Michael Frishkopf: Thus spake the reed flute
In 1992, Michael Frishkopf -- an American ethnomusicologist -- set out to Egypt on a year-long Fulbright fellowship, in order to conduct research for a dissertation about sound, sufism, ritual and modernity. His research expanded to include not only inshad dini (religious chanting) -- he was to become a Sheikh Yassin El-Tohami specialist -- but Quranic recitation as well. More recently he has been researching Egyptian recording companies and popular music, including inshad dini on cassette tape. Frishkopf vividly recalls the first time he listened to Sheikh Yassin, perhaps Egypt's best known munshid (practitioner of inshad ). The emotional response of participants -- including his own -- was so overwhelming that he felt compelled to research the significance of this tradition. Over the following years, he spent much time with Yassin, observing the rapid spread of his fame, notably in the West, and tracing the changes to this musical tradition as it encountered a wider audience. He learned Arabic and became a regular participant in Sufi rituals, combining an outsider's detachment with complete immersion -- acquiring memorable experiences that would mark him for life. His current research interests include Islamic ritual, Arabic music, the Arab music industry, music and religion in West Africa, digital multimedia archiving, and the sociology of taste. Frishkopf plays the nay (reed flute) and also performs traditional music of Ghana. He founded the University of Alberta Middle Eastern and North African Ensemble, and the West African Music Ensemble, and maintains the conviction that music's affective and social power, properly deployed, can help create cross-cultural understanding. Interview by Nahed Nassr
Interview by Nahed Nassr
No, my journey through Egypt wasn't easy, but it was fascinating, and richly rewarding. Difficult journeys often are. Research results came slowly, and sometimes not at all. There were many blind alleys, and I spent many years meticulously charting them. But while academia judges research according to its products (i.e. publications), personally the research process is far more meaningful, especially the close friendships I developed with true Sufis, such as the poet Sheikh Abdel-Alim El-Nekheila in Imbaba, or Omar and Taha Gad and their family, at the shrine of Sidi Omar Ibn Al-Farid in Abagiya. Their homes and families became extensions of my own.
For the foreigner, attempting to interpret Arab-Egyptian culture via the Arabic language is difficult enough without attempting also to focus on musical and mystical experience -- two domains famously resistant to language -- and the ecstatic, enigmatic utterances of Sufi poetry. For even Arab Sufi writers -- poets especially -- are constantly grappling with the fact that the Sufi experience is essentially not linguistic. This is what makes Sufism, despite its important social dimension, intensely personal, ineffable. Music fills a gap; as Huxley said: "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." But how then can one research such a thing, much less write about it? Understanding comes slowly, through long experience, and a kind of intuition, or firasa. On a very practical level, one of the early milestones I recall on the journey was suddenly being able to figure out, while listening to rapidly spoken Arabic, where one word ended and the next one began. I didn't necessarily know what the words meant, but at least I could figure out what they were!
Research was also difficult because people, wondering why a foreigner would travel all the way to Egypt to study the role of music in the mystical experience, and not finding any satisfactory answer, would imagine all sorts of ulterior motives. Or they'd fear that cooperating with a foreigner (an American at that) would bring some sort of musiba (Arabic for "catastrophe") upon them. Or, being poor, they'd be too busy trying to make ends meet. Or, being poor, they'd seek to use me as a means of making ends meet. Or, being rich, they'd fail to see me as a good business opportunity. Or, being rich, they'd see me as an excellent business opportunity.
In Egypt, you don't always find things in their expected places. When I began to do archival research, first of all at SonoCairo, it quickly became apparent that many historical documents I was seeking weren't where I'd expected them to be, for the good reason that proper archiving is a kind of luxury many Egyptian institutions don't have the time or energy to indulge in. For instance, I finally found historic 1960s SonoCairo record catalogues not at SonoCairo (they hadn't kept them) but at the Egyptian performing rights society, SACERAU!
All this was complicated by the difficulties of travel, and -- at the same time -- working musicians' tremendous mobility, and lack of time or inclination for ruminative conversations about music and spirituality. When I first arrived in Cairo I began to attend the weekly dhikr (invocation ritual) at the maqam (shrine) of Sidi Ali Zein Al-Abidine in the Madbah district. This dhikr was accompanied by a firqa (musical troupe) and a number of different munshidin (plural of munshid ). I'd planned to work with the singers and musicians to get at the meaning of the music, and perhaps learn how to play some of the instruments.
But finding time to spend with them, to sit quietly and discuss the music, was nearly impossible. First of all, it seemed they didn't have a free moment either before or after the dhikr ; they were almost always either sleeping, eating, working or travelling. Travelling took a lot of time, as they all lived in remote locations, mostly in the Delta. When I visited their villages, I found most of my time scheduled and pleasantly filled by meals, visiting friends and relations and sleeping. Finding the time for my questions required lots of patience, waiting for the right moment. For instance, Sheikh Yassin hardly spent more than a few days in any one place; following him around meant hours of travel each day, attending his inshad performances (often ending around 3am), then sitting patiently with him afterwards, waiting for the throngs of visitors to subside before half an hour for real conversation might become available, in the wee hours after dawn, and before sleep.
But despite formidable difficulties in getting research results, I always enjoyed the research process, because the Egyptians I met -- almost without exception, and regardless of social position -- were warm, sociable, and generous, with a wonderful sense of humor. I still have better and closer friends in Egypt than anywhere else. And the musical-spiritual experiences of layali diniya (religious nights) in remote villages or unfamiliar harat (alleyways) buried deep within Cairo's most densely populated neighbourhoods, filled with poetry, music, and chant, continuous and intense, were so wonderfully rich. Indelibly imprinted, they have become part of me.
Due to all the difficulties -- logistical and linguistic -- of sitting and talking about music and spirituality, I spent a great deal of time participating in Sufi performances, ranging from the informal to the formal, from ecstatic public festivals to more private structured rituals, from recitations to music. As a musician who spent endless stretches of time simply observing, I became very attuned to performative aspects of these events: subtle uses of time and space, tempo and tonality, movement.
I attended public inshad performances held for religious and life-cycle occasions, performances by professional munshidin such as Sheikh Yassin and Sheikh Ahmed El-Tuni, as well as the regular tariqa (Sufi order) hadras (rituals) of a variety of mystical organisations, especially the Jaafariya, the Jazuliya, the Hamidiya Shadhiliya, the Burhamiya and the Bayoumiya. Each has its own distinctive fragrance: inshad of the Jaafariya is elegant and restrained; that of the Jazuliya and Burhamiya more ecstatic. The sinuous melodies of Sheikh Mohamed El-Helbawy's ibtihalat (a form of solo inshad ), performed in the mosque before dawn, and culminating in the azan (call to prayer) are intensely meditative, stirring the silence of a sleeping city. The collective recitation of wird (a Sufi compendium of prayers) by the Ashraf Al-Mahdiya (disciples of Sheikh Salaheddin El-Qusi) is so powerful, even without melody. Such experiences were unforgettable.
Many performances took place during Ramadan. I recall the most moving of these during Lailat Al-Qadr (the night on which the Quran was revealed in the holy month of Ramadan), for instance the all-night hadra of the Hamidiya Shadhiliya in their mosque in Mohandessin, or the tarawih (extended evening prayer undertaken in Ramadan) as led by Sheikh Mohamed Gebril at the mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas: moving Quranic recitations followed by an hour-long dowaa (supplication), stirring tens of thousands of worshippers to weep. But my warmest memories of these religious performers during Ramadan stem not from their performances, but from invitations to their homes to consume delicious Iftar meals together. I'll always remember the kindness and generosity of Sheikh Yassin and his family during my many visits to their home in Hawatka, near Assiut, where every year he would hold a large Ramadan Iftar.
Of course all these experiences have shaped my academic life, because they provided me with the multiple perspectives I needed to begin to understand the affective dimensions of Islam in Egypt, and to translate that understanding into academic discourse. But more important for me is their place in my personal life, which they transformed.
Munshidin are situated at an unusual crossroads, between music and spirituality. When a good munshid sings Sufi poetry, though it's written by someone else, the text becomes his, even though he didn't write it, because it expresses his own mystical feeling. (The same goes for female munshidat, of course, though they are relatively few!) Indeed the first requirement of a great munshid is this ability to sing with sincerity. Naturally musical ability is necessary too -- the capacity to sing in correct intonation, to master a variety of maqamat (musical modes), and to improvise effectively within them. And of course he must memorise reams of poetry.
Sheikh Yassin is special because of the depth of his feeling while performing, something that depends, to a significant extent, on his ability to select poetry that says what he wants to say, poetry that harmonises with his own spiritual state. It helps that his poetic repertoire is vast, drawn from a broad spectrum of sources, from the classical Sufi poets (Ibn Al-Farid, Al-Hallaj, Al-Burai, Ibn Arabi), to contemporary poets such as Sheikh Abdel-Alim El-Nakheily (who has additionally done so much to nurture his talent by helping him select that repertoire). Moreover, Sheikh Yassin is an extraordinary musician; he understands the maqamat intuitively, and uses improvisation brilliantly to bring out his intended meanings.
But I think that Sheikh Yassin's most striking quality is his voice, so deep, so passionate, so poignant, so eloquent; a voice, rich with harmonics and shajan (sorrow), that allows him to communicate his internal feeling to the listeners assembled before him, from heart to heart, as the Sufis say. No one else has a voice like that. The audience feels that he feels his words, and this feeling itself intensifies their own. Their feeling, expressed more roughly in gesture and exclamation, returns to Sheikh Yassin, and a performative feedback loop is created, leading to the collective ecstasy Sufis call wajd -- but which the secular listener might equally label tarab (enchantment). Beyond this rapid, localised performance loop is a slower, broader sociological loop, by which fame is amplified -- people pay more attention to famous people, and so fame always multiplies itself. Once he was "discovered" by the Egyptian intelligentsia it was only a matter of time before he made his appearances at the Opera House and in the capitals of Europe.
Though hard to analyse in words, the performative loop is key to this music's spiritual power. But from a scholarly point of view, perhaps the sociological loop is more interesting, because it led to some eminently describable changes in performance, resulting in the emergence of a new inshad style appropriate to new segments of his rapidly expanding audience. Sheikh Yassin realised that when performing abroad he had to convey his message musically more than poetically, since audiences there generally do not understand Arabic. Also his concert-hall performances (whether in Europe or in Cairo's Opera House) needed to account for the fact that their audiences listen quietly in their seats, rather than while performing dhikr chant and movement as in Egypt.
So he elaborated and extended the non-metric middle wasla (section) of his performances, what is sometimes called ibtihalat. This section, comprising non-metric singing interspersed with taqasim (improvisations) on a single accompanying instrument (violin or reed flute) usually occupies only 30 minutes of a traditional Egyptian performance, and is inserted -- as a kind of break -- between longer segments of rhythmically-driving dhikr. In his new style he expands this middle wasla to fill nearly the entire performance, and expands the instrumental section from a single accompanying instrument to a classical takht (Arab chamber ensemble), giving each instrumentalist ample time to improvise solo taqasim. He's still expressing his spirituality, but in a more musical way, more compatible with the concert-listening traditions audiences abroad are already familiar with, and which their halls are designed to accommodate.
Personally, however, my best memories of his inshad are performances in Upper Egypt -- his hadras for Mawlid Al-Nabi (anniversary of the prophet) in Aswan, for instance -- where Sufi orders, banners, poetry, and dhikr are still primary threads within the social fabric and where he seems, amidst a sea of large turbans, surrounded by tall palms, adjacent to the narrow Nile valley, all wrapped by desert, most completely in his element. Those, and his yearly Cairo performances in honour of the great Sufi poet Sidi Omar Ibn Al-Farid, at the latter's shrine in Abagiya, and at the Cairo mosque of the Imam Al-Hussein.
Music is the ultimate vehicle for the social expression of the inexpressible, for generating collective emotion through immediate performer-listener interactions, most obviously in religious ritual. It is this kind of collective emotion which provides the essential basis for the maintenance of the social group itself, as Durkheim recognised long ago. Music goes where language, ordinary language at least, cannot. Its tremendously important social and religious role is not properly recognised within academia precisely because the media of academic enquiry are limited to language (what academic journal would publish a melody?!), while language's ability to comment on music is extremely limited.
While music's spiritual-social-emotional role occurs worldwide, it is more prominent in societies which have maintained pre-media traditions alongside the parallel emergence of mass media channels. Mediation, via TV, radio, or MP3, tends to reduce music's immediate spiritual-emotional power, as feedback loops between performer and listener are broken, as the listening group becomes atomised, and as music's commodity value takes precedence over its social and spiritual value. As an ethnomusicologist, I've been most interested in regions where the public socio-spiritual power of traditional music still permeates broad sectors of society. While I'd like to investigate such music beyond my primary areas of research, Egypt and Ghana, one cannot be everywhere at once, especially because researching this particular phenomenon requires concentrated research; you can't spread yourself too thin, or you won't understand anything at all. My particular selection is partly taste, and partly the happenstances of my personal life.
Music speaks for itself, communicates itself, as sound, and as a bodily, physical practice. It can't say everything about itself, but what it says is undoubtedly important. It also speaks volumes about the culture in which it is embedded, which it expresses, maintains and transforms. Without devaluing the role of linguistic knowledge in university education, I feel that giving music ample space to do its own talking is crucial too. One can't fully understand a music without having participated in it, at least as a listener. It certainly isn't necessary to become a master performer -- a little goes a long way.
I learned these things through my own musical experiences in Egypt and Ghana, and felt that my students should be able to learn in the same way. This is why I founded two world music groups at the University of Alberta, and also why I do not admit members by audition; I wholeheartedly reject the competitive "sports" mentality of so many musical groups: that participation is contingent on ability rather than the desire to learn; that only the "talented" should participate; that the "goal" is to "win" (as if there were any non-arbitrary way of judging who the winner might be!) or to make money. Reducing musical performance to numbers -- to winners and losers, to dollars -- are yet another manifestation of the quantification -- hence dehumanisation -- of human life.
The humanistic goal of music performance is neither winning nor selling, but learning, understanding and communicating; learning through the music itself, and from co-participants as well. I therefore encourage a mix of students in the Middle East and North African music ensemble: musicians and music students, yes, but also those studying the region from other perspectives (e.g. history), or those who consider this music to be part of their heritage, regardless of musical level. These groups are constantly in demand for performances in our local community, because their performances carry vital messages and values -- not just about the music and its culture but also about the ideals of diversity and tolerance of North American society, and people's commitment to those ideals. In performance that progressive message becomes effectively present, and makes a statement no speech can match.
In my opinion the relationship between Egyptian society and inshad dini in Egypt now is the same as before, but the nature of inshad is changing. The forces of techno-media and commodification within the market system are relentless, and have inevitably affected even relatively conservative musical domains such as inshad. While the effect on some inshad genres may be quite adverse (for instance, aside from a few remaining masters such as Sheikh Mohamed El-Helbawy, tawashih diniya -- another form of inshad, once a staple, is virtually defunct in Egypt), the rise of media- inshad, performances of singers like Sheikh Mashari Rashid, has also enriched the media space, which for a time seemed overstuffed by musical and poetical fluff. New Islamic trends may have attenuated the use of the word "Sufi" a bit. But that word has always been ambiguous, and the boundaries between what is Sufi and what isn't, if they exist at all, are much more fluid than many people imagine. What is Sufism, really, but a continual focus on tawhid (the oneness of God), a continuous remembrance, or dhikr, whose highest expression is Divine love (which then becomes a model for human social relations as well)? Sufi inshad is merely an aesthetic focussing technique. And this is what the new religious media-star singers continue to accomplish.
In my view, there are two basic categories within new inshad developments. The first comprises the new mediated munshidin ; those who specialise in performing Islamic poetry, and who are singing the same kinds of themes munshidin have always sung. Usually this music is performed in a distinctively Islamic style; for instance vocal timbre is influenced by tilawa (recitation of the Quran), and use of musical instruments is limited. The other comprises popular singers who occasionally turn to sing religious lyrics, sometimes adding a layer of Islamic instrumentation (e.g. duff, nay ) but not changing anything essential. I call these songs aghani diniya (religious songs) rather than inshad. The mediated munshidin differ from their traditional forebears primarily in that there is now the possibility for them to become true media stars, with widespread celebrity (and financial compensation) powered by international networks of broadcast and distribution. These networks simply were not available in the "traditional" setting, which relied upon live performances, and (from the 1970s) limited cassette distribution. Such celebrity and wealth certainly poses some risks for a singer whose reputation hinges essentially on spirituality. But in a sense such a risk has always been present, albeit on a smaller scale.
But while music is always powerful, the danger is of detachment of aesthetic from ethical value. The aesthetic should not be allowed to become the anaesthetic. Music's power is ambiguous, as Muslim thinkers such as Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali long ago recognised. To be used in a socially progressive way -- a human way -- music must be tightly bound to progressive social values. The tendency is for wealthier societies to absorb some world-music and then feel -- rather smugly, perhaps -- that they've understood the "other". Often they aren't even hearing the real "other" at all, but rather a faux-other which springs up out of the wealthy society itself, loudly proclaiming its "otherness", simply to meet a perceived demand. In this case, while the music may be wonderful, there's no cultural dialogue, only monologue.
And it's likewise important to avoid the irony of one-way dialogues, an unfortunately common consequence of economic inequality. Cultural dialogue through music typically involves music and musicians moving from the developing to the developed world (the reverse typically affects an elite minority only), and most musicians are (understandably) more interested in economic relief than dialogue.
Meanwhile the reverse path is paved not by dialogue-seekers, but by forces of "globalisation" which want to export as much Western music as possible in exchange for money. Thus it isn't obvious that a real dialogue is going to happen, just because music is exchanged. There has to be, first of all, a desire for dialogue, and that in turn means the right intentions have to be present among all parties. Such a situation is not easy to arrange. So while music, in all its spiritual and emotional power, can play a progressive role, it's naïve to think that this role will be assumed as matter of course.
Emotion, music and religion are all ambiguous, ambivalent forces. They are powerful, but their effects are uncertain because it's impossible to predict with certainty whether they'll play a progressive role or not. Music can be brutal; national anthems may support fascist atrocities. Religions can promote intolerance. Emotions can generate negative consequences, judging by the positive standard of progressive values, i.e. values of justice, equality, peace, freedom, cooperation, altruism. I don't believe that people are more likely to allow their emotions to lead them into negative actions now than they ever were, but perhaps the risks are greater, as the world has become far more unstable than before.
Since the 1990s, I've changed a lot (marriage, children, age); Egypt has changed some (more people, more cell phones, more satellite TV, Internet, more traffic, more wealth, more poverty). And having changed and watched Egypt change, and even participated in its changes, I feel more than ever part of the flux -- not a privileged observer standing high on a rock somewhere. So I don't have any specific messages to offer, except maybe a message about messages: to be as open as possible when receiving them, and as honest as possible when sending them. And the paradox that communications technology doesn't necessarily increase real communication. This much was already clear to Thoreau 150 years ago, when he wrote (in Walden ) "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."
In my opinion, these "serious things" all concern real, human communication. Egypt's long civilisation does not immunise against the economically-motivated, technologically- enabled radical transformations of the present. I used to love the way Egyptians went to cafés to meet their friends, not even knowing exactly whom they'd meet there. Many people didn't have a telephone in their homes -- communication required actually going to the café, and involving oneself in a face-to-face social situation. Nowadays appointments are made by mobile; people SMS to say they'll be late, or that they can't make it after all. Of course the entire world is moving to embrace technology, and there's no point in opposing such "progress", especially since many practical advantages are to be derived from it. But real progress needs to be progressive. We need to preserve progressive values -- human values, that is, rather than economic ones -- from the past to guide progress in the present. Sufi music, centred on a universal love, carries many of them.