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Live Reviews

A Mystical Journey: Festival of Sufi Music and Dance
April 5, 2008

By Jason Gardner

Jamaica, Queens

A Mystical Journey, a music festival celebrating Sufi music and other expressions of devotion from the Muslim world, completed their U.S. tour in Queens, NY, featuring nine different performing groups from Algeria, Bosnia, India, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and the United States.


Sain Zahoor from Pakistan proved to be one of the more colorful beginning acts. Not able to read or write, Sain composed his songs by drawing them on paper, then memorizing them. The strong baritone of his clear singing caused the crowd to clap in time to the beat created by his accompanying accordion, tabla, and a percussive instrument made of two parallel metal rods. The saturated colors and ornate baubles of his traditional dress nearly overwhelmed and distracted the viewers from the pure artistry of his music.


Houria Aichi, a well-known Algerian mystical singer, arrived on stage in a flowing brown robe and nodded solemnly to the support musicians on lute and sitar, before silently gathering her composure. Having grown up with this type of music, she reminded the audience that the spirituals help her “forget myself in order to see God with my own eyes.” From the first transcendent clear note, as her songs rang along the upper parts of the register and her wailing and crying phrases reverberated throughout the performance space, any viewer could see that her devotion was obvious and her message was clear, even without understanding the lyrics. As she repeated a certain mystical phrase “shahada,” enunciating each syllable, she jumped and skipped around stage, exhorting the audience to sing along. Her energy was infectious and soon the crowd followed along, many of them already familiar with the phrasing as they delivered the first of many standing ovations.


The journey continued with Tahleeleh, the Syrian Sufi music group with whirling dervishes. Led by Sheikh Hamza Chakour, choir master at the Great Mosque in Damascus, the group of 10 musicians started with a devotional strikingly similar to the Islamic call-to-prayer, accompanied by the oud, santuur, flute and drum. The chorus of multiple singers created deep harmonies, atonal chanting interspersed with the grunting and call-response of the lyrics. As the music increased in intensity, four men slowly rose and shed their great outer black robes to reveal the Sufi dancer’s white vestments. Sufi music and dance are connected, with the esoteric Sufi Muslim tradition dictating that the mystical turning of the dancer represents the connection with the harmony of the universe. After bowing to the attendees and the musicians, the dancers swayed back and forth, spinning in slow circles then increasing in speed, as the musicians continued their rhythms. The dancers lifted their right hand to signify receiving wisdom from God, and the left pointed to the ground to indicate distribution of knowledge to the universe. The dancers’ robes billowed out to create a conical blur as their circles tightened and the audience erupted in appreciation