Celebrating civilizations

Open your ears to another side of the world's Islamic community


The Islamic world is home to one of the richest and most important musical traditions on Earth. It doesn’t hurt that it also spans an incredibly vast area, stretching west to Morocco and east as far as Indonesia, and that it contains an intricate tapestry of races, languages and cultures, or that it is an area where just about everything we recognize today as elemental to human civilization first arose. With music, as with so much else, people from the Islamic world have had a lot of practice.

Today, many Muslim musicians find themselves trying to convince audiences across the globe that their myriad homelands contain far more than the Kalashnikov-toting terrorists, women-hating clerics and, by turns, hapless and megalomaniac political leaders that flash across our television screens every night. They are the proud inheritors of a vast musical tradition — beginning long before the 7th century emergence of Islam — through which life, love and faith have long been celebrated, and if the artists due to perform in cities throughout Japan beginning this Saturday as part of the Ramadan Night Muslim music festival are any indication, their traditions are alive and well.

Named after the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, which began this year on Sept. 23 and ends on Oct. 22, the festival will feature performances by renowned Persian classical musician Kayhan Kalhor and the Pakistani singer Faiz Ali Faiz, arguably the greatest living practitioner of qawwali, an ancient form of Sufic devotional singing from Pakistan and northern India. Kalhor and Faiz represent the traditional side of the festival’s program, while concerts by the Paris-based North African roots group Gnawa Diffusion and DuOuD, along with Mercan Dede from Turkey, will showcase the melding of traditional musical forms with everything from rock and funk to Western electronic music.

It is no doubt a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, but the festival may in some humble way help to turn the “clash of civilizations” that overshadows the world now into a “celebration of civilizations.” At the very least, it is a rare opportunity for audiences in Japan to see and hear a handful of the most celebrated members of a musical milieu to which nearly all of the world’s musical tradition’s owe a great debt.

Kayhan Kalhor

Sufism is an influence shared by several artists performing at Ramadan Night. Sufic dance, literature and music is purposefully made to induce trancelike states of spiritual revelation in which it is thought a person is best able to experience the divine presence.

The teachings of Sufism have spread across the Islamic world, but they have put down particularly deep roots in modern-day Iran, formerly Persia. “The connection between Sufi poetry and Persian music is very strong,” Iranian classical musician Kayhan Kalhor said by phone. “Musicians actually learn their phrasing through the poetry, through the rhythm and language of the poems. But beyond that, poetry is very important in Iranian culture, period, and not just in relation to music. Poetry is a way of life, and you can feel it in every step you take.”

Born into a Kurdish family in Tehran in 1963, Kalhor was recognized as a child prodigy on the kamancheh, or ancient Persian spiked-fiddle. Known for its distinctive nasal sound, the kamancheh is notoriously difficult to master because it is the only fiddle requiring the player to turn the body of the instrument in order to bow its individual strings. In the hands of Kalhor, the instrument’s plaintive notes meld effortlessly with sung passages from poetry by famed Sufi bards like Attar and Rumi about spiritual love, creating a deeply emotive music that sounds as if it has been pulled up from the basement of time.

Throughout its recent history Iran’s religious leaders have intermittently cracked down on music, which they argue the Quran prohibits. But such efforts have always been difficult to enforce in a country with music in its blood. Authorities attempted a ban immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, smashing instruments and intimidating musicians, but it was not long before the clerics realized they could not maintain such a policy in perpetuity. Today, Iran is home to its own rap and hip-hop artists, along with a thriving community of folk and classical musicians.

Kalhor has traveled throughout the country, visiting many different ethnic groups and familiarizing himself with their folk music, which has led to a unique style of playing that belongs to no single tradition but touches on them all.

Faiz Ali Faiz

Faiz Ali Faiz is the most famous living qawwali singer in his native Pakistan, the large Muslim communities of northern India and abroad, thanks to a long concert career that has frequently taken him across the globe.

Qawwali originated in ancient Persia but achieved its current form on the Indian subcontinent more than 700 years ago. Featuring sung recitations of Sufi poems written in Urdu and Punjabi, a lead singer is usually accompanied by a large ensemble that includes a chorus, harmonium and tabla players. A typical qawwali song often lasts more than 30 minutes, ranging from languid episodes of delicate call and response to feverishly quick free-for-alls in which the entire ensemble combines in praise of divine love and wisdom, bringing audiences to such a fevered pitch of excitement that the songs might be best described as the Islamic equivalent of foot-stomping African-American spirituals.

Faiz is particularly well known for his astounding vocal range, and lately he has been mentioned in the same breath as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the most revered qawwali singer in recent history. While qawwali cognoscenti, or raskias as they are known in Pakistan and India, might believe such a comparison smacks of sacrilege, Faiz’s success at home and abroad may soon find him emerging from the master’s shadow.

Mercan Dede

Sufi influence reveals itself in its most modern guise in the music of Mercan Dede, a Turkish musician, composer and DJ whose group, Secret Tribe, mixes electronic and techno grooves with traditional acoustic instruments to produce a sound that he has described as “electronic and folkloric.”

Dede has been deeply affected by Sufi philosophy and, like many techno and electronica acts, his spirituality is a huge part of his music-making. Unlike so many artists from that world, Dede’s skill, creativity and showmanship keep the music from drifting away from him. Instead he has shown just how far a creator can go with a mastery of the technical side of electronic music and an openness to learn and use methods and melodies from rich traditional sources. Dede is best know for laying the acoustic sounds of traditional Turkish and Iranian instruments like the ney, a wooden flute that Dede has mastered, qanun (Persian zither) and darbuka (goblet-shaped Arabic hand drum) over his own electronic compositions and thudding techno beats. His interest in Sufism has primarily centered on the well-known Dervish offshoot of the tradition, which in Turkey produced the most universally recognized symbol of Sufism, the Whirling Dervishes. Secret Tribe usually performs with their own dancers, who will be touring in Japan with the group.

Gnawa Diffusion

Led by Algerian-born singer/songwriter Amazigh Kateb, the group Gnawa Diffusion emerged from southeastern France with a sound and message that over the last 15 years has made it one of Europe’s most highly regarded musical acts. Kateb and the seven other young members have deep connections to the culture and traditions of the Maghreb, an Arabic word denoting Muslim regions north of the Sahara Desert. Like Kateb, Many of the group’s members were born in North Africa, and the others are from North African families transplanted to the gritty immigrant banlieus located outside major French cities like Grenoble, where the young musicians met in 1992.

Somewhere between rock, reggae and North African rai, a hugely popular form of dance music that pours out of cafes and taxis just about everywhere in the Muslim world, Gnawa Diffusion’s signature sound is a crystallization of the many cultural influences that are part-and-parcel of life among France’s large North African immigrant communities. “Certainly Gnawa represents Maghreb music,” Kateb said by phone from Paris. “But when I created the band, we worked with a French musician, an Italian, a Portuguese and a German. So in the beginning we didn’t play any Algerian music. Then, step by step, we worked around an idea, a rhythm, a melody and a musical construction, like a ‘patchwork.’ “

In addition to their particular amalgam of influences and styles, Gnawa Diffusion is also known for pointed social and political commentary. Their message is not a particularly controversial one, but a feel-good call for greater understanding and openness among all people (think of a North African Bob Marley). “We play with Arabs, Africans, Europeans and others, so we cannot miss saying something about the news,” said Kateb. “But when Magrheb instruments combine with European ones, the result is the same music. And that is music for everyone: black people, white people, Asian people. We are not a group defending any one political movement or another. We just want people to meet people. Everywhere I play, I see joy. Naturally, people don’t want to fight. That is a political problem.”


No one need go further than Jean-Pierre Smadja and Mehdi Haddab of the group DuOuD to see how North African musicians are pioneering the synthesis of Magrheb roots music with innovative sounds and electronica.

Smadja was born in Tunisia and Haddab in Algeria. The two met in Paris where they are now based, and found a mutual fascination with the oud, an Iranian instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute.

Smadja was trained as a jazz musician and sound engineer, and on the group’s first album, “Wild Serenade,” he combined subtle electronic rhythms and tones with Haddab’s and his own expert improvisations on the oud, which has a signature bulbous body that gives it its deeply resonant sounds and a short unfretted neck used by musicians to slide from note to note, creating an effect that many would recognize as distinctly “oriental.”

Smadja and Haddab looked further afield for inspiration for their second album and, on a trip to the impoverished Arabian Gulf state of Yemen to organize a series of workshops with local musicians, they found it. Blown away by the quality of local folk music they encountered, and the fact that few other outsiders had ever heard it before, Smadja and Haddab interrupted their workshops to build impromptu recording studios. After another trip in the spring of 2005, they brought back to France rough cuts of what would become their second album, “Sakat.” Featuring electronic editing and remixing by Smadja, the album reveals Yemeni folk music in a powerful new light.

“There are so many electronic and techno musicians who make music that has an ‘oriental’ feel to it,” Smadja said. “That is not our intention at all. It is really difficult to adapt this music to new sounds and conditions, and the most important thing is to have a great respect for the tradition.”

Though “Wild Serenade” and “Sakat” are ostensibly very different albums, both point to an interest that underlies DuOuD’s work. “Generally what I love is the fusion between the electronic and acoustic world,” explained Smadja. “The best way for me is to mix musicians who know how to improvise and to show them in an electronic context, because it is often really new to them, so they play differently than they would otherwise. . . . I am always trying to put different musicians inside of an electronic universe and see what happens.”