Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fes Festival of Sufi Culture ~ Day Three

Round Table on Sufism and Poetry - Batha Museum

The round table discussion on Monday afternoon was attended by a small but totally engaged audience. They were made very welcome by Festival Director Faouzi Skali who showed a certain skill in instructing (ever so politely) that the participants should limit themselves to ten minutes!

The Sufism and Poetry round table

"O friend, constantly seeking the why and the how. Cease to spin the wheel of your soul.  Even where you are at this moment everything is given to you in the greatest perfection. Accept this gift, press the juice of the passing moment" - Sufi poem

Evening concert at Batha Museum

Tonight's concert from the Tariqa Qadiriyya Boutchichiyya was a fine example of the health of Sufism as a living tradition. The audience included many young people and the members of the Brotherhood were a younger generation - a great sign that the traditions are being passed on.

Photo: Sandy McCutcheon

The Boutchichiyya Brotherhood are from the small town of Mardagh, near Berkane, in north-eastern Morocco and has become an important pilgrimage destination. The sheikh is Sidi Hamza el Qadiri el Boutchichi and the brotherhood is active in many countries, particularly in the UK.

The Boutchichiyya are an offshoot of the Qadiriyya tariqa, one of the oldest Sufi orders, which was brought to Morocco (initially to Fez) by the descendants of the two sons of ‘Abd al-Qadir from the 16th Century. The Boutchichiyya take their name from the 18th Century sheikh Sidi Ali al-Boutchichi, a Qadiri who was given the title “al-boutchichi” because he used to serve “cracked wheat” (bou tchich) to the poor who came to his zawiya.

The Brotherhood of the Samaa Qadirya Boutchichiya performs a sacred music, and produces a spiritual state "where celestial music becomes audible," says Moroccan musicologist Abdelfettah Benmoussa. "It combines the primordial sound and the absolute divine word. Through the practice of Samaa, it becomes possible to experience the depths of being in universal harmony".

The Tariqa Boutchichiya have been at the forefront of a genuine revival of Sufism. Sidi Hamza Qadiri Boutchich, descendant of Moulay Abdelqader Aj Jilani, is a "Living Master" of the contemporary teachings of Sufism. The Brotherhood produced this revival under the leadership of Sheikh Al Haj Al Sid 'Abbas, then his son and successor Sidi Hamza. This renewal is distinguished by its ability to adapt to the changing socio-cultural contexts of our time.

Fourteen younger members of the tariqa sat in a semi-circle and after a sung verse from the Koran launched into an extraordinary display of the power of the human voice. The sheer wall of sound produced would have been enough but then it was topped by stunning contributions from the Brotherhood's soloists. After the initial prayers the tempo was raised and the fine voices of the Brotherhood conquored the concert space at Batha.

Sharing the joy - rose water being sprayed on the audience. Photo Suzanna Clarke

The Brotherhood, like Tuesday's performers, the Charqawiyya, are a purely vocal group and the Boutichichiyya are blessed with some extraordinary voices. Among the various munshid (soloists) in the group, there were a number of virtuosic singers.

The music differs from most Moroccan forms in that there are interesting hints of the eastern-Arabic macam modal system in their music. At different times different munshid would take solo parts, called mawwal, a form of improvised singing where they use poetry and improvise melodic passages using words that they have written in front of them. All the singers had a great command of the macam and mawwal.

Marouane Hajji - Photo: Sandy McCutcheon

The treat of the evening however was the exquisite voice of the man The View from Fez  described a couple of years ago as a "rising star" -  Marouane Hajji.   Born in Fez in 1987, Hajji is a violinist and Sufi singer with considerable charisma. His pure tones soared above the combined voices of the ensemble, conveying transcendent spirituality. He sang with his eyes closed, an expression of bliss on his boyish, handsome face.

Hajji began singing at the age of five, studying under the tutelage of Sheikh Haj Mohammed Bennis, at the Mederssa Rachidite in Ras Echarratine and with teachers at the Fez Conservatory of Music. In 1998, he won first place in a competition held at the National Festival of Singers in Fez for his ability to captivate an audience, the power of his voice and originality of his performance - all qualities that were clearly evident in his performance tonight.

"Flying into space..." Photo: Sandy McCutcheon

And it is not just the music says Hajji - “Sufism is something transcendent, from the inside to the outer space where God’s mercy is. It’s coming from the soul, from the bottom of the heart. People are in love and in touch with with the Sufis, because they know that this is the line between them and spirituality and flying into the space.”

And we certainly flew into space tonight - a space of joy and transcendence.

Let the children sing! Photo: Suzanna Clarke
Photo: Suzanna Clarke

Some background on Sufi music from Philip Murphy, anthropologist and music-ethnologist at the University of California

Sufism is very focussed on the prophet Mohammed. Muslims are also, but Sufism tends to prophet centred. A lot of the poetry in samaâ is about the prophet, for example, al-Burda – the name means 'poem of the mantle' or 'of the cloak'. It was written in the 11th century by Imam al-Busiri and forms part of a vast body of literature in praise of the Prophet that emerged from an Islamic culture where seeking knowledge of him was encouraged.

In writing al-Burda, or Qasida Burda,  Imam Al-Busiri acknowledges the shortcomings of describing the Prophet in the poem itself.

He is like the sun, small to the eye when seen from afar,
But when glimpsed close up. It dazzles and overwhelms.


The word tariqa in the name of a group, such as Tariqa Qadiriyyaq Boutchichiyya, literally means ‘the way’. In this context it means the Sufi way, literally a path, a road, which, when applied to Sufism will relate to a specific order, but they think of it as the way to God. A lot of Sufis will say there are many paths, and this is our path.

Much of what is performed is known as samaà - a form of Sufi music, and the literal translation from Arabic is audition, to listen or to hear, but with spiritual connotations. It also refers to a ritual taking place in the zawiya, Arabic for the corner of a Sufi house or meeting place, which could be attached to a Mosque, and which would indicate that the original samaâ used to meet in a corner.

Samaà is something that happens in the zawiya but is now becoming part of these cultural festivals. As Faouzi Skali explained, the evening was one of community prayer, not a performance. This is what adds intensity to the experience as it is never really a performance for outsiders,  more for the Sufi’s themselves, but has now become a staged thing that has entered the world music market and festival circuits. It seems that it is a very personal celebration between the group themselves but it has also taken on the modern role as a public performance of what they do. There are some differences, for example with the Moroccan-Andalusian style there will usually be some kind of orchestra, but in the zawiya the typical way of doing it is without instruments, so it’s often just vocalising.

The samaâ isn’t really considered singing, it’s more melodic vocalising. It has been called chant, but it can be translated in different ways. The word is inshad in Arabic, which can be translated as chant or melodic vocalising, it’s distinct from singing, which has other connotations. To our ears it’s very melodic and the melodic rules, the ways that you develop melody, are similar for both, but it has to do with place, time and the role of music, it’s so very difficult to give an exact definition.

A blind eye is better than a blind heart - Kharaqani
Text: Sandy McCutcheon & Philip Murphy - additional notes: Fitzroy Morrissey
Photographs: Sandy McCutcheon and Suzanna Clarke

Tuesday's programme at the Batha Museum:

10am Round Table - Art and Spirituality
4pm   Round Table - Sufism and Heritage
8.30 pm - Concert  - Samāa from Tariqa Charqawiyya

See our full Sufi Festival coverage

Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Day Five
Day Six
Day Seven
Final Night 

Print Friendly and PDF

No comments: