Thursday, August 5

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Sufism and the West

The story of Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) is intriguing, to say the least. He was the great-great-grandson of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore. His daughter was Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, the first female radio operator to enter German-occupied France during World War I. Hasrat was a well-trained artist in Indian classical music and a major influence on western classical music, even inspiring French composer Claude Debussy.

Clause Debussy was one of the greatest 21st Century French musicians who brought about pioneering changes to impressionist music. Debussy and Hazrat were introduced by a mutual friend, pianist Walter Rummel during Hazrat’s performance tour across America and Europe, in May 1913.

What ensued was an evening filled with a beautiful musical session, exchange of thoughts and ideas, what we call, a “jam session”, today. Debussy described it as “the evening of emotions.” Debussy is said to have played a range of tunes and notes on his piano that evening, which closely resembled Indian ragas originally played by Hazrat Inayat Khan. Debussy even played melodies akin to the different seasons in nature- monsoon, spring, autumn and summer.

Debussy loved the visual arts and was mighty impressed by Indian ragas, which is the basis of Sufi music. Sufi music comes from poems sung in praise of the almighty, making for devotional songs and rich Urdu poems that describe God and faith in him as the ultimate truth to life. Poets like Rumi, Hafiz, Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusrow and Khwaja Ghulam Farid are some of whose immortal lines are sung in the form of Sufi couplets or two-lined poems in the modern-day version of the genre.

In a raga, a musician progressively evolves a mode or scale into as many permutation combinations, as possible, but also sets an order in which the notes are sung. Every raga has its own rules and so, it’s very crucial for musicians to stay within the particular raga’s rules but at the same time, evolve it within its own universe. This leads to furthering a raga or scale and truly puts one in a zone. This zone creates feelings, emotions, a sense of sinking within an abundant spectrum of emotions.

It is said that Debussy purposely chose an Indian note palette to express the songs in his album, “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea.” This is unconventional for western music, the fact that it details the time of the day. On the other hand, Indian classical ragas are named and even sung by the time of the day they are meant for. Each raga evokes a certain set of emotions and those emotions seamlessly sync with a particular time of day. Thus, these kinds of titles in Indian Sufi music are common.

Original Sufi music arrived in India during the years of the Delhi Sultanate with a gamut of soulful and spiritual music and poetry. Sufism and Sufi music had so much soul and such power to capture the heart of the listener that nothing could stop its influence from spreading across the globe.

In an interview with The Rolling Stone magazine, Bob Dylan, the legend who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for introducing completely fresh as well as thought-provoking lyrics to the western music world, said, “Yeah, Sufi singing, that’s where my singing really comes from.” Dylan also mentions in the same interview that his favorite musician is the Egyptian Sufi singer, Om Kalsoum.
Sufism is often confused with being a religion or cult. But Hazrat described Sufi music as, “Any person who has knowledge of both outer and inner life is a Sufi.” Bob Dylan pretty much stood by these very words, as his own songs depicted life in its complete form, life’s ups and downs, life and its strangeness, life and its unpredictable nature.

In the post-modern era, musicians across the west have been promoting and propagating Sufi music in its various forms, even producing older Sufi poems by Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah into newer forms of compositions and equipping it with modern bands and production value. Their endeavor has been towards bringing Sufi musicality to modern listeners whilst maintaining its fundamental values.

Sufi has always enthralled and attracted the west. And why not? Sufi encompasses everything about life and life itself. Perhaps, that’s why the word, Sufi comes from the word, Safi, the pure. The mystique. The pure form of life.







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