Friday, August 3, 2012

Music of the Whirling Dervishes

Ahmet Ertegun, the guiding force behind the massive success of Atlantic Records, hailed from Turkey and so the release in 1979 of Music of the Whirling Dervishes was a special project of his and no wonder.  This fascinating album contains 79 minutes of remarkable, spiritual, and majestic music recorded during a tour of the previous year that showcases the ecstatic dancing, chanting and instrumental performances embodying the mystical traditions of Sufi religious observances.

Vocalisations are followed by solo improvisatory performances on the ney, a flute-like instrument, and then ensemble pieces with ney, drums, singing and dancing.  Naturally, one who would have had to have been present at the live shows to observe and absorb the full effect of the combination of aural and visual presentations.

The tradition of whirling by the Mevlevi Sufis, drawing origins with Sunni Islam back to the amazing poetry of the great Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, typically known simply as Rumi,  dates back seven hundred years or so and the ritual is an expression of faith augmented by music and vocals.  As the intensity of the music builds, so does the speed of the whirling which transports the participants into a trance state.  There are many parallels to this throughout the world, such as the phenomenal gnawa music of northwest Africa (to be covered soon here, as well,) where drums, handclaps, chanting and singing, and instrumental performances lead to a similar result.

The album begins with a eulogy of twelve and a half minutes, which has a beautiful haunting quality, especially with the advanced quality of the recording.  This atmosphere is enhanced by the ten-minute improvisation that follows, which sets the stage for an instrumental performance called "Pesrev" by the ensemble. 

After a very short ney improvisation of a half minute, the centerpiece comes with the performance of a nearly 33-minute rendition of "Ayin-I Sharif," or the "Blessed Ceremony," including the instrumental and vocal ensembles and the whirling dervishes, dressed in white tunics with skirts that flow gracefully during the continuous turning.  Atop their heads are the distinctive conical hats with flat tops that can be discerned on the cover art shown here. 

As the music builds, the slow movement, with the heads of the participants tilted slightly, grows faster and the individual is both in communal and personal ecstatic connections with their faith.  The individuals move counter-clockwise, with the left hand down toward the earth and the right held aloft as the dervishes reflect the desire for communion, in a uplifting of the soul, with Allah but also balance these aspirations with the spiritual connection to the earth.

Again, the listener can hear the buildup of the music and only imagine the corresponding movement of the dervishes, but to witness the growing speed and grace of the combination must have been a striking and affecting experience and one wonders if the half hour seemed much less.

After another short ney improvisation, a recitation of about three minutes duration from the Koran concludes the ceremony.  A final ney piece of over ten minutes rounds out the record, which is a ritual spiritual journey for the Mevlevi, but a journey of wonder for the observer and listener.  The Music of the Whirling Dervishes is an exciting album that shows that music can be a vehicle for spiritual ascendancy but also an ecumenical appreciation that transcends human differences, especially in this era of politicized religious divisiveness.

The Music of the Whirling Dervishes (Atlantic, 1979, CD version 1987)

1.  Naat-I Mevlana    12:36
2.  Ney Taksimi  10:16
3.  Persev  7:32
4.  Ney Taksimi   :33
     Ayin-I Serif, part 1  9:23
5.  Ayin-I Serif, part 2  23:26
     Ney Taksimi  1:36
6.  Kuran-I Kerim  3:19
7.  Ney Taksimi  10:23

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