The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus


Sufi Liturgy of the Great Ummayad Mosque, Damascus, Syria

In this remarkable tour, the noted Islamic classical group Ensemble Al-Kindi join the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus in a spellbinding program of Sufi music and dance from Syria.

The mystic brotherhood of Sunni Muslims known as Sufis embrace the spiritual power of song and movement as essential pathways to an enlightened state of being and thus, to God. Syrias capital city of Damascus has a 500-year-old tradition of Sufism, yet its sacred repertoire is rarely heard in the West.

Ensemble Al-Kindi, headed by Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss a French concert to Islam is based in Aleppo, Syria and features musicians from both Syria and neighboring Iraq. Singer Sheikh Hamza Shakkur is widely considered one of the greatest interpreters of Arab sacred song. The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus are male dancers who continue the entrancing religious rituals established by the great Persian poet and mystic Jalal al-Din al-Rumi. The dance is used as a personal path to escape normal consciousness and thereby return ones soul to its original state of union with God.

The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus

The Great Master Junayd was asked why the Sufis felt such powerful emotions in their spirit and the urge to move their body when listenning to sacred music. This way his reply : When God asked the souls in the spirit world, at the moment of the First Covenant : Am I not your Lord ? , the gentle sweetness of the divine words penetrated each soul for ever, so that whenever one of them hears music now, the memory of this sweetness is stirred within him causing him to move.

In the early 9th century, when the Muslim mystics organised their Sufis brotherhoods or orders, they adopted music as a support for meditation, as a means of access to the state of grace or ecstasy, or quite simply as soulfood in other words, something that give new vigour to a body and soul tired by the rigours of the ascetic life. In sufism, the sama (meaning literally listening) denotes the tradition of listening in spiritual fashion to music, chanting and songs of various forms, all ritualised to a greater or lesser degree.

The very meaning of the world sama suggests that it is the act of listening that is spiritual, without the music or poetry being necessarily religious in content. The major preoccupation of the Muslim mystics was to give the ecstasy a real content and the music a true meaning.

The Sfis mystics brotherhoad known as Mawlawiyya (Turkish: Mevlevis, more familiar to us in the West as the "whirling dervishes") was founded at Konya (Anatolia) by the great Persian poet Jall al-Dn al-Rmi (1207-1273). Although we associate this ritual above all with Turkey, local traditions have been in existence in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq since the 16th century. They survived there after the dissolution of all Sfi fraternities in Turkey in 1925 and the suicide of the Great Master 'Abd al-Halm Thslb Bash.

Damascus is one of the principal centers of Islam, the former capital of the Ummayyad dynasty and a stage in the pilgrimage to Mecca. In their meeting places there (takiyya or zwiya), the Mawlawyah adopted the original suites (wasla), modes (maqm) and rhythms. The ritual may not be performed in the mosques, where musical instruments are either completely forbidden or else only allowed in the form of percussion instruments, which are generally played in the courtyard.

Certain great mosques, such as the Umayyad Mosque (also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus) possess a specific vocal repertory . The sacred suites are known there as nawba-s, a term reserved for secular suites by the former inhabitants of Andalusia and the Maghreb.

Generally accompanied by a male vocal choir (bitna), the reciters (munshid) work into the "sam" (sacred concert) extracts from the repertoire of the Great Mosque, the naming of God (dhikr-s) and extracts from the Birth of the Prophet (mawlid). Their expressivity (hiss) is fundamentally serene, always subtly inventive and rigorously organized rhythmically in order to progressively lead the assembly into a trance (inkhitf) or a state of meditation (ta'ammul) a choice which depends on each individual fraternity.

Sheikh Hamza Shkkr
If properly lived out, Islam is a religion that preaches a message of clemency and mercy, beauty and harmony. The spiritual power emanating from Sheikh Hamza Shakkr's songs draws us into the mystical tradition of Islam embodied in Sufism.

Born in Damascus in 1947, he is a muqri (Koran reader) and a munshid (hymnodist). He is the disciple of Sad Farhat and Tawfiq al-Munajjid; his task is to assure the continuity of the repertory proper to the Mawlawiya order. He is the choir master of the Munshiddin of the Great Mosque in Damascus and serves at official religious ceremonies in Syria, where he is immensely popular. Sheikh Hamza is an impressivley large, charismatic figure. His bass voice with its richly rounded timbre has made him one of the foremost perfomers of Arab vocal music. His art is uncompromisingly sober and introverted, to the exclusion of all affectation. He develops his improvisations within the framework of a centuries-old modal art, where orison blends with dance, and prayer with art.

The Islam he represents, far from being fundamentalist, is that of mysticism and happiness in the Faith. Replying to his soaring, powerful invocations to God, the musicians of the Al-Kindi Ensemble alternate subtle flourishes and arabesques with refined preludes, whilst the dervishes whirl on stage following an immemorial devotional ritual.

This is how proceeds this splendid and spell-binding event, this truly spiritual concert, this session of Sama' - spiritual listening - where the only distraction from our state of bliss is the rustling of the dervishes'robes.

The Al-Kind Ensemble,
Founded in 1983 by the French virtuoso of Arab zither (qnn, or kanoun)) Julien Jlal Eddine Weiss, resides in Aleppo, the capital of northern Syria and a stopping place on the Famous Silk Road. Al-Kindi is currently rated among the best formations devoted to classical Arab music, owing to the musical qualities displayed by its performers, and to the high standard of its work, steeped in the various musical traditions of the Near and Middle East.

The work of Mr Weiss has infused new blood into classical Arab music, and his faithful audience of connoisseurs is deeply appreciative of the encouragement and freedom given to the intuitive genius of the great soloist performers who compose the Ensemble: the Aleppo lute player Mohamed Qadri Dalal, the Damas ney (flute) player Ziad Kadi Amin, the Egyptian percussionist Adel Shams el-Din, and the Iraqi joza player Mohamed Gomar Al-Bawi. The qnun player and artistic director is Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss.

Along with singers from Syria and Iraq who are held in the highest esteem, this ensemble presents various repertoires of classical Arab Profan and Sacred Chant, enabling us to rediscover the riches and refinement of th art of these age-old cultures

Julien Jall Eddine WEISS is French of Swiss and Alsatian origins. He was born in Paris in 1953 and was converted to the Muslim faith in 1986. He has become an absolute expert on the board zither (qnn), after receiving instruction from masters all over the Arab world - in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. He is both a soloist and accompanist in the Al-Kindi Ensemble which he founded in 1983. In the concert world, his constant search for Arab vocalists to accompany or record, who are entirely unknown in the West, has turned him into a sort of ideal link between two worlds. This link has become even more solid since he set up home in a 16th century Mameluk palace where he organises regular music-room concerts in the old traditional style. He travels constantly all over Europe with illustrious Oriental vocalists - Hussein al-Azami from Iraq, Sabri Moudallal, Omar Sarmini and Adib Daiykh from Aleppo, Sheikh Hamza Shakkur from Damascus and Lotfi Bushnak from Tunisia.

Ziyd Qd AMIN is a flautist from Damascus, a pupil of Abdelsalam Safar and considered to be the best exponent of the ney (reed flute) in Syria. He has been a member of the Al-Kindi Ensemble for several years now and takes part in all their European tours.

Muhammad Qadri DALAL was born in Aleppo in 1946. He is a peerless master of the Arab lute (oud) and is very well-known in his own country. He carries on the traditional Aleppian style for his instrument, a style emanating from the Turkish school, aiming at a smooth, rounded sound. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the traditional repertory. Adel Shams EDDINE was born in Cairo in 1950, but is currently living in France. He has been one of the mainstays of the Al-Kindi Ensemble ever since it was created, and indeed he has become indispensible as an accompanist. His total mastery of even the most complex rhythmic cycles have made him a much respected performer on the riqq (tambourine).