Western Orientalists have never paid much attention to the Darkawiyya, despite the group’s historical importance. Last night’s sam’a showed why. Dressed in quiet, light ochre robes and chanting in controlled verse, the members of this Tariqa demonstrated a restrained confidence that sits uneasily with the expectations of spiritual ecstasy and excess that have come to characterise Sufi practice in the Western imagination.
Yet it was in this very restraint that the strength of the dhikr (invocation) lay. Founded on the values of poverty and asceticism, the Tariqa Darkawiyya, a revivalist branch of the Shadhili Order, was founded by Mohamed al-Arabi Derkawi (1760-1823). Derkawi was a contemporary of Ahmed Tijani al-Hassani, who would go on to establish the Tariqa Tajiniyya, the other great Moroccan Brotherhood of the second half of the nineteenth century. Whilst the Tijaniyya have retained a greater prominence in the region, many Darkawiyya in Morocco and Algeria continue today to be influenced by the brotherhood’s founding principle of asceticism.
This perhaps explained the format of the concert: the first part of the dhikr was without musical accompaniment, whilst the latter half saw the inclusion of instruments. So it was against the backdrop of a red and yellow gauze of light shining on an imposing façade of Dar Tazi that that the seventeen members began a performance that was punctuated with the familiar refrain of La illaha illah Allah (there is no god but God). This was not an exhuberant performance; rather, the very regular beat of the sung verse served to steadily move the music on, as did the majestic crescendo of tone and volume that appeared wave-like through the music at minute intervals.
This regularity underlined a calm joy that soon became the hallmark of much of the evening. A distinguishing feature was the lack of repeated phrases, particularly during the first half. Whilst some Tariqas intersperse poetry with a focus on particular names of God, believing the ultimate reality of worldly unity is accessible through these names, the Darkawiya conspicuously sang hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet) set to verse for the most part. This was clear because all the brothers sang with the words printed in front of them, all quickly turning the page simultaneously without losing the thread when required.
The poetic quality of this verse was further enhanced by the controlled used of quick pauses at the end of each couplet which imbued the first half with a certain sense of performance. These brief silences became a challenging counterpoint to the chanted verse in the absence of musical instruments. Another distinguishing feature that would carry through into the second part was the unexpected change of style and pace, seemingly guided by the central munshid.
The second part of the concert, about an hour after the start, saw the inclusion of three instruments: a keyboard, banjo and two drums. As if from nowhere the pace and tone of the music would take a new direction every few minutes, the drums giving a rich timbre to the higher pitched chanting as well as a sense of syncopation at some points. The munshid’s hand movements, often the waggle of a finger or the wave of a hand would single to the keyboard player and drummers who were sat either side of the semi-circle to pick up or slow down the pace.
When the pace quickened the audience would get a sense of the tonality and range of some of the singers, particularly as the offbeat of the drumbeat set their voices in relief. Whilst most of the singing was in unison, three of the members performed solo invocations to God and praise of the Prophet.
Unlike the plaintive, searching and haunting voice of the Lebanese Maronite singer who performed at the Batha Museum earlier in the day, there was an earthly gravity and sureness to these evening voices. The confident praise of Allah that characterized the 1 hour and 45 minute performance may have been the reason for the lack of any great change in atmosphere until the very end; this was not verse characterized by the mournful loss of distance between human and subject and the Ultimate, but by joyful proclamation.
Then, in a signal of the closing movement of the night, a tall brother at stage-right with a large box drum placed over his body appeared in an anunciatory moment, beating the drum with a resonant regularity as the baritones’ steady chant of Allah slowly took over the audience. The unity of the group announced itself here through the wholeness of sound where the intricate and increasingly fast strumming of the lute became a golden rain dripping on to the sung words.
After a number of pace changes from slow to fast to slow again, a refrain had the audience clapping, matched by the smiling expressions of many of the brothers on stage. This went:
“La illaha illa Allah,
La illaha illa Allah,
|The beautiful Dar Tazi venue|
Towards the end of the dhikr no one was standing or in a rapture. Yet everyone present, a mixture of locals and Europeans, understood that they had seen the sure performance of a movingly modest rendition of God’s love. This was the distinguishing feature of a Tariqa with a rich religious, cultural and political history, whose founder was one of the few saints to leave detailed guidance on the performance of the dhikr.
Text: Nouri Verghese - MPhil Candidate at Oxford University
Photographs: Inga Meladze, Vanessa Bonnin
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