Turath and UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology Present:

Al-Kindi Ensemble
Sheikh Hamza Shakkur
Whirling Dervishes of Damascus

18 March 2001 at UCLA

A Unique Cultural Experience of classical music, traditional songs, and Sufi rituals

Photo by Turath.org (c)


Tuesday, March 20, 2001

A Spiritual Spin on the Listening Experience

By DON HECKMAN, Special to The Times

In the Sufi tradition, music possesses powers associated with meditation, ecstasy and a state of grace. Those qualities are referred to as sama ("listening"), experiencing music in a spiritual fashion. Since the 13th century, they have been associated with the trance-producing qualities of spinning dance.

Sunday night at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, vocalist Sheikh Hamza Shakkur, the Ensemble Al-Kindi and the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus offered a sampling of the Syrian version of this expressive art. The evening included four waslas, or suites, of songs and improvisation. Each was performed by an ensemble of kanun (a kind of zither), oud (lute), nay (end-blown flute) and riqq (frame drum), and structured within different maqams, or scale or modes.

The results were fascinating, if a bit uneven. Shakkur's delivery of the ornate vocal twists and turns of the classical Syrian style was masterful, filled with delicate melismas and ornamentation. The ensemble, led by kanun player Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss, a French convert to Islam, had a few less-than-compelling passages, and nay player Ziyad Kadi Amin was not gifted with the lush array of sounds one usually associates with this instrument. But there also were moments when the music came alive, especially during an improvisation by Weiss based on the microtonal taqsim maqam.

Each of the waslas, which included improvisations, vocals, prayers and composed instrumental passages, also featured whirling dances by the company's four dervishes. Often holding their left hands lowered and their right hands raised to symbolize the linkage between heaven and Earth, they were a marvel to see, perfect visual representations of the spiritual powers of music and dance. 

Bi HamdikaYa Ilahi

 God, I begin by thanking You
And turn to You in humility
If You do not grant me forgiveness for my sins
Who else can?
For You are our generous Lord
I have entrusted my fate to Your supremeness
Save me, my Lord, and grant me happiness
You know my intimate secrets as well as my outward acts
You are compassionate and merciful

Sufi Liturgy of the Great Ummayad Mosque of Damascus

When Great Master Junayd was asked why the Sufis felt such powerful emotions in their spirit and the urge to move their bodies when listening to sacred music, he replied: When God asked the souls in the spirit world, at the moment of the First Covenant Am I not your Lord? the gentle sweetness of the divine words penetrated each soul forever, so that whenever one of them hears music, the memory of this sweetness is stirred within him causing him to move.

Photo by Turath.org (c)

In the early ninth century, when the Muslim mystics organized their Sufi brotherhoods, they adopted music for their meditation as a way of accessing the state of ecstasy a source of new vigor to the body and soul tired by the rigors of life. In Sufism, sama, or listening, denotes the tradition of listening in a spiritual fashion to music of all forms.  This suggests that the act of listening that is spiritual, without the music or poetry being necessarily religious in content. The major preoccupation of the mystics was to give the ecstasy real content and the music true meaning.

The Sufi mystical brotherhood known as Mawlawiyya (Mevlevi in Turkish, also known as whirling dervishes) was founded in Konya, Anatolia, by the Persian poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (1207-273).  Although the ritual is primarily associated with Turkey, local traditions have been in existence in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq since the 16th century. They survived there after the dissolution of all Sufi fraternities in Turkey in 1925 and the suicide of the Great Master 'Abd al-Halm Thslb Bash.

Damascus was the capital of the Ummayad dynasty, a stage in the pilgrimage to Mecca, and one of the principal centers of Islam. The Mawlawiyah met in places known as takiyya or zwiya and adopted the original chants grouped in suites (waslat) in particular modes (maqamat) and rhythms (iqaat). The ritual was not performed in mosques, where musical instruments are forbidden with the exception of percussion instruments sometimes allowed in the courtyard.

Certain great mosques, such as the Great Ummayad Mosque of Damascus, possess a specific vocal repertoire, where sacred suites are known as a nawbat (singular nawba), a term originally used for the secular songs developed in Arab Andalusia known as muwashshat.  Typically accompanied by a choir (bitana), the vocalist (munshid) extracts from the repertoire of the mosque the naming of God (dhikr) and the birth of the prophet (mawlid) in a serene expression always subtly inventive yet rigorously organized rhythmically in order to progressively lead the assembly into a trance (inkhitaf) or a state of meditation (ta'ammul).

Sheikh Hamza Shakkur

 Al-Kindi Ensemble
Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss, qanun, artistic director
Ziyad Kadi Amin, nay
Muhammad Qadri Dalal, ud
Adel Shams al-Din, riqq

Choir (Munshidin)
Suleyman al-Kheshn & Abdallah Shakkur

Dervishes (Mawlawi)
Hatem al-Jamal, Maher al-Jamal, Hisham al-Khatib, Ghassan Janid


1. Wasla in Maqam Hijaz

Tartil, Quranic recital, followed by Salawat, Prayers
Nawba from the Ummayad Mosque: Dhikr (Mention of Gods name) and Madih (Praise)
Nay Taqsim, Improvisation on the reed flute by Ziyad Kadi Amin
Bashraf, Instrumental composed by Tawfiq al-Sabbagh (28/4 rhythm or dawr kabir)
Muwashshah Ya man sara,
You who have completed the night journey
Muwashshah Ya aliman bi-s-sirr, You who understand my secret

2. Wasla in Maqamat Kurd and Bayyati

Samai Kurd, Instrumental composed by Salah al-Mahdi
'Ud Taqsim, Improvisation by Qadri Dalal (Kurd and Bayyati)
Qasida Adimi s-salata ala l-habibi, Prayer for the Beloved
Muwashshahat:    Manyalumni fi gharami, Who can blame me for love
                            Ya badi as-samawati wa-l-ard, O wonders from Heaven and Earth
                            Hubbu n-nabi, Love of the Prophet

3. Wasla in Maqam Huzam

Bashraf Karabataq, Instrumental (rhythm changes: 48/4, 16/4, 20/4, 32/4, 10/16)
Ibtihal, Ilahi ya illah al kawn, Lord of the Universe
Pilgrimage Chants Talal l-badru alayna, The moon has risen, Ya ayuha n-nabi, O Prophet
Salla allah, Pray God

4. Wasla in Maqam Rast

Samai Rast, Instrumental composed by George Michel
Qanun Taqsim, Improvisation by Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss
Muwashshahat:    Maliku-l-mulk, Lord of all Kingdoms
                            Sall ala hadha-n-nabi, Pray on the Prophet
                            Y Mawln sall, Pray, Lord
                            Li tabat al-aghani, Songs have become pleasant to my ears
                            Tajallat wa-njalat laylan, She appeared in the night
                            Shadinin sada qulub al-umam, The singer found his way to the heart
                            Madad, Rescue me
Ibtihal Mawzzun, vocal improvisation followed by concluding


Sheikh Hamza Shkkr

Islam is a religion that preaches a message of clemency and mercy, beauty and harmony. The spiritual power emanating from Sheikh Hamza Shakkur's voice draws listeners into the mystical tradition of Islam embodied in Sufism. Born in Damascus in 1947, Sheikh Hamza is a muqri (Quran reader) and a munshid (hymnist). He is the disciple of Sad Farhat and Tawfiq al-Munajjid and feels the responsibility of assuring the continuity of the repertoire in the Mawlawiya order. He is the choirmaster of the Munshiddin of the Great Mosque in Damascus and serves at official religious ceremonies in Syria, where he is immensely popular.  His bass voice with its richly rounded timbre has made him one of the foremost Arab vocalists.

Al-Kindi Ensemble

Al-Kindi Ensemble, founded in 1983 by Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss, is based in Aleppo, the capital of the northern region of Syria and an important stopover on the famous Silk Route.  Al-Kindi is recognized as one of the leading ensembles devoted to classical Arab music. In addition to performances with Sheikh Hamza Shakkur and the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus, the ensemble has toured with Sabri al-Mudallal, Omar Sarmini, Adib al-Daiykh and Husayn al-Azami.

Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss, a Frenchman of Swiss and Alsatian heritage, was born in Paris in 1953 and converted to Islam in 1986. Accomplished on the qanun, he studied with masters throughout the Arab world. He has traveled throughout Europe with the renowned vocalists Hussein al-Azami from Iraq; Sabri al-Mudallal, Omar Sarmini and Adib al-Daiykh from Aleppo; Shaykh Hamza Shakkur from Damascus; and Lotfi Bushnak from Tunisia.  He regularly presents traditional style music-room concerts at his Aleppo home, a palace from the 16th century Mamluk era.

Ziyad Qadi Amin, from Damascus, Syria, is a student of Abd al-Salam Safar and one of the most accomplished nay players in Syria and the Middle East. He has been a member of the al-Kindi Ensemble for several years.

Muhammad Qadri Dalal, born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1946, is a renowned master of the ud.  He performs in the traditional Aleppo style with similarities to the Turkish school and aims at a smooth, rounded sound. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the traditional repertoire.

Adel Shams al-Din, born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1950, has been one of the mainstays of the al-Kindi Ensemble since it was created.  His mastery of complex rhythmic cycles has made him a highly respected performer on the riqq.  He currently lives in France.

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