Joyful experiments: three snapshots of global Sufi music

Hypnotic musical performance has always been central to Sufism, the ‘mystical dimension of Islam’. Sufi music has been spreading around the world for centuries, mixing with whatever creative cultures it may come across and spawning countless stylistic offspring. Here are three modern snapshots from global Sufi music…

Dhafer Youssef – oud & vocals

Dhafer Youssef, an extraordinary, unclassifiable musician, has walked a uniquely winding path to mastery. Born in 1967, he grew up in an impoverished Tunisian fishing village, and, like his ancestors, learned muezzin singing at his local Quranic school. 

The young Dhafer always yearned to take up an instrument, but his family had no money for one, so he fashioned an oud (Islamic lute) out of materials found washed up on the beach. Without being able to hire a teacher, he naturally sought to mirror the melodies of the music he loved, painstakingly deconstructing them by ear.

Aside from the devotional songs of his own community, these early influences included a plethora of jazz styles, picked up from the Italian radio stations he could just about tune into from across the Mediterranean (although at first he had to keep this extracurricular listening secret from the village elders). He began singing at weddings, eventually saving up enough to buy his first ‘proper’ oud.

But the wider world of music remained distant for a little longer – Dhafer didn’t even see a piano in real life until he moved to Vienna to study aged 19. But when he did, he instantly began mingling with a broad assortment of composers, jazzers, and free improvisers, laying the foundations for a career that has seen him combine the sounds of his Sufi roots with pianists, DJs, tablists, string quartets, avant-garde trumpeters, and exponents of Norwegian folk. He breaks new ground with each album, despite displaying little intent to rebel against anything other than his own constraints.

And while much of his music may be imbued with melancholy intensity, full of soaring lamentations and minor-key solos, he is known as a warm, considerate bandleader, exuding a generous in-person charisma. As a teenager I met him after an enthralling concert at Bath Abbey, and never felt hurried as he patiently answered my questions about how he had derived his own oud tunings back in the very beginning. The world needs more musicians like Dhafer.

Mercan Dede – bandleader & producer

Mercan Dede might be the Miles Davis of the modern Sufi music scene. He may play the 5,000-year-old ney flute instead of the jazz horn, but is – like the Prince of Darkness – is renowned as a chameleonic bandleader as well as a superb instrumentalist. 

Another globally minded Sufi fusioneer, he has led groups that feature violinists, sitarists, and rappers alongside traditional Turkish instruments, shuffling up his style with each incarnation and often bringing whirling dervish dancers to the stage with him. Collaborators include Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, Indo-British singer Susheela Raman, and (perhaps inevitably) Dhafer Youssef.

Though not to the taste of every old purist, some of whom see him as a borrower of Sufi musical concepts rather than a thoroughly trained devotee, Mercan Dede’s music undeniably has a rich reverence, entrancing thousands of new listeners worldwide and pointing the way to rich seams of future fusion. In his words, “I noticed I could create incredible energies by combining the archaic and the technoid…My stage show sometimes affects the audience like an unexpected spiritual experience”. (My 14-year-old self definitely agreed after seeing him in Bristol.)

Abida Parveen – kafi vocals

Abida Parveen is a global Sufi superstar, commanding worldwide adulation for her own brand of kafi – a poetic song style from Pakistan. Born into the Sindhi Sufi tradition to a master musician father, she was chosen as the torchbearer of the family style ahead of her brothers after displaying prodigious talent as a child – a rare occurrence. She speaks of spending “hours at the dargahs [Sufi shrines], singing and reciting at festivals. It was normal in the culture I grew up in”. Video

Parveen’s long career since has seen her bring Islamic devotional song to the masses, drawing together disparate mystic traditions through projects such as her outstanding collaboration with English composer John Tavener. Language barriers have proved little obstacle to international adulation – she may sing in Persian, Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi, and Saraiki, but you need not understand a single word of these tongues to connect with her swooping passion.

Many praise her for giving kafi music a fresh prominence and identity. But while celebrities including Björk list Parveen as among their greatest influences, others criticise her for judging TV talent shows and lending her voice to both Pepsi adverts and MTV’s Coke Studio. A woman of few words, she gives little time to such debates, preferring to focus all her energy towards performance itself, speaking of hallucinating on stage while lost deep in the act.

A 1996 New York Times profile references reports of her audiences “spinning in circles until they fell to the floor”. In her own words, “Sufism is not a switch, the music isn’t a show – it’s all of life, it is religion. If I want to be recognised for anything, if we should be recognised for anything, it’s the journey of the voice. And that voice is God’s”.

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