Asian Music and Dance

Ecstatic Journey: Music From Around the Sufi World

Ecstatic Journey, the last night of Barbican’s Transcender festival, presented a taster of Sufi music from some outstanding musicians from Morocco, Pakistan, India and Indonesia. Sufi music – mystical, rustic, folksy, captivating, uplifting, hypnotic, powerful and mesmerising – reminds us, according to the programme notes, of the power of music to transport us to another realm. 

The journey began in the Far East with music from a group of young musicians from Jakarta who trace their ancestry back to the Yemeni traders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries who spread Islam eastwards. The Syubbanul Akhyar Ensemble, translated as ‘Youthful Praise’ combined traditional Arabic instruments like the hajir, a large double-skinned barrel drum; marawi, a smaller hand-held tambourine/drum; oud and the Yemeni lute; gambus alongside the violin and flute to play songs that drifted between ancient Arabic melodies, percussive Indonesian gamelan and exquisite melodies from the violin and flute. A slight slip in the proceedings occurred with the choreographed dancing on the last number, more reminiscent of a Morecambe and Wise set, a popular entertainment television show from yesteryear. 

Next on stage were the Fakirs of Gorbhanga. They’re from the Baul musical tradition of travelling minstrels who trace their ancestry to the nineteenth-century poet Lalon Fakir. His beliefs synthesised Hindu and Islamic mysticism with a search for the truth inside oneself. Aside from Lalon, the Fakirs’ devotional songs are also inspired by other Bhakti and Sufi poets and influenced by the Qawal traditions. Highly infectious, it was easy to drift off into a light reverie as the musicians, plaited locks flowing, played catchy folksy rhythms on the dotara (a five-string lute), harmonium, jhuri (cymbals), dholok and tabla.

Perhaps the most well-known of the evening’s artists was Pakistan’s Sain Zahoor, featured prominently in Simon Broughton’s film, Sufi Soul and a past winner of the BBC Award for World Music. Playing on his trademark single-stringed ektara, heavily decorated with multi-coloured woollen baubles, and dressed in shimmering gold and black costume, Sain creates an immediate visual impression. It is the music, however – soulful, hypnotic, pleading, lyrical and laced with the poetry of Amir Khusrau, Bulleh Shah and Baba Farid – which creates the lasting impression. Eyes closed, it was a small step towards imagining oneself in the dusty, sun-baked villages of Punjab and the shrines of Sufi mystics where this music is often heard. 

Our transcendental journey ended with Marouane Hajji from Fes singing Sufi music from the Tijani and Skali genre dating back to the eighteenth century. Marouane, still only in his mid-twenties, enchanted the audience with a voice – soulful, haunting, a cappella-like, enchanting and prayer-like – that rose effortlessly through the drumbeat and melodies created by the instruments. 

Barbican’s Ecstatic Journey – a canter into the rich, diverse Sufi traditions – was but a small taster of the real thing. Any one of the artists could have played for several more hours and helped audiences take several more transcendental steps.



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