Collaborative discography Levant

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Sufi Chanting from Syria: Dhikr Qadiri Khalwati of the Zawiya Hilaliya, Aleppo. Paris, France: Maison des Cultures du Monde INEDITW 260109 [2002]. One compact disc, 72’07”

Syria, Muhammad Qadri Dalal: Unwonted maqâmat. Paris, France: Maison des Cultures du Monde INEDITW 260105 [2002]. One compact disc, 69’26”

These two recent recordings of Syrian music represent disparate genres of music -- Sufi chant and the art of instrumental improvisation -- that nonetheless share a common grounding in the spiritual and musical practices of the city of Aleppo. Both recordings reveal the centrality of maqâm or modal tonality, the human voice, and the concept of transcendence and meditation in the musical aesthetics of Aleppo, both traditional and modern.

Sufi Chanting from Syria is one of the most important recordings of music in Syria to be released in recent years because it opens a window onto a realm of musical experience that has not received much scholarly attention, namely the music of the Sufi dhikr of Aleppo. During the dhikr ceremony participants repeat the name of God to the accompaniment of prayers, the chanting of songs, and the rhythmic swaying of the body and control of the breath so as to induce states of heightened emotion that initiates experience as a form of trance. The songs on this recording are derived from the dhikr ceremony of the zâwiya or Sufi lodge known as the Hilaliya and located in the old city of Aleppo. The Hilaliya is one of the oldest and most important zâwiya-s in Aleppo, founded in the 17th century and named after the Hilali family of sheikhs, whose descendants still lead the zâwiya. The Hilaliya zâwiya follows the Qâdirî Sufi order, named after ‘Abd al-Qâdir al-Jilânî (1077-1166), which has numerous branches, among them the Khâlwatî (the same as the better known Turkish Halvati Order), founded in the 14th century and found today throughout the Levant.

In Aleppo the zâwiya has been the home not only for leading religious figures of the city (many of whom would not necessarily describe themselves as “Sufis” per se) but also of a large number of Aleppo’s and Syria’s most important vocalists and musicians, who received their early musical and vocal training in the context of the performance of the dhikr. The Hilaliya and other zâwiya -s in Aleppo have served as de facto conservatories for Arab music in what is now considered its classical form (especially the wasla of muwashshahât or classical Arabic poems set to music as sung in Aleppo). Until this recording the musical elements of the Aleppine dhikr, and in particular that of the Qâdirî Khâlwatî order, have not been much heard outside the walls of the zâwiya, for recordings within are strictly forbidden (a recording of the Rif’ai dhikr was issued in 1975??? REFs). This recording therefore will be of great interest to scholars of Middle Eastern music eager to trace some of the connections between the sacred and secular traditions of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in such cities as Aleppo, as well as to those interested in the art of religious chanting in Syria.

A typical performance of dhikr at the Hilaliya zâwiya lasts several hours and includes recitation of the Qur’an, invocations of God, the prophets, Sufi saints and the founders of the brotherhood, and the chanting of a large number of sections (fusûl) of songs, mostly the muwashshah and qasîda genres of sung poetry. The dhikr is not accompanied by instrumental musicians but in certain sections by a frame drum (daff); hand clapping and the human breath are the usual rhythmic accompaniments.

The present recording represents a selection of the major sections of the Hilaliya dhikr as performed on stage in the context of the fifth Festival de l’Imaginaire (2001) at the Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris. Under the leadership of Muhammad Hakim, the lead cantor or rayyis, the group of ten munshid-s or vocalists present a synopsis of a typical dhikr (according to the liner notes, the main sheikh of the zâwiya would not permit a complete dhikr performance outside the confines of the zâwiya). The recording begins with opening prayers glorifying God, the Prophet, various Sufi saints, and the founders of the brotherhood (track one). Track two (“Rakza”) includes the chanting of a qasîda, muwashshah and madîh (praise poem) with the accompaniment of a daff. (These first two tracks summarize what in the typical Hilaliya dhikr is known as the Jilâla section). Interestingly the three songs in the “Rakza” were all composed by well-known twentieth century Syrian composers and are not traditional compositions. Track three (“Musaddar”) marks the beginning of the sections of the dhikr in which participants may experience trance states, mostly by following prescribed bodily motions in conjunction with a combination of rhythmic accelerations (kartah) and a step-wise melodic progressions (tarqiya or taraqqî). According to the liner notes, the term “Musaddar” derived from sadr, meaning chest, and refers to the movement of the participant’s torso up and down during this section, though other interpretations aver that the term merely means “Opening section.” At any rate, tracks four though eight present the remaining major sections of the dhikr ceremony, each beginning with the chanting of songs of slow and complex rhythms and concluding with faster and lighter rhythms, some to the accompaniment of the daff. The combination of rhythmic acceleration and step-wise melodic progression is a feature of each section and characteristic of dhikr at other Aleppine zâwiya-s; it possibly forms the basis of the structure of the wasla as a whole.

Given the limits of a stage performance far from its original site of production, the recording nonetheless gives an accurate representation of the types of structures found in the Aleppine dhikr today, as well as some of the emotional intensity experienced in the zâwiya. It will serve as a fine complement to other recordings from Aleppo and from Damascus, notably those recorded by the Ensemble al-Kindi in recent years, as well as to other recordings of Islamic chant (inshâd dînî) from elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The second recoding, Muhamamd Qadri Dalal’s Maqâmat Insolites (poorly translated and misspelled in English as “Unwonted maqâmat”) presents the artist's interpretation of a series of modes that are not much performed today in Aleppo or elsewhere in the Arab world. For this reason they are to be considered “insolites” or, better, “forgotten” modes that Dalal aims to bring back to the ears of listeners in this recording, as in his live performances (although this was recorded in a Parisian studio, it was completed in only two sessions with very little editing and reveals some of the contours of Dalal’s live performance practice). In a sea of recordings from the Arab world that dwell in the realm of a limited number of standardized modes and clichéd melodic phrases, Dalal’s efforts to preserve the tonal richness of the Arab maqâm tradition are welcome.

The first nine tracks consist of taqâsîm (sing. taqsîm) or improvisations on the ‘ûd, the Arabian short necked and fretless lute. Dalal’s style is immediately recognizable from his other recordings; it can best be characterized as meditative, a mixture of Arab and Turkish styles that is somewhat removed from more familiar styles from Egypt, especially in Dalal’s avoidance of the use of rapid trilling of the plectrum (a technique called rishsh) and his avoidance of familiar if not clichéd closing cadences known as qaflât (sing. qafla). Although each taqsîm centers on one or another “forgotten” mode, such as dil nishin and shi‘ar, Dalal makes extensive use of modal modulation (intiqâl) from one mode to others related either by their tonic or component modal units or genera (ajnâs, sing. jins). Perhaps the rarest of the modes recorded here is dil nishin, which as the astute liner notes by Pierre Bois indicate is almost never performed. Likewise his improvisations on the modes bastah nikâr, shi‘âr, and nakrîz affords Dalal the opportunity of exploring a wide range of genera and modes, from the obscure (bastandîdah) to the familiar (râst, bayyatî, hijâz, etc.). Moreover, analysis of the improvisations reveals the extent to which they are based on thematic development and variation; composition in the moment based in well-formulated structures. Indeed, as Dalal himself indicates in a welcome personal addition to the liner notes, the best improvisers in Arab music, both instrumental and vocal, have relied heavily on pre-composition in order to insure a high quality base-line performance (Dalal mentions Muhamamd ‘Abd al-Wahab, Sabah Fakhri, and Munir Bashir as examples) so that, in his words, “a successful improvisation is probably the most refined form of musical composition.”

Perhaps the most interesting track on the recording is “Tarkib Jdid, New Composition” in which Dalal departs from the traditional modal structures elaborated in the previous tracks and embarks on an exploration of the component modal units or genera, without recourse to the concept of maqâm. In these “non-modal” (lâ maqâmî) improvisations, Dalal explores the potential of mixing genera in unique forms and on various tonics, resulting in combinations that often contradict the implicit rules of traditional modal improvisation (for example, chromatic and step-wise modulations). In this he continues a tradition of experimentation in Aleppo begun by the composer Nouri Iskandar in the 1980s and continuing today in the compositions and performances of Dalal and Iskandar, and in the theoretical writings of Saad Allah Agha al-Qala‘a.

The recording should appeal to anyone interested in the state of the art of instrumental improvisation as well as those interested in exploring the richness of Near Eastern modes. Furthermore, this recording complements Sufi Chanting from Syria in its intense meditative character, and in its reliance in track nine (maqâm huzâm) on the technique of tarqiya or melodic step-wise melodic modulation found in the dhikr. Indeed, given Dalal’s upbringing in the main zâwiya-s of Aleppo and his association with some of the leader spiritual and artistic figures from this city rich in both domains, it is no surprise that Dalal’s artistry should express some of the experiential qualities of the dhikr. Along with his work with Ensemble al-Kindi and his previous solo performances, this recording should solidify Dalal’s place at the vanguard of practitioners of the art of instrumental improvisation in the contemporary Near East.

-by Jonathan H. Shannon, Department of Anthropology, Hunter College, NY, NY

Copyright World of Music 46(1): 2002.