Into the Mystic

Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam
Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam (Riverboat Records TUGDVD001, 2008)

Wijdan: The Mystery of Gnawa Trance Music (Possible Pictures/Mondomix MO103, 2007)

The fanatical dark side of Islam gets a lot of media coverage nowadays, to the point where it’s easy to forget the genuinely spiritual, let alone aesthetic, aspects of the faith.

These two films, at once revealing, educational and entertaining, tip the balance toward an image far-removed from suicide bombers and radical mullahs. Both get deep into the heart of their subjects and both will appeal not only to global music aficionados, but also to anyone wanting a greater understanding of the complexities of the Muslim world.

Directed by Simon Broughton (editor of the fine world music publication Songlines) and written/hosted by William Dalrymple, Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam takes a look at a minority sect within Islam and how they regard music as an essential link to God. Familiar sights and sounds such as Turkey’s Whirling Dervishes and the qawwali music popularized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are examined along with lesser-known Sufi forms from India, Syria and Morocco.

Also brought to light are the common grounds between Islam and Christianity (Sufism itself having developed in large part from Christian monasticism) and the way Sufi ideology blended with traditional music in various places to create unique hybrids. The film furthermore makes a convincing case of showing Sufism’s impact on the modern world. “I believe music can correct the image of Islam,” states Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour. Maybe it can and maybe it can’t, but given that the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi was the best-selling poet in America in the 1990s and seeing how Muslims and non-Muslims alike dance to the Sufi/techno fusions of Turkish musician Mercan Dede, it sure as hell seems like it can lend a helping hand.

Not surprisingly, hard-line Muslims regard Sufis and their music as a threat. As to the exact reasons, well, that question is left unanswered: at one point in the documentary Dalrymple asks a group of music-condemning Muslims why they consider music such a sin. Their spokesman simply dismisses Sufis as “wrongdoers” without elucidating further. It’s a telling moment and there are many like it, from performance footage to more intimate musical interludes to the role of women in the proceedings. Extras on the DVD include extended songs featured only in snippets in the main documentary, though I wish more of N’Dour’s spine-tingling performance at the Fes Festival of Sacred Music were added. Even so, this film is excellent in every respect.

Wijdan: The Mystery of Gnawa Trance Music
In Wijdan: The Mystery of Gnawa Trance Music, specific religious connections are not at the forefront of the story. But Sufi Islam is the primary faith of the Gnawa, descendents of enslaved black Africans taken from the Malian empire to North Africa 300 years ago who now live mainly in Morocco and Algeria.

The film documents a meeting between Sibiri, an Animist musician from Mali and Brahim, a Moroccan Gnawa musician. The two discover shared roots in the music they play and in the spiritual foundations of the lila, the sacred ceremony that brings the Gnawa closer to (and bonds them more harmoniously with) the spirits within.

The circular, trance-inducing rhythms of Gnawa music, played primarily on the three-stringed guembri bass lute and metal castanets called qarqabas, have become an increasing source of fascination and inspiration among non-Gnawa musicians in recent decades. Wijdan goes a long way toward showing how and why, exploring the intensity and pure ritual physicality of the sound and the impact it has on those who embrace it, including the families of Sibiri and Brahim as a joint concert in Paris is organized.

The film never fails to engage or fascinate and is highly recommended for those seeking an in-depth look at Gnawa culture. Listeners who’ve been drawn in by the Gnawa elements in the music of such bands as Nass Marrakech and Orchestra National de Barbes should seek it out as well.

Buy the DVDs:

Watch the video trailer for Sufi Soul

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