Excerpt -Symbolism in Poetry and Music

This is an excerpt from a research paper I wrote some years back, in which I describe Kafi, a musical form popular among Sufis in some parts of South Asia, and the theoretical approaches one could use to facilitate further research.

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The poetry of a culture shares common symbols. Most poets use common symbols in order to better communicate with readers. For example, wine is a common symbol in Sufi poetry. Those who are familiar with that type of poetry know that wine is a symbol of Divine Love. The poet is using the object of wine to better communicate his or her poetry to readers or listeners, since wine is a tangible object and Divine Love is not. Sufi poets also compare a human’s ideal relationship with God with a relationship between two people, often referring to a well-known account such as that of Leila and Majnun. To those not familiar with Sufi poetry, these poems sound like they are about a romance between a man and a woman, but one who is familiar with this poetry knows that by “Lover,” the poet refers to a seeker of the Divine, and that “Beloved” represents God. Sufi poets use symbolism to communicate with readers by replacing an intangible concept with a tangible image that is familiar to the limited capabilities and senses of humans. Those who are familiar with Sufi poetry notice and appreciate the symbolism, while others simply may not grasp the deeper meaning. Thus, those who sing or recite Sufi music and poetry communicate with some on a much different level than with others.

South Asian performers also communicate with their audience through the use of the raga system. A raga is loosely comparable to a melodic scale or set of notes. It is also similar to the Middle Eastern maqam system. When performers improvise, they do so within the established raga. There are several ragas, some of which correspond to particular seasons, or to daytime or nighttime. Ragas are also associated with particular emotions or moods. Thus, when a performer chooses a raga for a song, he or she basically sends out a message, musically communicating with the audience that they should expect the song to make them feel a certain way. It is a way of preparing their emotions, arranging as many audience members as possible on the same mental page, and creating something of a psychological setting through which the performer can appeal to the senses of almost everyone in the audience. Of course, those unfamiliar with the raga system will have a completely different experience than those who have grown up with this musical convention. Raga is a culture-based form of communication.

Music is not merely an aural experience. The musical performance is a multi-channeled form of communication that can potentially occupy all five senses. One hears the music, sees the performers, decorations, and audience, and feels the beat of the music if it is loud enough. Audience members who dance experience a special form of aural, tactile, and visual communication. Music may also be associated with particular social or ritual events, where certain foods are traditionally served, or incense is burned. Therefore, it is also possible for a musical experience to acquire properties appealing to taste and smell. Communication can be achieved through many channels in a single musical performance.

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Review of Concert – Gaza U Mom Srcu

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(I originally wrote this review on February 18, 2009, in Sarajevo.)

On Sunday night, about 10,000 people braved the cold weather to attend “Gazu u mom srcu” (Gaza in my heart), a giant concert held to raise money for humanitarian relief in Gaza. It was such a large event, in fact, that it took place in Zetra, the Olympic stadium. The concert was scheduled to begin at 7:00 pm, but people began filling the stadium over an hour in advance, and by 6:30 the hall was nearly full.The audience consisted of viewers of all ages, ranging from children to the elderly. The stage was beautifully set up, with white hanging lights and arches to the side of the stage. In the center was a screen, on which a slide show consisting of images from Palestine would be displayed throughout the event. On both sides of the screen were sets of high bleachers, which began to fill up just before 7:00.

Several choirs from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina and other parts of the Balkans were scheduled to participate in the event and they began to file onto the stage, taking their places on the bleachers to enthusiastic applause. The members of each choir were dressed alike, for example the women of Hor Kewser were dressed in shiny red and gold outfits. The instrumentalists took their places in front of the bleachers, and the soloists, narrators, and hafizi (those who had memorized the Qur’an, and would recite it during the event) sat in the middle, just under the screen. Shortly beforehand, I had seen the Reis ul-Ulema, Dr. Mustafa Cerić, and his wife arrive and take their seats in the front row.

The event started promptly with a recitation from the Qur’an. There are many hafizi (Arabic: Huffadh) in the Balkans who have been trained at the Gazi Husref-Bey madrasa. Some of them, such as Aziz Alili, Burhan Šaban, Senad Podojak, and Mensur Malkić, who all participated in the event, are also very popular singers of ilahije. After most of the recitations, a narrator read the Bosnian translation of the passages.

I was familiar with many of the singers there, but not all of them.Some of those less familiar to me were pop singers. A highlight of the event, in my opinion, was Hamza Raznatović’s (lead singer of pop band MacBeth) rendition of the well-known ilahije “Dosta mi je Allah moj” (My God is enough for me – see him singing this at a different event on Samaha’s blog). After hearing Burhan Šaban sing a song in Arabic at the beginning of the event, I hoped that he would later perform one of his own songs, and he did – “Dođi Najdraži” (Come, Most Beloved – see music video of this song here). I think he performed this song because it describes the Prophet’s return from the isra’ and mi’raj, part of which took place at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Slides of the structure were shown on the screen during the performance. Another highlight was Aziz Alili’s performance of “Šehidi” (Martyrs – see video of him performing this song here), a song that was popular in Bosnia during and after the war. I could see that many of the older people in the audience were deeply moved by the song. Interestingly, while the permissibility of musical instruments and female singers are hotly debated in many parts of the Muslim world, they appear to be non-issues here. The event ended with a brief speech and a du’a by Reis ul-Ulema Dr. Mustafa Cerić, and people began piling out of the stadium.

*Photo courtesy of Bosniaks News’ youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bt4Jm–4kOM