Ensemble Ibn Arabi
Chants Soufis Arabo-Andalous [Arab-Andalusian Sufi Songs] (Long Distance 0450103, 2003)
The mystical facet of Islam known as Sufism has long regarded artistic expression as a path to greater connection with God. Sufi beliefs flourished alongside the greater expanding influence of Islam over the centuries, and the musical rituals of its followers ranged from highly esoteric and ecstatic to more restrained, sometimes merging with the folkloric traditions of the regions where Sufi ideology found favor.
The Morocco-based Ensemble Ibn Arabi recreate, in beautifully low-key fashion, the music that emerged from the zaouias (Sufi meeting places) in Spain back when that nation was a home to the cultures of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The tracks on this disc resonate with a richness that seems rooted in the distant past, though some of the viewpoints espoused in the lyrics (such as the unequivocal “I Believe in the Religion of Love”) would do well to take on new meaning nowadays.
Musically, things stay at the soothing, meditative end. Songs that often wax whimsically on the nature of love both human and divine float along a current of longing vocals, oud (lute), qanun (zither), ney (flute), violin and the echo of lightly rumbling frame drum. Improvised solo instrumental passages (known as taqsim) connect the songs in a manner reflective of the exchange of ideas so valued in the zawiyas of old, representing also the cooperative spirit shared by the ensemble as musicians and preservers of a tradition that they obviously treasure.
Sufism has found a greater niche in today’s world through the popularity of such forms as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ecstatic qawwali music and Hassan Hakmoun’s Gnawa trance tunes, but this softer side of Sufi also plentifully nourishes the desires of the soul.