11:03pm

Fri August 16, 2013
Ecstatic Voices

Sufi Mystics Get A Modern Soundtrack

Originally published on Sun August 18, 2013 4:35 am

Sufism is the mystical path of Islam. It is the inner, meditative branch of the religion that's found in many different forms, in many different countries, and seldom makes news like its Sunni and Shiite counterparts. The ancient spiritual practice of Sufism incorporates all kinds of activities to achieve a state in which the practitioner loses the ego and experiences God through singing, chanting, reciting, whirling — as in dervishes — and music.

Riad Abdel-Gawad, a noted Egyptian-American Sufi violinist who has come to Studio B at NPR West to play some of his compositions, lifts his violin to his chin, closes his eyes and inclines toward the microphone. The music that comes out of his instrument is insistent, exotic and transporting.

With a Harvard Ph.D. in composition, the Cairo-born virtuoso has played and taught his music around the world. Abdel-Gawad's compositions embrace Egypt's multihued, 7,000-year musical history, which he's updated with a New World sensibility.

He plays a fast, repetitive figure.

"We call this zikra lela," Abdel-Gawad says. "It means the remembrance of God. So you can use the music as a means to transport yourself to different stages and closeness to Allah, or God."

Sufism in America became popular in the 1970s, when it migrated here from the Middle East. People gather in small groups, in homes or lodges, to inquire, meditate and listen as they approach the disciplined life of a Sufi. The sect does not advertise or proselytize.

Kabir Helminski is a 65-year-old American Sufi author, lecturer and spiritual leader who runs sufism.org. He's also a whirler in the Turkish Mevlevi Order.

"Sufism is a spiritual path that people choose to have an experience of the divine," Helminski says in a phone interview from his home in Louisville, Ky. "There's quite a variety of music, but the important thing is that it happens within a sacred context, and music is there to take people to a very sublime and transcendent state."

Riad Abdel-Gawad is best known for his made-in-the-USA compositions that expand Egyptian classical music. Along the way, he creates new Sufi music by translating sacred chants to the violin.

"This is religious or sacred music," says Abdel-Gawad, "a little bit like Bach's time when he had music for the church. Similarly, now we have concert music that's growing out of this sacred Islamic music."

Through this work, he's ensuring that the ancient practice of Sufism has a modern soundtrack.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sufism is the mystical path of Islam. It is the inner, meditative branch of the religion that's found in many different forms and in many different countries. It seldom makes news, like Sunni and Shiites.

As part of our series, Ecstatic Voices: Sacred Music in America, NPR's John Burnett searches out Sufi music that is made in this country and which serves as the soundtrack for this religion.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The ancient spiritual practice of Sufism incorporates all sorts of activities to achieve a state in which the practitioner loses the ego and experiences God - singing, chanting, reciting, whirling - as in dervishes - and music. This was the reason for a visit from an intense, short-statured Egyptian-American to Studio B at NPR West.

RIAD ABDEL-GAWAD: I'm Riad Abdel-Gawad. I live near Los Angeles, California. And I'm a Sufi musician and composer. And I'm going to play the azan for you.

BURNETT: He lifts his violin to his chin, closes his eyes, and inclines toward the microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: With a Harvard Ph.D. in composition, the Cairo-born virtuoso has played and taught his music around the world. Riad Abdel-Gawad's compositions embrace Egypt's multi-hued, 7,000-year musical history, but he has updated them with a New World sensibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDEL-GAWAD: We call this zikr, zikr Allah. It means, you know, the remembrance of God. So you can use the music as a means to transport yourself to different stages and closeness to Allah, or God.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ABDEL-GAWAD: (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: Sufism in America became popular in the 1970s in California - where else - when it migrated here from the Middle East. People gather in small groups, in homes or lodges, to inquire, meditate and listen as they approach the disciplined life of a Sufi. The sect does not advertise or proselytize.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: A prominent American Sufi is Kabir Helminski. The 65-year-old author, lecturer, and spiritual leader runs the website sufism.org from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. He's also a whirler in the Turkish Mevlevi Order.

KABIR HELMINSKI: Sufism is a spiritual path that people choose to have an experience of the divine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HELMINSKI: There's quite a variety of music, but the important thing is that it happens within a sacred context. Music was there to take people to a very sublime and transcendent state.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Riad Abdel-Gawad is best known for his made-in-the-USA compositions expanding on Egyptian classical music. Along the way, he creates new Sufi music by translating sacred chants onto the violin.

ABDEL-GAWAD: This religious or sacred chant music - what I'm doing is a little bit like Bach's time when he had music for the church. Similarly, now we have sort of a concert music that's growing out of this sacred Islamic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Through this work, Riad Abdel-Gawad is ensuring that the ancient practice of Sufism has a modern soundtrack.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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