for moulid, and started to listen to other munshid. "I never at that time imagined I would become one myself. I just loved the poetry, and what they did with it musically."

A moulid is a city-within-a-city, as Sufi sects pitch tents in the street and settle for an orgy of singing, chatting, and tea-drinking that can last a week. Sheikh Yaseen went the rounds of the tents. "And I got myself invited to sing a bit - just five minutes at a time, 10 at the most - and the people who heard me began to say `Great. Sing some more.' So I did, and soon I was being acclaimed as a munshid in my own right."

Where did he get his lyrics? His reply goes on for minutes, simply listing the medieval poets whose work he felt inspired by. "But gradually modern poets began to write verses for me to sing." Asked to recite the words of his favourite poem, he refuses. "All are good, all are beautiful. All come from the same source - the soul."

He retires to psych himself up; I make my way to the appointed place, via the Cities of the Dead. I hear the moulid a mile off: the warm-up singer is lethally over-amplified. The surrounding streets are thronged with water-men and tea-vendors, rifle-ranges and fortune-tellers, with boys looping the loop on boat-like swings, and huge family groups camped beside their embroidered tents. Ibn Al Faridh's shrine is enclosed by a courtyard crammed to bursting with the faithful. The Douanier Rousseau moon, in its blue-black sky, seems full of mute mystery.

Around 1am, an extra surge of excitement indicates that Yaseen is on his way; as he walks into the courtyard people press forward to touch him, and hundreds of young men start to sway back and forth in concerted waves, chanting "Allah! Allah!" When Yaseen sings, flanked by his violinist, flautist and three men on percussion, the whole crowd settles into his rhythm, many gyrating to left and right in the Sufi manner till they go into a trance, and have to be protected from injury by the restraining arms of friends.

As London audiences will discover when he sings at the Sacred Voices festival next week, Yaseen's style is both gracefully repetitive and full of melodic invention, and he'll be complemented by two other singers from his native Upper Egypt. El Ranan - "The Vibrant" - has a voice with the penetrative power of a clarinet, while the 70-year-old blind singer Sadia Mohammed Ahmed Eid uses what we would call a baritone register. Accompanied by her son on the flute, she hymns the virtues of patience and the beauty of the Prophet's face, and casts a spell that is wonderfully mysterious. Only a munshid is allowed to sing Sufi songs, but all Egypt listens to them: this "minority" brand of mysticism is deeply pervasive.

Sacred Voices Music Village (information on 0171-456 0404) involves artists from Tibet, Pakistan, India, Morocco and Brooklyn, and takes place in locations all over London from 23 June to 11 July.

Sheikh Yaseen will be singing at the Union Chapel in Islington, London on 25 June