Flamingo-themed kitsch fills gift shops on Sanibel Island: garden statues, picture frames, postcards, key rings, shot glasses. Though the items exhibit the words “Sanibel Island” in bright letters, they misrepresent the island’s reality—there are no flamingos here. Tiny communities of them live in the Florida Keys and Everglades, but Sanibel’s pink bird is the roseate spoonbill, also called Platalea ajaja, flame bird, or pink curlew.
We almost lost the roseate spoonbill to the fashionable world’s voracity for subjugating and possessing any object of beauty in nature. Humans demanded the birds’ wings and feathers for fans and hats, and the pink bird was hunted nearly to local extinction in the 1800s, along with the reddish and snowy egrets. This took place during the “age of extermination,” when tourists on moving boats shot birds and alligators for amusement, leaving wasted, rotting corpses and terror in their wake.
In the American West, passengers on moving trains took aim at bison, contributing to the near extinction of the species, from 60 million to 541. The animal that survived the Ice Age was no match for trigger-happy colonists. It took decades for the bison numbers to start climbing again, and the species’ recovery is still in progress, thanks mainly to Native American tribes such as the Sioux and Assiniboine.
The passenger pigeon fared worse than the bison, exterminated by colonists who perhaps assumed the bounty would last forever.
In 1886, ornithologist Frank Chapman went bird watching in Manhattan. He counted forty bird species in the hats of fashionable women. Another group of women, members of the Audubon Society, boycotted milliners who used feathers. They created a feather-free hat they dubbed an Audubonnet.
At the time of Chapman’s bird census, the population of Native Americans in the United States was estimated to be 250,000, around 2.5% of their pre-Columbian numbers. European diseases such as smallpox had erased many of them; others were killed with guns, knives, and fire. Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee communities were forcibly relocated west because their presence was inconvenient to Southern white colonists. Years later, colonists’ great-great-grandchildren would conjure nativism with Kokopelli-embossed pottery, paintings of men in headdresses, and feathered flutes bought at tourist traps and gas stations.
Gift shops line Florida’s highways, luring tourists with oranges and plastic garden flamingos, which outnumber real flamingos globally. They’re also pinker. Real flamingos are born greyish white and turn pink when they eat brine shrimp, who derive carotenoids from their own diets. Salt glands lie at the tops of their beaks and protect the birds’ kidneys from taking in excess sodium. Mother and father flamingos produce bright pink crop milk, bestowing upon their growing offspring so many nutrients that they themselves often turn white during breeding season.
Closely related to the ibis, the roseate spoonbill has a long white neck, a pink body, red shoulders, and a fifty-inch wingspan. Like the flamingo, it gets its color from its diet: crustaceans and tiny fish. The bird moves its spatula-like bill back and forth through shallow water and mud. When the sensitive receptors on its bill sense food, the mandibles snap shut and, grunting softly, the bird shakes and swallows its prey. Sometimes what spoonbills eat turns out to be deadly. Shrimp eat tiny plastic particles that get into the water, mistaking them for algae, and when wading birds eat shrimp, the plastic pollutes their bodies.
The spoonbill population depends on the availability and quality of shallow, brackish water for foraging. As an indicator species, spoonbills are rigorously documented, any disruption in their population alerting scientists that all is not well in the wetlands. When the Everglades covered South Florida, wading bird colonies bred and flourished. With the draining of these wetlands, spoonbills went elsewhere to breed. And because Florida Bay no longer has a true dry season, nesting becomes complicated. The species remains globally stable but still threatened in Florida.
In 2015, the Animas River turned yellow, a result of the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado. The Animas River flows into the San Juan River, long used by residents of the Navajo Native Reservation for irrigation and livestock. The river contains lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals, as well as the radioactive particles such as uranium that made their way into the reservation’s drinking water decades ago. By the time residents realized the extent of the contamination, many suffered from cancer and kidney problems.
Meanwhile, the planned Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted to pass near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The original route, near the mostly white state capital Bismarck, was deemed too risky for the city’s water supply. It now passes under the upper Missouri River, the reservation’s only water supply. Standing Rock residents have reason to worry, as oil has already been spilled on or near Native lands—the Keystone XL leaked in South Dakota, an oil well leaked on Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, and a train carrying oil derailed and spilled its contents into the Columbia River in Oregon, among other incidents.
Florida’s flamingos, like other wading birds, were once hunted in rivers and lakes for their feathers and meat. Until recently, ornithologists assumed that the few flamingos spotted in Florida were vagrants or escapees from zoos and tourist attractions. As sightings became more common, scientists realized not all of South Florida’s native flamingos had died, and the population was recovering—much like a phoenix, whose myth their species inspired.
The feathers of shorebirds such as spoonbills and egrets are at their most beautiful during breeding season. By the late 1800s, the hunted birds had been driven away from populated areas and nested in large numbers in remote rookeries. Plume hunters planned their attacks meticulously: if they went before the eggs hatched, the birds would fly away. If they went after the eggs hatched, they could shoot hundreds of adult shorebirds in one day. They would strip the bodies of their feathers and leave the corpses behind. The nestlings would starve or be eaten by predators. Such carnage was possible because the spoonbills and egrets refuse to leave their babies, even when they are being shot at.
Wading birds can no longer legally be sacrificed to human greed. At least not by a bullet from a plume hunter’s rifle. Rising sea levels, accelerated by our gluttony of fossil fuels, may leave spoonbills unable to access their food supply, as they can only forage in shallow water.
In the 1800s, most people saw no problem with shooting birds in the name of fashion and leaving nestlings to starve. Colonists also justified worse atrocities, such as killing Native Americans and forcing them from their lands and enslaving Africans.
Today in Utah, easy access to fossil fuels and mining deposits is the flaming pink feather and Bears Ears National Monument is the hunted bird. The land is sacred to a number of Native American tribes and protected under the Antiquities Act, but protections can be stripped away and promises broken. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Other public lands, such as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, are under attack, as are Native American reservations such as Uintah and Ouray and Standing Rock, due to avarice for what lies under them or could be built on them. History did not end with our ancestors. The coveted objects change, but human greed lives on and recognizes no boundaries.
I haven’t posted here since that long streak of essay segments, but I found out this week that “The Path Unfolding” won second place in the flash fiction category of the Seven Hills Literary & Penumbra Poetry Contest. It will be published in the Seven Hills Review literary journal, which should come out in early 2021. I will let you know when it is out!
Deep within the earth, near Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, lies the world’s largest musical instrument. The Great Stalacpipe Organ spans three acres of the Luray Caverns and can be heard through all sixty-four acres of the cave. In the 1950s, engineer Leland Sprinkle tapped over 2,500 stalactites of different sizes with a rubber mallet to test their sound, finally choosing thirty-seven for the organ. When an organist presses the instrument’s keys, an electrical signal travels via a solenoid to a mallet that strikes the corresponding stalactite.
While a pipe organ is an aerophone, the Great Stalacpipe Organ is a lithophone: an instrument whose sound comes from a struck piece of rock. It sounds more like a xylophone or bells than a conventional organ. The tones echo through the cavern, producing a sound that is eerie, beautiful, and peaceful, all at the same time—music from the belly of Earth.
Today, Earth and her inhabitants cry out, oppressed by greed-fueled devastation, disease, and deep-rooted injustice.
Bono, activist and lead singer of U2, reportedly said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” Such a bold quote begs examination. Does music actually change people? What can music do for us now?
Music usually accompanies social movements and change. Music by artists such as The Staple Singers and Bob Dylan encouraged and inspired those fighting for civil rights in the 1960s. Rock music was instrumental in helping Czechoslovakia through the Velvet Revolution, its nonviolent transition from communism to democracy. Songs such as “La Réveil de Peuple” and “La Marseillaise” fostered unity during the French Revolution. Obviously, not all social movements end well. Music is a tool, and it can be used to spur one to progress or spread propaganda. Musicians capture it all in song for later generations.
Music therapy addresses mental, behavioral, and physical issues. Sufi music was used in the Ottoman Empire for centuries to treat the mentally ill and restore balance to the humors. Different Ottoman musical modes affect the body and mind in different ways, such as making patients sleepy, reducing fever, dispelling lethargy, or even helping patients lose weight. The tradition has been revived in modern Turkey to complement conventional medicine.
As music heals the individuals of Earth, it heals communities. Numerous musical initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as the Mostar Rock School, the Pavarotti Music Centre, From Woman to Woman, and the Youth Cultural Center Abrašević, seek to bring people of different communities together and heal the wounds of the recent past.
A group of artists called the ClimateMusic Project wishes to save the world—literally—by raising awareness of one of the earth’s most pressing issues: climate change. They produced a thirty-minute interpretive audiovisual piece called “Climate,” which illustrates the earth’s climate over 500 years, beginning in 1800 CE. As the piece continues into the earth’s future, it projects two possible scenarios. The visuals come from the Community Earth System Model and illustrate the ocean’s pH and the earth’s CO₂ concentration, which is reflected in the tempo of the music. The earth’s temperature is reflected in the pitch, and the earth’s energy balance manifests as distortion in the sound. Response has been positive so far and audience members are intrigued, but will it produce real change? Will it transform people’s opinions and actions?
We cannot predict the future, but we can listen, educate ourselves, and promote positive change—and art. Whatever lies ahead, music will be there to document it and give us hope and, perhaps, solidarity. The path forward is always marked with musical notes. Let’s make sure it leads us to a sustainable and bright future.
I haven’t had the heart to post this past week because of all that’s been going on, but after the Lotus Festival this weekend I think it’s time. Music is, after all, a way to get to know one another. Be well!
Across the fire, my co-worker strums his guitar and sings “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. Hundreds of small bonfires light up the beach. People sit around them and sing, cook shish kabobs, or make wishes and jump over the flames. Locals also tell me that my wishes will come true if I step into the sea tonight or place laurel leaves under my pillow.
The last suggestion is futile because it is 2:00 a.m. and we do not appear to be leaving any time soon. Our group contains about twenty people, but I only know three of them: a co-worker and my flatmates. We leave at 5:00 a.m., but it is La Noche de San Juan and, instead of heading home, everyone stops at a dance club. I sneak away to walk home but, new in Valencia, I lose my way and end up taking a taxi, finally getting to bed at 7:30 a.m.
La Noche de San Juan, or St. John’s Eve, falls on June 23rd. It coincides with the Northern European Midsummer traditions, marking the summer solstice. Many Midsummer celebrations also involve fire. According to pre-Christian tradition, supernatural forces and monsters walk the earth on this night, making it an auspicious time for divination and making wishes. The fires serves to keep away the evil spirits.
La Noche de San Juan is far from the only holiday that involves fire jumping. Hıdrellez, also called Ederlezi (Khidr and Elijah Day), and Đurđevdan (St. George’s Day) are celebrated across Turkey and the Balkans in late April or early May, depending on the calendar. Despite the religious names, these holiday traditions, like those of Easter, come from pre-Christian and pre-Islamic spring rites and include lots of music and dancing, picnics, and making wishes. Many people observing Đurđevdan build bonfires. Those celebrating Hıdrellez build smaller fires and leap over them in hopes of warding off disease for the upcoming year.
Iranians jump over fires the night before Chaharshanbe Suri, or Red Wednesday, which is the last Wednesday before the spring equinox. The practice originated in ancient Persia and is believed to purify one of sickness, as heard in the chant spoken as one jumps: “Give me your fiery red and take my yellow from me,” red symbolizing health, and yellow, sickness.
No one jumps over fires during Čarodějnice (Witches’ Night), celebrated in the Czech Republic on April 30th. The fire is much too big for that, as its purpose is to burn an effigy of a witch so that spring can come. The largest witch burning in Prague takes place in Ladronka Park, accompanied by a live rock band as little girls run around dressed as witches. The German equivalent is Walpurgis Night, which Faust attends with Mephisto in the Harz Mountains. I wonder if Faust and Mephisto would feel at home in Valencia tonight.
Fire is deadly, destructive, and difficult to control, but it also keeps us warm in winter, gives us light, and cooks our food. Symbolically, it represents anger and desire, danger and the comforts of home, magic and purification.
This is Part 11 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10.
Marked with Musical Notes – Part 11
In the forests of Šuljaga Mountain, a spring bubbles. Its water courses through a series of pipes until it reaches the village of Prusac, in western Bosnia.
It wasn’t always this way.
The year was 1510 CE. A severe drought hovered over Prusac. An Ottoman dervish named Ajvaz-Dedo (Grandfather Ajvaz) managed to find the mountain spring, but a seventy-meter boulder blocked the water’s passage. Perhaps inspired by Moses, Ajvaz-Dedo prayed in front of the boulder for forty days, beseeching God to split it so the villagers could get to the water. On the fortieth day, he dreamed of two white rams engaged in combat. When they collided and locked horns, they cracked the rock. Upon waking, Ajvaz-Dedo found the boulder had split, forming a canyon and revealing the water beyond. He ran wooden pipes through the canyon and brought water to the village.
Šuljaga Mountain and its spring are now the site of the largest Muslim pilgrimage in Europe: Ajvatovica. Far from a solemn affair, the annual Ajvatovica festivities feature a parade with horses and flags from different parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, music and dancing, sporting events, coffee and tea, prayers, and a trek through the rock to the spring.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to a large number of natural springs that provide its residents with fresh, clean water (their sparkling water was voted the best in the world). But pollution is starting to wrap its tentacles around this small country as well.
Water gives life. Most of the world’s metropolises were historically built near seas, lakes, and rivers. In his masterpiece, The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andrić describes the construction of the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge. In the stories that follow, the bridge and the rivers—the Drina and the Rzav—play a central role in the lives of those who live nearby. Musicians celebrate Bosnia’s rivers in songs such as “Miljacka” and “Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu.”
Many local and world religions include belief in water deities and spirits. People have offered sacrifices to bodies of water and their deities in return for a flood-free season, a large catch of fish, or protection at sea. Water sustains life.
Water spirits can be mischievous or even dangerous. The vodyanoi, or vodník, is a male water spirit found in various Slavic traditions, known for drowning people, destroying mills, or simply drinking beer with the locals, depending on the place and story. The rusalka, a female water spirit, is credited with granting fertility and with luring young men into the depths. The Scottish kelpie can take the shape of a horse and carry its rider to a watery grave.
In May of 2014, Cyclone Tamara hit the Balkans, dumping three months’ worth of rain and causing the Sava, Bosna, Kolubara, Drina, and other rivers to flood. At least sixty-five people died and tens of thousands were left homeless. Water takes life.
This is Part 10 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9.
Marked with Musical Notes – Part 10
Musical instruments that use vibrating air to produce sound are called aerophones. These range from bagpipes and accordions to saxophones, trumpets, and flutes. Flutes are among the oldest musical instruments that are still in use today. The Persian and Turkish flute, called a ney, was traditionally carved from a reed, though a modern neyzan may play a metal or plastic ney. The ney features in the first poem of Jalaluddin Rumi’s Masnavi, his last, and probably most famous, work. It begins:
Beshno az ney, chon hekayat mikonad. Az joday-ha shekayat mikonad.
“Listen to the ney as it narrates its story. Of separation, it laments.”
The ney continues its story in the next lines, grieving how it was ripped from its reed bed and asserting that, ever since, its song has brought men and women to tears.
Of course, Rumi uses the ney as a metaphor for the human being: we were plucked from the divine presence and consigned to Earth, and our souls long to return to their Beloved. It has been years since I have sat in a group zikr, and my heart laments like the ney.
Rumi’s ney uses art—music, in this case—to express its grief. So do we. This is a hazardous undertaking, as we risk producing a navel-gazing saga. However, sorrow and depression constructed the Taj Mahal, The Bell Jar, Francisco Goya’s black paintings, and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
Western music employs major and minor keys, fast and slow tempos, and rising and falling tones to convey different emotions. In Persian music, the dastgah system is a skeleton on which musicians build and improvise a melody. A dastgah, literally “position of the hand,” prescribes a scale, a theme, and musical phrases. Musicians often use a relatively upbeat dastgah called Mahur during celebrations. Homayoun, on the other hand, conveys pathos. A group of Iranian scientists found that not only does Homayoun activate an area of the brain responsible for emotions, but also part of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, associated with decision making.
This is Part 9 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.
Marked with Musical Notes – Part 9
Orchards and farms race past as I gaze out the window of Abu Bakr’s big green monster van, the one he uses to transport furniture for work. We are on the way to Xátiva, a town one hour south of Valencia, for a zikr in the home of Abu Bakr’s friend Hamza.
This will be my first zikr and I am nervous. What will I have to do? Were “those people” right about Sufi practices? Am I ready?
The sun is just disappearing behind the hills as we enter Xátiva. Abu Bakr tells me most of the buildings still face Mecca. A castle with pre-Roman and Latin foundations crowns Monte Vernisa, a nearby hill. A thirteenth-century hospital, a food market, and numerous fountains adorn the city. They beckon dimly, and I promise myself to return during the day before I leave Spain (it’s a promise I will not keep).
Hamza is authorized by his and Abu Bakr’s Naqshbandi shaykh(spiritual leader) in Cyprus to lead the zikrs in the Valencia area. I picture an elderly, austere man with a long, sparse grey beard. It will be a small gathering this time, probably just three or four of us.
Hamza’s wife greets us and feeds us gazpacho. I haven’t learned to like this cold vegetable soup, so beloved in Spain. I eat it to be polite.
We finish the soup and enter the sitting room. I feel as if I’ve stepped into 1967. The heady aroma of incense fills the room, and six or seven children peer at us. In the center towers Hamza, massive and definitely not elderly or austere-looking. A ponytail and a full, dark brown beard frame his broad face, and he wears an assortment of medallions over his navy blue robe.
Hamza leads us upstairs to a smaller room with rugs and cushions on the floor, lit by only candles. We pray the sunset prayer and sit in a circle. Hamza starts reciting some familiar verses from the Qur’an. I glance at Abu Bakr. He recites along with Hamza, so I do too. Hamza’s powerful voice intones the names of God. I would find out later that the shaykh told Hamza to compose melodies for these litanies that fit Spanish musical aesthetics.
We recite the one-syllable names slowly, elongating the vowels. The tempo quickens. “Haqq. Haqq. Haqq.” (Truth.) I squirm a little. The ritual is new to me, but I soon relax and rejoin. We recite some praise formulae and supplications before finishing. The session has lasted forty-five minutes.
We drink black tea and talk for an hour or so before Abu Bakr and I say goodbye and start the quiet drive to Valencia. My blood is humming. I go to bed at 4:00 am and manage two hours of sleep before work.
This is Part 8 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.
Marked with Musical Notes – Part 8
The lofty stone cliff dwarfs the 600-year-old tekija, or dervish house. Neat, square, wood-trimmed windows line the white walls. A small gift shop occupies the entryway, but on the second floor, quiet reigns. Vibrant carpets in diverse colors and patterns cover the floor, with low couches and pillows resting against the walls.
A bare room for washing before prayer features a small dome in the roof with stars cut into it, allowing the light to stream in through the different hues of stained glass. All of the other rooms have ceilings of dark wood. Delicate carvings and painted designs of flowers, stars, and moons decorate the ceiling in one room.
A terrace overlooks the deep turquoise Buna River. Its source lies deep inside the karst cliff, and it emerges from a dark cavern in the rock face. The water is clean and ice cold, and beneath its surface swim rare species of fish. A sharp-snouted rock lizard clings to the terrace above the river, sunning its yellow-spotted body and teal and grey striped tail.
The tekija contains the mausoleum of Sarı Saltık, a semi-legendary dervish. It is doubtful that he is actually buried inside the tekija. Per legend, his will stipulated that eight coffins be sent to different parts of the world so that no one would know which one held his body.
After World War II, the Socialist Yugoslav government outlawed dervish practices, but they were revived later, and Sufi zikr takes place regularly in the tekija. It is now a pilgrimage site, as well as a tourist attraction. Once a year, devotees from all across the region gather for a large zikr program outside the tekija. It starts in the afternoon. People sit near the tekija, some of them under umbrellas, listening to speeches by imams, muftis, scholars, and writers. Then come the devotional songs.
“Remembrance” is the literal English translation of zikr, also spelled and pronounced dhikr, with the same sound as the English word “this.” In a religious context, zikr is the remembrance of God, whether on your own or in a group, silently or loudly, still or in motion, even while engaged in one’s daily activities. In this and similar zikr ceremonies, people gather to recite together the names of God, various litanies and supplications, and praise.
A circle of men in the center, wearing caps and black vests, lead the songs as the men and women in the outer circles join in, sway, or just listen. The song ends, and the sound of the river’s cascade fills the air. Everyone lifts their hands before their faces to silently supplicate, passing their hands over their faces when they finish. There is a break for prayer as the sun goes down. The zikr starts. The men in the center sway in unison, slowly at first, and chant in one voice.
The hadra, a form of zikr with vigorous movement, is based on the idea that repeated motions, rhythmic breathing, and chanting help the devotee focus their attention on the Divine. Participants in the inner circle bend sharply forward and backward in unison as they breathe and chant in time with their movements. Some sing, forming a complex harmony with the chanting. Most hold their right hands over their hearts. As well as harnessing the collective energy of the group, the hadra produces a sensation that the body is moving on its own and the participant is liberated from it.
Those in the outer circles join in, according to their levels of enthusiasm and familiarity with the rituals. Some remain seated and follow the motions in a more subdued way. Though the space is crowded, there is room for everyone—those who wish to find God through movement and those who prefer to do so through stillness.
It is dark now, but lights shine on the white walls of the tekija and reflect off the river. They throw long shadows up the face of the cliff, which rises until it disappears into the night sky along with the reverberating melodies.
*I wasn’t able to get many good pictures of the tekija for some reason. What little photography skills I possess seem to have been “off” that day. I’ve posted a few pictures below, but feel free to Google “Blagaj tekija” for some better ones.
This is Part 7 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.
I mention the Lotus Festival in this section, and I’m pleased to learn that it will take place this year, partly virtual and partly in a socially distanced environment. Check it out!
Marked with Musical Notes – Part 7
Six people link arms and dance in a circle under the tent that stretches across Kirkwood Avenue. Around them, others dance, talk, or listen to the Boban Marković Orkestar, a Balkan brass band. The songs played by the twelve Roma musicians from southern Serbia defy anyone to stand still.
Outside the tent, the white Sample Gates beckon. Beyond them lies the sprawling Indiana University campus. For five days every September, Bloomington, Indiana, hosts the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival, one of North America’s oldest world music festivals.
Music is a bridge. People who know very little about another culture see that community’s music or food as an easy and non-threatening first step in getting to know a new group of people. The Lotus programs include a food-based fundraiser, fun and educational activities in local schools, a visual arts workshop and, of course, the annual music festival.
In 2002, the Boban Marković Orkestar is one of the brightest stars of the show. But there are thirty-four other acts from at least nineteen countries. The concerts take place in several venues within walking distance of each other in downtown Bloomington, including theatres, churches, nightclubs, and tents.
Another year, I attend a performance by the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali Group, led by the nephews of legendary Qawwali performer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Qawwali is a unique form of Sufi devotional music, originally from Pakistan and Northern India. A Qawwali ensemble includes several singers, typically with one or two main vocalists who lead the others in a call-and-response pattern. Most modern ensembles are accompanied by tablas, a reed organ called a harmonium, and hand clapping.
The high-energy hand clapping establishes the outer time of the music, or the beat. The heart of the music, however, can be called inner time. Led by the vocals and harmonium, it allows space for improvisation, collective feeling, and individual impressions—and trance.
The lyrics deal with divine love, often wrapped in earthly metaphor. The names and stories of Sufi saints appear as well. The subject of one of the best-known Qawwalis, “Dam Mast Qalandar,” is Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a saint who lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
According to legend, when Lal Shahbaz Qalandar came from Afghanistan to Sehwan, in what is now Pakistan, the inhabitants of the city sent him a bowl completely filled with milk, indicating that there was no space for him in the city. He returned the bowl with a flower floating on top of the milk, saying he was there to spread love.
Some Qawwalis refer to the saint as Jhoole Lal, which means Red Bridegroom. The saint, who was known for wearing red (or had auburn hair), was engaged to marry a friend’s daughter. Per another legend, the marriage did not take place and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar never recovered from his grief, and never married.
Lal Shahbaz Qalandar allegedly practiced dhamal, a devotional whirling dance similar to that practiced by the whirling dervishes of Turkey. Today, Sufis perform dhamal at his annual urs, or death-anniversary, which is celebrated in Sehwan. Actually, the word urs means “marriage” because a saint’s death is the day of his or her union with the Divine.
Some people seek God through stillness. Others do so through movement. The whirling in dhamal is faster and less precise than that practiced by the whirling dervishes. It is accompanied by a racing drumbeat, and some dancers whirl to the point of trance. They seek the state of fanaa, which means that one’s self is erased or annihilated and all that is left is unity with the Divine, dying before death.
In 2018, eleven people died from the intense heat at the urs of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The year before, many were killed while performing dhamal by an explosion orchestrated by fundamentalists whose ideals stand in opposition to the teachings of Qalandar. Love is stronger than hate, but hate rends gaping holes in the individual and collective psyche.
At the Lotus Festival, the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali Group carries on the legacy of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, their uncle Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and other mystical performers before them. As their voices echo around the theatre, the person next to me closes her eyes and sways in her seat. The woman on my other side pulls her knees to her chest and weeps.
I sit as still as possible until my body is a shell, like the trunk of a tree with two holes to see from. My soul moves freely within its shell, oblivious of bone, blood, and muscle. She receives the music as it rises and falls and swirls around. I am not ready to be erased. Not yet.