Thursday, June 13, 2013

Tariqa Charkawiyya at the Fes Festival Sufi Nights

An unannounced programme change at the Sufi Nights Dar Tazi venue saw the Tariqa Touhamia replaced by Tariqa Charkawiyya - a revivalist branch of the Shadhiliyah brotherhood. The group is associated with the Darqawa comprised the followers of Sheikh Muhammad al-Arabi al-Darqawi (1760–1823). Nouri Verghese reports

Dressed in crisp white robes and each donning a red fez the nine men representing the Tariqa looked a perfect picture of the classic Fassi as they came on to the stage in another packed night at Dar Tazi.

Unlike the previous night, the Charkawiyya, as with most orders, do not perform regularly to an audience. The question that is thrown up then is how to go about reviewing them. Whilst the night seemed to get off to a slow start and it took a while for the audience to get involved, can we use the same yard stick to measure a group of pious men with no formal musical training as that used when considering a professional group like Marouane Hajji and and the Ikhwan al-Fann?

The answer is probably no, which is disquieting to the Western reviewer and audience member, keen always to import some sort of formal aesthetic judgement. This is all the more so in the context of professional performers and artists elsewhere in the festival.

However, spiritual music that is actually a form of prayer requires us to turn the tables and judge the performance on how much the performers get out of the concert as well as the audience members. By these standards last night was a great success.

Performing with only two percussion instruments, a box drum and kettle drum, these Charkawiyya eschew the string instruments whose use continues to be a sticking point amongst jurists, practioners and listeners of music across the Muslim world.

The night was broken up into two parts: sung poetry composed by the group’s founder and then a traditional sam‘a and dhikr. In practice much of the form and tempo remained consistent across the two parts.

Whilst the opening lacked colour and life, the start of the drum beat 15 minutes into the concert suddenly changed the ambience of the open-air space as the music opened out and the brothers on stage injected the music with an energy that came from a move up the musical scale and the alternation between individual lines of sung poetry and variations of a simple line in praise of God.

At this point the audience began to clap and didn’t stop until the end of the night. One of the younger performers, Hakim, quickly became the star of the show. Moving between unison and two soloists, who were both the youngest in the group, these men in their late twenties were given the chance to shine in front of a home crowd that was peppered with friends, judging by the shouts of support from the audience.

The soloists certainly rose to the occasion. Whilst their singing, known as mawwal – a form of improvised melody using a set of stock phrases – commenced against a backdrop of much audience chatter, by the end most watching had fallen silent in order to appreciate the softly piercing calls of both men each of whom had a commanding tonal range. Certainly the broad grin on Hakim’s face suggested he was pleased with himself.

Once the group came back into the unison they carried through the night with a quite relentless pace powered by an effective use of limited percussion instruments. Changes in style and rhythm were subtle, the music moving like a slowly gathered wave with an unexpected critical mass that gave it a hypnotic feel. The drumbeat did not let up over long periods of time and travelled with force over the heads of the audience to hang on top of the open air space only to be cleared away by ensuing guttural whooping into the microphone.

Throughout the concert the members of the group were extremely focused. They sang with a sincerity and concentration that imbued the music with drive, carrying over into the audience who clapped and cheered steadily through the night. Whilst the solo performances (mawwal) did not reach the heights of singers in some previous festivals, the honesty and earnestness of brothers were the hallmark of the night.

Text: Nouri Verghese - MPhil Candidate at Oxford University
Photographs: Inga Meladze

Coming up at the Dar Tazi Sufi Nights

Thursday June the 13th : Tariqa Hamadcha of Fes
Along with the Gnawa and the Aïssawa, the Hamadcha are one of the three most important so-called ‘popular’ Sufi brotherhoods in Morocco. The Hamadcha brotherhood was founded by Saint Sidi Ali Ben Hamdouch in the seventeenth century and has become famous through the originality of its repertoire, its spellbinding dances, and the trance-therapy skills of its members. This should be another Fes Festival highlight.

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