Sunday, June 10, 2012

Egypt's Sheikh Yasîn al-Tuhâmi at the Fès Festival

The afternoon concert at the Batha Museum was again very well attended for the concert by unquestionably the most important Sufi munshid (Sufi singerin Egypt today - Sheikh Yasîn al-Tuhâmi.

'Your spirit is mingled with my spirit, as amber is mingled with perfumed musk.'
 - Sufi poet Mansur al Hallâj

This afternoon's concert with the Egyptian Sufi singer Sheikh Yasin al-Tuhami was all about light and shade – just as the afternoon sun filtered through the leaves onto his face, at times illuminating and at times casting him into shadow, so too did his singing range from tones of sorrow and suffering to the transcendental.

The musicians were garbed in neutral robes of black, dark blue, grey and brown, but the colour came from the music. The lineup included Ney (flute), Kaman (violin), Qanun (zither), Oud (lute) and Riq (tambourine).

As Sheikh Yasîn, prayer beads clutched in his left hand, declaims the words of his two favourite Sufi poets he searches,  in a theatrical way, for harmony through suffering; a suffering that is heard in his voice, broken with the emotion of,  as he puts it, "a thousand sleepless nights".  He uses his voice to accentuate words born of another Islam. This is the Islam of the streets; the villages, the gallabiyas and the shisha; the last bastion of the poetry of the people of the Nile.

This was a concert in two distinct parts; the first part was superb for the cognoscenti and difficult for others. The music was for the most part was trance-like, lulling some of the audience into a meditative state, in fact two of the musicians sat still throughout an hour and a half, only springing to life during the last song.

This was also when the audience was transformed. From a reverential appreciation with the occasional exclamation of ‘Allah’, they suddenly sprang to their feet, clapping, dancing and ululating. One woman began a frenzied dance, her whole body whipping from left to right, her arms flailing and her face fixed with a beatific smile.

Entranced - an audience member feels the power of the music 

For the uninitiated and those who do not understand Arabic, the words of the poetry may mean little, but the emotion behind them is palpable. Sheikh Yasîn's mastery of theatrical tones and gestures, the range of his emotions, remind one of an Egyptian version of an English actor in a Shakespearian tragedy. Time and again Sheikh Yasîn takes a phrase and wrings every last drop of emotion from each syllable.

For the Arabic speakers in the audience and those familiar with Sheikh Yasîn's repertoire, this was a wonderful stuff; it was a known repertoire which many could sing along with - and some did. For them his singing was a Sufi breath that meandered between life, death, rebirth, hope and despair.

But the first part was not a concert for everyone. Some audience members - those non-Arabic speakers and those new to the world of the munshidin - found the going more difficult, and while aware that they were experiencing a special performer, they failed to connect.

As Kleo Brunn, a German, Fez resident put it, "For non-Arabic speakers we miss a lot of the poetry – I was sitting next to an Arabic lady who was transported by it – if you understand the whole thing you must be blown away. I was trying to meditate to get behind the music, because there was so much more than just the music".

Two different reactions from the audience

For Burhan Hamdon, from Syria, who was at the festival for the second time, the concert was superb. As a classical Arabic singer, he was completely at home with the repertoire. "At the beginning Sheikh Yasîn was talking about God, that in all the world there is no meaning without God – you have light and darkness. It’s explaining the love of God in how we are feeling. Sufis are in love with God and in love with his Prophet. The last song was an old Islamic song – the song that was sung when the Prophet Muhammed migrated from Mecca to Medina – the words say ‘you are a moon, a light’ about the Prophet. Every one knows this song so it is very popular."

Of Sheikh Yasîn, he says, "He has a unique way of singing, his voice is a little bit thinner than some traditional Sufii singers, for my taste, but I enjoyed it very much."

 In the songs of this munshid, there is the idea of something unfinished. In his way of fashioning a word or a rhyme, Sheikh Yasîn seems to lose himself in a labyrinth that makes him an eternal pilgrim in his poetry.


Sheikh Yasîn al-Tuhâmi was born in 1948 in Yawata, a village community near Assiut. He had a traditional religious education learning Koranic recitation, the religious sciences and classical Arabic, all subjects that would enhance his career. As no family member had ever been a munshid and there was no opportunity for him to learn the inshad at school, he therefore learned this art in his own way, by listening in at local Sufi gatherings. He was also influenced by famous munshidin he heard on the radio, as well as Koranic singing and the great stars of Arab music such as Nasr al-Din Tubar, Mustafa Isma’il and above all, the great Umm Kalsoum.

Today Sheikh Tuhâmi is booked months in advance for performances, with more than 100 cassettes and CDs on the market. A large number of his private recordings on video and audio circulate among his fans. From his home in the charming small village of Hawatka near Assiut, he travels across Egypt for more than 200 nights every year, visiting Sufi gatherings from Aswan to Alexandria. His innovative style, his performance and success have spawned many imitators that form a veritable madrassa (school) based in the middle of Egypt and radiate his influence out across the country.


Festival Programme
Festival in the City
Sufi Nights
Festival Forums
Festival Eating Guide
Art during the Festival #1
Art during the Festival #2
The Enchanted Gardens of Fez
Last Minute Accommodation

Text contributors: Sandy McCutcheon and Vanessa Bonnin
Photographs: Suzanna Clarke, Sandy McCutcheon and Vanessa Bonnin

The View from Fez is an official Media Partner of the Fès Festival of World Sacred Music


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