thu 20/06/2024

Ecstatic Journey, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Ecstatic Journey, Barbican

Ecstatic Journey, Barbican

Top Sufi groups from Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan and Bengal impress on last night of out-there festival

Sain Zahoor: charismatic Sufi in sparkly gear

The final night of the Barbican’s adventurous if slightly awkwardly named Transcender season was a Sufi safari, with a tapas selection of four very different artists from assorted Islamic countries giving a taste of their music.

First up, making their UK debut, although they had impressed at this year’s Fes Festival, were the Ensemble Syubbanul Akhyar. The band, whose name translates as “youthful praise”, are from Java, Indonesia, where they added sweet violin, painted a hallucinogenic turquoise, and wonderfully melodic flute to the traditional voice, oud, drums and tambourines. Their music mixes the Arabic elements of their ancestors with deliciously Javanese scales to create dream-like, hypnotic music.

The music sounds ancient, but is highly innovative, influencing hundreds of ensembles in Indonesia. The words are drawn from the Koran – a catchily unforgettable song about The Prophet rounded off the set where a couple of dancers did something between Morris dancing and kung fu. I found myself drifting off to my first night in Indonesia where I saw a gamelan, smelt the clove cigarettes and saw some girls with real fireflies as necklaces. The theme of the evening seemed to be how to mix sensuality and spirituality, as Marouane Hajji put it later.

There were moments when the Ecstasy promised by the title was tantalisingly close

There is an argument that the clash of cultures exists between the West and Islam. Another more sophisticated suggestion is that the real clash is between the Sufis and the Fundamentalists within Islam. But even within Sufism there is a wide spectrum. If the Indonesians were correct, the Bauls group from Bengal billing themselves The Fakirs of Gorbhanga were hairier in tonsure and spirit. Generally, the Bauls I’ve met are more rock’n’roll than most Sufis, tending to enjoy smoking dope and being great believers in tantric sex. For a number and a half they lost the rhythm, or perhaps they were plugging into some cosmic drum that the rest of us couldn’t hear, but by the end they were totally in sync and the evening began to lift off.

After the interval there was a generous welcome by the mixed Islamic/non-Islamic crowd for Sain Zahoor, who was one of the stars of Simon Broughton’s film Sufi Soul, shown on Channel 4. He is more at the wilder end of the Sufi spectrum and was a charismatic presence, dressed in a glittery gold outfit. Unable to read or write, he has been a genuine wandering minstrel, often performing at the shrines of poet-gurus like Bulle Shah, whose lyrics he uses in his songs. There were moments when the Ecstasy promised by the title was tantalisingly close.

The last act was Marouane Hajji, a young singer from Fes, with a wonderfully clear, pure voice accompanied by melodic violin, flute and drums. While there are street Sufis like the Aissawas in Fez, this was a more educated version, closer to the semi-classical Malhun or the high-culture Anadalus Orchestras of Morocco. It was a rather strange mixture, in fact, as they were performing a type of Dhikr, which means remembrance, where the names of God are repeated until the participants go into a trance-like state. A vague cultural parallel might be if someone had done a string-quartet version of the Hare Krishna chant.

All very beautiful, but the problem with, understandably, giving the groups half an hour each is that in situ they will all play often all night, only after several hours reaching a truly ecstatic state. I would propose that next year they give a similar concert as a taste, but then have the groups on a following night do the full, longer performance they would do in their own countries in a suitable venue to get more than a brief taste of the power of this music.

Watch a clip from Sufi Soul


The Bauls I’ve met are more rock’n’roll than most Sufis, tending to enjoy smoking dope and being great believers in tantric sex

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