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Music Review: Kudsi and Suleyman Erguner – Turkey: Whirling Dervishes

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The great thing about the Internet is that you can look up information on almost any subject you wish. The problem is that if you don't know anything about the subject you are researching, you have no means of judging the accuracy of the information. The only review process that most sites have is from other users, and when dealing with subjects of an obscure or esoteric nature that's not the most reliable form of editorial control.

I was running into this problem when I started writing the review for the Allegro Music disc Turkey: Whirling Dervishes from their Voyager Series. It wasn't until a stroke of luck brought me to Mevlana.Net, the official website of the descendants of the great Persian poet and thinker Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi, that I found material with which I felt comfortable.

While Hollywood and other mass entertainment outlets may have given us the idea that whirling dervishes were isolated crazies who were out in the middle of nowhere, never stoping their relentless spinning, nothing could be further form the truth. "Sema", the name given to the ritual which whirling dervishes (or Semazen) take part in, is practiced by followers of the Sufi Muslim sect who take their name, Mevlevi (the sons of Mev) and inspiration from Rumi.

Whirling Dervishes.jpgThe sect was founded in the late 1200s following the death of Rumi under the leadership of his son, Sultan Veled Celebi. As they believe that everything in the world is continually whirling, including the stuff that we humans are made of, the best way to offer prayer is to become one with that motion. So the dance of the whirling dervish is their way of being one with the universe and praying to Allah.

Music, of course, plays an integeral part in these proceedings and has a specific role and place in the ritual. After the initial opening entrance and prayer of the "Semazen" ("Sema" means human being in the Universal Movement) who will be doing the dance finishes, the second part is taken by a solo drum symbolizing God's voice ordering creation to "be". It is the third and fourth parts – still prior to the dancing – where the music plays its most important role and from where the recording Turkey: Whirling Dervishes takes its inspiration.

The third part is called a "Taksim" and is played on a type of flute called a "ney" made from reed. This piece of music is improvised each time by the player of the ney as he attempts to find the right combination of notes to communicate its meaning. This piece represents the breath of Allah, more specifically the first breath which gave life to everything – the Divine Breath.

The fourth segment, which is the music that's primarly represented on the disc Turkey: Whirling Dervishes is called "Peshrev". Durring this time the dervishes walk three circles around the space greeting each other. This is to symbolize the souls greeting each other through the physical boundaries of their bodies.

What I find most interesting is that the Rumi site makes no mention of any music during the four stages of the actual whirling. There was another site I went to where they mentioned music being played, but I'm not that confident in its authenticity because it is  North American and some of the attitudes expressed and the inaccuracy in terminology.

Whirling Dervishes Konya Turkey RMO.jpgThe key instrumentalists on Whirling Dervishes are Kudsi and Suleyman Erguner, who have been playing and promoting appreciation for Sufi music in North America and Europe for twenty years. Kudsi has in fact played with European performers like Peter Gabriel in his attempts to get the music out to the rest of the world.

At first the music is deceptively simple and appears to be nothing more than drum and flute, playing a straightforward pattern. But as you listen, you begin to hear more of what the music is doing and the patterns appear to be getting more and more complicated. Of course those patterns could have been there all along without you knowing it and as the music slowly seeps into your awareness, you gradually start to hear more and more of the subtle distinctions.

At all of the sites I went to regarding the performance of the Sema ritual, they stress that at no time is the purpose to induce a loss of awareness or to fall into a trance. However at the official Mevlana site their description of the process does state that during one aspect of the dance the salute to Allah takes the form of the transformation of rapture into love and requires the sacrifice of the mind and a complete submission of self to the state of loving the creator.

Somehow or other you're supposed to be able to do that with out slipping into a trance or a permanent state of ecstasy. All I can say is that the dancers must undergo some pretty amazing training when it comes to their ability to focus the mind. Just listening to the music, without performing any of the dances, was enough to induce a light trance state.

The more attention you pay to the music the more intricate it starts to become. The more you listen to the intricate patterns the deeper you are pulled into the music and the more you begin to notice. The next thing you know, the CD is ending and you are sitting there feeling awfully bemused because you can't remember what had happened except that the music was some of the most beautifully patterned you had ever heard.

In some ways it puts me in mind of the interior design of some of the mosques still standing in Spain as leftovers from the days of the Ottoman Empire — huge swaths of checked geometric patterns that swirl along the floors and walls in black and white tiles as far as the eye can see. I'm sure if you were to stand in there for any length of time and let your focus go soft you would find yourself starting to drift into the same sort of trancelike state that the music induced.

It's not a dangerous thing or anything malicious, and if you learned how to train yourself it could very well bring about a state of mind which approaches the highest rank of ecstasy as described on the website. But since that state in Islam is reserved only for the prophet, and even he is still only a servant of God and can never become one with him, normal supplicants aren't allowed to, either. There is no striving towards this as other religions say is possible through trance in order to reach that ultimate state of ecstasy, nirvana.

Through this CD I came to have a deeper appreciation for the beauty that is inherit in the worship of Allah by the practitioners of Islam who follow the Sufi path. I'm not about to run out and convert or anything, but simply by listening to the music and coming to understand the principals behind it, I understand the Muslims who talk about theirs being a religion of love, not of hate, just a little more. Salaam.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.