Traversing the crowded pedestrian bridge of Al-Azhar, one comes to the mashrabiya (latticework) exterior of Qubbet Al-Ghouri. As you enter the open courtyard of this 16th century complex, the cacophony of voices is left behind and you are engulfed in the mystical world of sufi music at the third edition of the International “Samaa” Festival for Religious Chanting and Sufi Music.
“Samaa” means the act of listening, that is spiritual without the content of the songs or the poetry necessarily being religious.
The choreographer for the festival, Entisar Abdel-Fattah, formed the Samaa troupe in 2007 with the intention of reviving the waning tradition of inshad, or religious chanting. This year, the festival, being held in the holy month of Ramadan, is enriched by participation of sufi singing groups from 11 countries.
At the opening performance on August 25, the universal language of music was reinforced as the different groups performed a superbly choreographed fusion of sufi music and singing —sufi chanting was taken up by one group and then by the other. And the transition took place seamlessly in spite of differences in culture, language, musical instruments and the style of singing. Abdel-Fattah succeeding in effectively combining the sounds of the different countries — the music overlapped while retaining distinct differences.
The more forceful Qawwali style of the Rajasthani group from India, alternated with the more soulful choir type singing of Allegro, the female vocal ensemble from Bosnia.
The colorful turbans and scarves of the Indian ensemble offset the more sedate galabeyyas and tall brown hats of the Syrian ensemble. The striking red of the tarbouche of the Moroccans contrasted with the black cotton hats of the Indonesians.
The dholak and the tabla of the Indian troupe played harmoniously with the riqq and the reed flute (nay). The sharp staccato-like sounds of khartaal (an Indian percussion instrument) and the chanting of “Allah” formed the backbone of the performance on that magical night.
The discomfort of the balmy summer evening, the near-stampede to enter Qubbet Al-Ghouri, the aching feet of those who could not find empty chairs — everything was forgotten as the addictive music transcended time and space.
At the solo performance on the second night of the festival, the Indian troupe sat cross-legged on cushions on the floor of the stage and performed sufiana kalams and qawwalis, which are devotional musical styles that originated in the Indian sub-continent 700 years ago.
The group, which has been performing since the last 10 years and has performed in several countries around the world, is led by Mohammed Rafiq. He belongs to the Langa clan of traditional folk singers and instrument players from the Indian state of Rajasthan and has learnt the khartaal from his father — a wooden clapper kind of instrument that produces a clinking sound.
The qawwali style of devotional singing is very different from the other styles and the singing may often sound noisy and strained but the sheer range of the vocals is unmatchable.
Keeping to the structure of a qawwali song, the lead singer sang some preamble verses to the accompaniment of only the harmonium; the verse was repeated by another singer with his own improvisation. A few verses later, as the main song began, the table and the dholak joined the rendition, and so did the enthusiastic clapping by the audience. As the song built in tempo and passion, one of the singers broke out into an ‘alap’ and it continued with the singers trying to outdo each other in vocal acrobatics.
The Punjabi song “Duma Dum Mast Kalandar,” was the piece de resistance, with the singers taking their voices to unbelievably high frequencies.
“We overshot the time allotted to us by a huge margin; but the audience were responding so well to this song that we had to respond by continuing the singing,” said Rafiq.
The other members of the troop were also ecstatic with the audience at the festival and did not feel that their singing in Punjabi and Urdu made them any less appealing among the Arabic speaking audience.
The resonating performance of the Indian group was followed by melodious chanting by the group from Syria, interspersed by the deep and emotional sound emanating from the ney, the oud and the violin.
Joining the quest for spirituality were three whirling dervishes or mevlevis — they came out in their long brown hats and long white skirts. Bowing to each other, they started spinning and whirling, defying and challenging gravity. They moved in tandem and with such angelic and peaceful expressions that it would have converted even an atheist. As the whirling reached its climax, the audience were drawn into the exquisite performance and ceaselessly clapped and applauded.
As one leaves the Qubbet Al-Ghouri and encounters the mayhem outside, the mind, body and spirit is still infused with a feeling of calm, contentment and peace.
To enjoy a slice of this mysticism, visit the Qubbet Al-Ghouri until Sept. 4 at 9:30 pm.