Water, Music Video in HD

It was a clear, cool day in October last year when I hoiked my six-month pregnant belly up a gazillion steps to Cuevas de Sacromonte, a kind of open-air museum in the old gypsy quarter of Granada, to film my first ever music video (I mean a proper video, not just something recorded on an iPod while the baby was asleep. Although those are cool too.)

The percussionist, Muhammad Domínguez, and I had performed this song months before with almost no preparation, and we hadn’t rehearsed it at all until that morning, but it all came good on the fifth take. He’s a pro alright!

Props to my awesome brother Zakariyya Whiteman for filming, directing and editing and Pablo Garcia Lastra for the sound recording and mastering, as well as my parents for babysitting, Mounzer Sarraf of The Great Game for very kindly loaning me the electroacoustic guitar, and last but definitely not least, my wonderful husband for accompanying me and keeping cool so I didn’t have a diva strop. Not that I would or anything. Ahem.

Inshallah it’ll be the first of many more…and if I can get together the energy for a crowdfunding campaign to make an album you’ll be the first to hear about it!

Clap Along If You Feel That Happiness is Halal

For anyone with a couple of dozen Muslims on their newsfeeds, any time some event of great importance breaks out somewhere in the Independent Republic of the Internet, you can guarantee that you’ll be exposed to a glimpse of that little-documented creature: the Muslim Troll.

Its natural habitat being under large rocks in urban vicinities, the Muslim Troll is a natural mimic of the Muslim Scholar, adopting a studious expression, self-consciously arranged ensemble of ‘Islamic’ clothing, and many Arabic expressions to pepper his speech. This he does whilst simultaneously eviscerating dozens of fellow Muslims online every day, condemning them to burn in the deepest reaches of hell for posting that video of the cat with the weird miaow.

Fortunately, I do not add suchlike to my friends. Were a Troll to scheme his way in I would promptly unfriendify him. Am I acting against freedom of speech? No, I am acting for freedom from speech. Hate(ful) speech, that is. There is no reasoning with people who say that it is disbelief to use a string of beads to enumerate the names of God, whilst reading Qur’an off their iPads and setting an alarm for Fajr on their iPhones.

So when The Honesty Policy’s effervescent vid Happy British Muslims (one of the global Pharrell Williams covers that have taken YouTube by storm) appeared on my Facebook feed, all that I could see in response was enthusiastic. Muslims of all colours, ages and styles of dress, bouncing around the screen in a state of pure unadulterated elation, without a single news reporter or crime scene in sight? What’s not to like?

Then I came across one woman’s impassioned comment about how ‘this isn’t the sort of da’wah we should be doing’. She seemed genuinely upset that despite all her efforts to maintain her deen (practice) the way she felt it should be, people like this kept on appearing to shatter her resolve. Her plea touched me deeply, but I couldn’t help wondering why something so infectiously cheerful should leave anyone feeling down.

Is the main problem that they’re bopping about to a Western pop song? If that is the case, then all of us who grew up in the West (or are 100% genetically one of ‘them’ – I even did a DNA test to see if I had any Asian, African or Middle Eastern in me; not a drop) are doomed. Much as I love to dance to Berber music or Qawwali, I like a good shimmy to Blondie as much as the next Essex girl. And frankly, most nasheeds are the musical equivalent of a large bag of candyfloss: nice for a while, but leaving you with a hankering for something a bit more substantial.

Music cuts across racial, religious, gender and class boundaries. You might not agree with people dancing for a camera and being broadcast to the world, but listen to a song that gets you jumping and the stress of being categorised falls away. You stop thinking, something that is anathema in our hyperelectric world. Besides, Muslim women often suffer from serious health problems as a result of having little encouragement – or opportunity – to exercise. Dancing is by far the best all-round tonic for the body; you don’t have to go raving to enjoy it.

(The only examples of belly dancers I could find that weren’t wearing exotic dancing gear. Take note of the irony, dear readers. Muslim Troll would be apopleptic.)

Is the issue the idea that we are pandering to Western ideals, trying too hard to prove ourselves by the criteria of ‘them on the other side’? Perhaps. As a minority that is often publicly maligned, we have a tendency to be touchy. British Muslims have a field of paranoia surrounding them, unless they are extremely careful about transcending it.

But we’ve been so immersed in ‘their’ culture, and for so long, where can you honestly draw the line where ‘we’ end’ and ‘they’ begin’? Many of us have no other place to call home than Europe, or the States. In any case, Islam didn’t emerge into a void; names, habits, even acts of worship (such as circumnambulating the Ka’aba) were carried over from before, wherever they were deemed appropriate. This supposed gulf between West and East is absurd: if you go far enough around the globe you come out the other side.

If Islam is as inclusive and atribal as we believe it to be, then being British or American, whether in heritage or culture, can be no barrier to belief.

If the worry is that women shouldn’t be filmed bouncing around on a screen, I can understand why people wouldn’t want to be captured personally and spliced into a video clip, and that out of respect for the privacy of women others might find it disagreeable that women should be shown on a website accessible to billions. But good golly, they’re hardly grinding the air in a leather bustier and thigh-high boots to the strains of some half-witted, semi-pornographic R’n’B tune. (Or shaking their tinselled butts to bellydancing music, for that matter.) Innocent, ebullient joy still exists; we need to be reminded of it before the skepticism sinks in too deep.

And innocent joy isn’t limited to certain groups of people. There is a lingering idea, I fear, that to be a ‘good’ Muslim one must look, speak, and behave a certain way, yet that gingerbread man shape seems to be shrinking all the time. Imam ‘Abdal-Latif Finch said something very powerful in a seminar he gave last summer: “Accepting Allah’s Will means accepting ourselves as we are.”

That doesn’t mean we don’t leave room for change, but it does mean recognising that this is our culture, this is our home, this is our vernacular. I feel that British Muslims have a pressing need to develop this sense of a home-grown Islamic identity, one that doesn’t require unrealistic expectations of piety or borrowing the trappings of foreign ‘Islams’.

Crowd of miscellaneous people listening to Firdaus Ensemble at South Kilburn Studos. Courtesy of Rumi's Cave

Audience at concert by Firdaus Ensemble at South Kilburn Studos, London. Courtesy of Rumi’s Cave

What’s wrong with us incorporating elements of our home cultures into our identities? Trying to squash yourself into a hopelessly ambitious mould of foreign-looking piety is a pretty sure guarantee of making yourselves feel like a failure, and might just end up with a massive, plate-smashing, snot-flying breakdown. Not very spiritual, unless you consider it a ‘breakthrough’.

I suspect that part of the objection that some people have to the Happy British Muslims video is that it expresses an aesthetic that doesn’t meet their ideals for an Islamic nation, rather than being a serious query of the piety of those involved. Sheikh ‘Abdal-Hakim Murad was in it, for goodness’ sake. If that doesn’t give it the seal of approval I don’t know what does.

“Abundance of worldly wealth is not happiness; real happiness lies in contentment of heart and a care-free nature.” (Hadith from the collection Sahih Muslim)

“The most beloved of religions according to Allah the Most High is the ‘easy, flexible religion.’” (Hadith from the collections Ahmad and Hasan)

“The best of all deeds is that you bring happiness to your Muslim brother, pay off his debt or feed him bread.” (Hadith from collection Ibn Adiyy and Hasan)

“O mankind, there has to come to you instruction from your Lord and healing for what is in the breasts and guidance and mercy for the believers. Say, ‘In the bounty of Allah and in His mercy – in that let them rejoice; it is better than what they accumulate.'”
(Surah Yunus, 10: 57-58)

So here goes…I’m HAPPY for the blessings of my children, my family, my husband, my friends…for the homes and jobs and projects that have fallen and continue to fall miraculously into my life, dispelling my fears and neurosis about provision and confirming the Divine statement “I am in the opinion of my slave”.

I’m HAPPY for all the flowers and leaves and healing materials that grow so bountifully within reach, for the needs that are met almost before they’ve been articulated, for the abundance that comes purely out of knowing from what Source they are emanating.

I’m HAPPY for the opportunities to learn that come with every challenge, for how beautifully choreographed they are, for how the discomfort lessens as the lesson behind it is revealed.

I’m so blimmin’ HAPPY these days I don’t know how I haven’t made a Happy video myself.

Tell me what makes you happy, too!

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/pharrell-williams-happy-british-muslims-dance-to-song-in-video-9265188.html

Tasbih*

crickets

http://www.whydontyoutrythis.com/2013/12/someone-recorded-crickets-then-slowed-down-the-track-and-it-sounds-like-people-singing.html?m=1

It seemed a hiss

the drone of mating call

of insects lost in long grass

grating on short nerves

white noise on a muggy August eve

but that is just the speed

we think at. That’s the pace

we expect all else to race to

and when their mindless buzz

is heard with their ears

it becomes
 song

for no reason but to sing

because that is the thing that must

be done

in ecstasy at being small before the One

How many more songs are being sung

by entities so small and fast-lived

that their chorus doesn’t register for us?

Too fine

cat’s purr five thousand hertz wide

distant whirr of planetary slide

a jive when played apace with human lives

and now I hear sense in my daughter’s cries

as tantrum slows to feverish high

I hear the words she tried to croon

the Mama, listen, Mama, pick me up –

it was a tune that spun on faster wheels
than mine, mismatching my headbeats

but that was the song her fever sang
the exultation it expressed
while I was too depressed
with longing for a quiet night
the silence of the stars as they creak past or
gentle buzz of crickets on a lawn
the white noise Nature gives the
world-worn so they’ll find peace there
in music they can’t hear

All things are in tasbih
for One who is to all these things
Listening.

(* Tasbih is an Arabic word meaning glorification – i.e. of Allah, of God. It is said in Qur’an that every thing in creation has its own unique way of singing its ‘tasbih’ to God.)

Zende Creative Retreat, April 2014

Aside

Most of you are more used to reading my rambles about spooning porridge out of my kids’ hair or a flash of insight had whilst shearing sheep…but I would just like to take a moment to mention a beautiful new project I’m currently working on.

For many years I have toyed with the idea of running a retreat in Spain, aimed at (but not exclusive to) Muslims of a spiritual bent who wish to explore their creative depths in an open-minded, relaxing and enjoyable way.

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A few months ago, a dear sister, poet, writer and photographer Ni’mah Nawwab came to a town near where I live for a writing retreat, and came to stay for a few days afterwards. As well as her beautiful company, her enthusiasm for a poetry retreat in Órgiva got me making some moves on this dream…

…and Zende Creative Retreats was born!

Image

For a small town, there is an absurd amount of untapped artistic talent here. Two master calligraphers, musicians, artists, poets…and in this setting of outstanding natural beauty, where a walk can take you to natural springs, waterfalls, ruined Moorish castles and watchtowers, through gnarled cork oak forests or up green slopes with views of the sea, it is understandable that many people might find this place the scene of great inspiration.

Drawn by the abundance of the natural surroundings, the good food and (very importantly for us Brits) the sunshine, this valley is blessed with seekers from all different walks of life. And as Muslims we find a connection here to a Western Islamic civilisation that brings us a new understanding of who we are. The footprints of Spanish Muslims who lived here barely 500 years ago seem only just beneath the surface of the soil. In the language, the food, the customs, the agricultural traditions – there is still a subtle but tangible presence of Islam here in the south of Spain. Perhaps this is the closest we come to a homeland.

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Yet it is so easy to get lost in nostalgia, in grieving for golden times past. It is clear that this spirit needs to be maintained in something contemporary, something we can relate to, something alive…

Zende, meaning ‘alive’ in Persian, is the gathering that so many of us have been longing for. Zende Creative Retreats are unique in the field of study-abroad holidays, as a primarily creative experience designed to cater to Muslim interests while maintaining a universal and open attitude to all guests, from all backgrounds.

Pommes de Granada

Pommes de Granada

What is it that makes us feel alive? For many of us it can be felt through our spirituality, our search for (and discovery of) meaning in the strange, at times incomprehensible world we live in. When events fall into some sort of order, when we perceive harmony even through our difficulties, a light opens up through the darkness.

But these moments of insight often seem rarer than a pearl in a Big Mac. Surely there’s something we can do, some activity to calm our minds while we dive within to find to pearl we’re looking for?

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In our experience, writing calligraphy and poetry do just that, filling us with peace and reminding us of the beauty inherent in nature, in life, in our own selves. So much confusion and pain can be transmuted into a work of art or literature that not only gives tremendous enjoyment to the artist but also to those receiving it.

To complement the brief but packed programme of calligraphy and poetry, led by facilitators Asghar Alkaei Behjat, Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, Ni’mah Nawwab and myself, we have scheduled yoga at dawn, led by highly experienced instructor Monica Poyato, and walks in the mountains with Ahmad Zaruq Summers of the Granada-based tour company Al-Andalus Experience. This offers us a way to leave the classroom and incorporate our physical selves into the creative experience, as well as providing a great deal of inspiration for our work.

Abdal Hayy bio pic

We are blessed to have the poet ‘Abd al-Hayy Moore coming all the way from Philadelphia to speak about poetry and give us a performance of his work. Ebullient, funny and inspiring, ‘Abd al-Hayy comes from the Beat generation of poets from 1960s California, and has been something of a pioneer in the field of contemporary Western Sufi poetry.

There will also be a chance for retreat guests to perform a few of the pieces they have worked on in the course of the weekend on the last day alongside the phenomenal Ali Keeler and Firdaus Ensemble and some of the workshop facilitators.

To put our landscape into perspective we’ll have a talk on Andalusi history, with particular focus on the great writers and thinkers who have contributed to classical and even modern thought, by Tahira Larmore, who is currently working on a travel guide to Muslim Spain for Turath Publishing. And if you thought that Persian calligraphy was out of place in Spain, this is when you’ll discover just how much Persian influence there was in Andalusi culture!

We’ll also have a Qasida singing workshop given by ‘Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, giving us a rare opportunity to take the ecstatic poems we’ve worked on in calligraphy and learn to sing them.

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The weekend comes to a climax with a visit to the Alhambra palace, one of the great wonders of the world and the site and inspiration of many a poem. Guests who wish to extend their trip can also choose to visit Cordoba before the retreat and/or extend their stay in Granada afterwards.

The programme, bios of the facilitators and details on booking your place on the retreat can all be found by clicking here to visit the website.

From all the Zende Creative team, we wish you a beautiful start to 2014 and hope to see you for some artistic adventure!

Musical Muslims: Retoasting an Old Chestnut

Back in London for the holiday season, the first thing I did was perform at the Salaam Café, organised by Rabia and Sakeena (aka Pearls of Islam) in aid of the Rabbani Project‘s fundraising campaign.

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

This particular installment of Salaam Café was held at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness. The bathrooms even had sensor taps for people so gripped by their anthropology textbooks they didn’t have time to turn the taps on and off.

Even though I’ve been playing and writing music since the age of about 8, and performing since about 16 (15 years ago…starting to feel the years, croak croak), these days it’s rare for me to get on a stage. More and more, however, it feels like it’s a necessary practice in order to maintain my health. I would probably save myself a good deal in chiropractor bills if I was to play more often. (Told you I was feeling old.)

But a number of things have held me back from devoting myself to music properly over all these years. One, in purely practical terms, is that my son puts his fingers in his ears every time I start playing guitar. Not the best encouragement, though I try to stand my ground and not resort to playing Postman Pat in order to appease him.

Likewise, even though night-time might be the right time for some stringed instrument loving, my daughter has the nocturnal sensitivity of a fruit bat and wakes up yelling loudly if I raise my voice over a certain volume.

IMG_3681

So for a long time now I have relegated music to something I did when the kids were away, a guilty pleasure I indulged in during childcare hours when computer work bored me stiff. Now, with them away for Xmas, it feels like I can address music the way it deserves to be addressed: in the first person, as my lawfully wedded partner, and not the bit-on-the-side I’ve shamefully viewed it as.

Another lurking niggle has been the whole issue of music in Islam – more specifically, the prohibition on girls singing in taverns. Having played music in various pubs and bars, I can vouch for the unpleasantness of singing out your heart and soul for a bunch of people either too woozy to take in what you’re saying, so over-enthusiastic you can’t take their reactions seriously, or busy vomiting into someone’s cleavage.

Now, I don’t generally listen to any Muslim authority figure who harangues, wags fingers or can’t remember how to smile; it flies in the face of the Prophetic example of having good manners and speaking with kindness and smiles. Yet their rhetoric can get stuck in the back of the head. Hard-line Muslims will argue that “Anything that leads to bad is bad”. I don’t even know where this statement emerged from, but just running it through some basic logic it becomes clear that at the very least, it cannot be universal.

Let’s take driving, for example. Travelling by car is the most dangerous form of transport on the planet; an estimated 1,240,000 people died last year worldwide. Killing a pedestrian, your passengers (usually your own family) and/or yourself surely qualifies as something that is ‘bad’. Yet we do it most days without thinking.

On the other hand, a good deal of ‘good’ happens as a result of vehicles travelling around the place. In fact, one ambulance alone can save over 4,000 lives every month, while in 2012 only 1,475 people died in the UK in traffic-related deaths. That’s a rather delightful ratio of potential good versus potential harm. By comparison, listening to a song doesn’t cost a penny, pollute the environment OR contribute to political instability in the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation!

From a Sufi perspective, everything has the potential to lead to good, depending on how we handle it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been manifested by the Most Compassionate. As my Yogi Tea aphorism put it today: ‘What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle.’ Thankyou, O Sweet Chai guru.

Sweet Chai guru

Sweet Chai guru

So the (somewhat tired) argument that music leads to ‘bad’ (music videos that degrade women, musicians bloated on glory and money, glorification of drug use etc. etc.) has to be balanced by the good that it can lead to (enjoyment, relaxation, healing, bringing people together, gainful employment for deserving skint people, etc. etc.).

More than any of this ideological browbeating, however, my most compelling excuse for giving up on music (albeit temporarily) was the sudden lurch from joy to despair that always seemed to happen after a concert. The thrill of being warmly received bottomed out almost immediately off stage, replaced by a deep disgust with myself, a complete loss of self-belief, and a feeling that this really wasn’t good for me overall.

But reintroducing music into the Sufilicious environment that I was introduced to it in (having started singing Andalusi and North African qasidas as a child at the dhikrs our families went to), this whole dimension of performance has been transformed for me.

Instead of feeling elevated into some kind of momentary idol and then dropped from the height of my inflated ego and smashing into smithereens, the joy I am not only feeling within but also feeling reflected back from the audience is now merely a trope for the love of (or from?) the Divine that unites us. It’s what makes me want to sing in the first place and what makes them inclined to listen. The stage and the crowd overlap, and the afterglow is real and lasting.

IMG_3663

Just in case anyone hasn’t got the message loud and clear, music has a tangible, cellular effect on the body. It changes us – for better or worse. I spent many, many nights alone in my attic room as a teenager, hugging the child-sized guitar that resonated against my chest and brought it out of numbness and back through pain and into joy again. The classical Islamic world was full of hospitals in which orchestras would play healing music to invalids.

Certain kinds of acoustic music, such as West African kora music or cante jondo flamenco, has a tremendous power to affect my emotions, while bopping like a lunatic to trance changes my heartrate so swiftly that the novelty quickly wears off. Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba get me dancing for joy, as does Congolese rumba. South African gospel fills me like a sail. Bulgarian choral music sends me to a strange alternative universe of harmony and dissonance.

The relationship between art and pain is so well documented it has become easy to view it as myth. You can study how to write songs or poetry, after all, and being a professional means getting the job done, not waiting for inspiration to spring out of suffering. Yet the bond is still there, indestructably. Art in whatever form will always be the artist’s favourite way to self-medicate. And it’s not just a drug to numb the symptoms while corroding the taker’s overall health: it’s medicine. Any bitter side-effects are just a sign of the cure about to occur.

1451382_756163931066762_51885419_n

For those readers who are in London at the moment (or who can easily get there), I’ll be performing again this Saturday at South Kilburn studios as part of the Rumi’s Cave end-of-year fest. In the meantime, I have promised myself not only to write a poem at day (even if it is crap), but also to give some serious time to music, and even – inshallah! – get a satisfying amount of recording done on my new album. As Rumi said, ‘There is no grace without discipline’.

See, now I have no excuse. You have my permission to chase me up about it. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyous Christmas, complete with chestnuts roasting on an open fire – and not a double entendre in sight.

Musical Muslims: Retoasting an Old Chestnut

Back in London for the holiday season, the first thing I did was perform at the Salaam Café, organised by Rabia and Sakeena (aka Pearls of Islam) in aid of the Rabbani Project‘s fundraising campaign.

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

This particular installment of Salaam Café was held at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness. The bathrooms even had sensor taps for people so gripped by their anthropology textbooks they didn’t have time to turn the taps on and off.

Even though I’ve been playing and writing music since the age of about 8, and performing since about 16 (15 years ago…starting to feel the years, croak croak), these days it’s rare for me to get on a stage. More and more, however, it feels like it’s a necessary practice in order to maintain my health. I would probably save myself a good deal in chiropractor bills if I was to play more often. (Told you I was feeling old.)

But a number of things have held me back from devoting myself to music properly over all these years. One, in purely practical terms, is that my son puts his fingers in his ears every time I start playing guitar. Not the best encouragement, though I try to stand my ground and not resort to playing Postman Pat in order to appease him.

Likewise, even though night-time might be the right time for some stringed instrument loving, my daughter has the nocturnal sensitivity of a fruit bat and wakes up yelling loudly if I raise my voice over a certain volume.

IMG_3681

So for a long time now I have relegated music to something I did when the kids were away, a guilty pleasure I indulged in during childcare hours when computer work bored me stiff. Now, with them away for Xmas, it feels like I can address music the way it deserves to be addressed: in the first person, as my lawfully wedded partner, and not the bit-on-the-side I’ve shamefully viewed it as.

Another lurking niggle has been the whole issue of music in Islam – more specifically, the prohibition on girls singing in taverns. Having played music in various pubs and bars, I can vouch for the unpleasantness of singing out your heart and soul for a bunch of people either too woozy to take in what you’re saying, so over-enthusiastic you can’t take their reactions seriously, or busy vomiting into someone’s cleavage.

Now, I don’t generally listen to any Muslim authority figure who harangues, wags fingers or can’t remember how to smile; it flies in the face of the Prophetic example of having good manners and speaking with kindness and smiles. Yet their rhetoric can get stuck in the back of the head. Hard-line Muslims will argue that “Anything that leads to bad is bad”. I don’t even know where this statement emerged from, but just running it through some basic logic it becomes clear that at the very least, it cannot be universal.

Let’s take driving, for example. Travelling by car is the most dangerous form of transport on the planet; an estimated 1,240,000 people died last year worldwide. Killing a pedestrian, your passengers (usually your own family) and/or yourself surely qualifies as something that is ‘bad’. Yet we do it most days without thinking.

On the other hand, a good deal of ‘good’ happens as a result of vehicles travelling around the place. In fact, one ambulance alone can save over 4,000 lives every month, while in 2012 only 1,475 people died in the UK in traffic-related deaths. That’s a rather delightful ratio of potential good versus potential harm. By comparison, listening to a song doesn’t cost a penny, pollute the environment OR contribute to political instability in the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation!

From a Sufi perspective, everything has the potential to lead to good, depending on how we handle it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been manifested by the Most Compassionate. As my Yogi Tea aphorism put it today: ‘What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle.’ Thankyou, O Sweet Chai guru.

Sweet Chai guru

Sweet Chai guru

So the (somewhat tired) argument that music leads to ‘bad’ (music videos that degrade women, musicians bloated on glory and money, glorification of drug use etc. etc.) has to be balanced by the good that it can lead to (enjoyment, relaxation, healing, bringing people together, gainful employment for deserving skint people, etc. etc.).

More than any of this ideological browbeating, however, my most compelling excuse for giving up on music (albeit temporarily) was the sudden lurch from joy to despair that always seemed to happen after a concert. The thrill of being warmly received bottomed out almost immediately off stage, replaced by a deep disgust with myself, a complete loss of self-belief, and a feeling that this really wasn’t good for me overall.

But reintroducing music into the Sufilicious environment that I was introduced to it in (having started singing Andalusi and North African qasidas as a child at the dhikrs our families went to), this whole dimension of performance has been transformed for me.

Instead of feeling elevated into some kind of momentary idol and then dropped from the height of my inflated ego and smashing into smithereens, the joy I am not only feeling within but also feeling reflected back from the audience is now merely a trope for the love of (or from?) the Divine that unites us. It’s what makes me want to sing in the first place and what makes them inclined to listen. The stage and the crowd overlap, and the afterglow is real and lasting.

IMG_3663

Just in case anyone hasn’t got the message loud and clear, music has a tangible, cellular effect on the body. It changes us – for better or worse. I spent many, many nights alone in my attic room as a teenager, hugging the child-sized guitar that resonated against my chest and brought it out of numbness and back through pain and into joy again. The classical Islamic world was full of hospitals in which orchestras would play healing music to invalids.

Certain kinds of acoustic music, such as West African kora music or cante jondo flamenco, has a tremendous power to affect my emotions, while bopping like a lunatic to trance changes my heartrate so swiftly that the novelty quickly wears off. Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba get me dancing for joy, as does Congolese rumba. South African gospel fills me like a sail. Bulgarian choral music sends me to a strange alternative universe of harmony and dissonance.

The relationship between art and pain is so well documented it has become easy to view it as myth. You can study how to write songs or poetry, after all, and being a professional means getting the job done, not waiting for inspiration to spring out of suffering. Yet the bond is still there, indestructably. Art in whatever form will always be the artist’s favourite way to self-medicate. And it’s not just a drug to numb the symptoms while corroding the taker’s overall health: it’s medicine. Any bitter side-effects are just a sign of the cure about to occur.

1451382_756163931066762_51885419_n

For those readers who are in London at the moment (or who can easily get there), I’ll be performing again this Saturday at South Kilburn studios as part of the Rumi’s Cave end-of-year fest. In the meantime, I have promised myself not only to write a poem at day (even if it is crap), but also to give some serious time to music, and even – inshallah! – get a satisfying amount of recording done on my new album. As Rumi said, ‘There is no grace without discipline’.

See, now I have no excuse. You have my permission to chase me up about it. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyous Christmas, complete with chestnuts roasting on an open fire – and not a double entendre in sight.

Musical Muslims: Retoasting an Old Chestnut

Back in London for the holiday season, the first thing I did was perform at the Salaam Café, organised by Rabia and Sakeena (aka Pearls of Islam) in aid of the Rabbani Project‘s fundraising campaign.

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

This particular installment of Salaam Café was held at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness. The bathrooms even had sensor taps for people so gripped by their anthropology textbooks they didn’t have time to turn the taps on and off.

Even though I’ve been playing and writing music since the age of about 8, and performing since about 16 (15 years ago…starting to feel the years, croak croak), these days it’s rare for me to get on a stage. More and more, however, it feels like it’s a necessary practice in order to maintain my health. I would probably save myself a good deal in chiropractor bills if I was to play more often. (Told you I was feeling old.)

But a number of things have held me back from devoting myself to music properly over all these years. One, in purely practical terms, is that my son puts his fingers in his ears every time I start playing guitar. Not the best encouragement, though I try to stand my ground and not resort to playing Postman Pat in order to appease him.

Likewise, even though night-time might be the right time for some stringed instrument loving, my daughter has the nocturnal sensitivity of a fruit bat and wakes up yelling loudly if I raise my voice over a certain volume.

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So for a long time now I have relegated music to something I did when the kids were away, a guilty pleasure I indulged in during childcare hours when computer work bored me stiff. Now, with them away for Xmas, it feels like I can address music the way it deserves to be addressed: in the first person, as my lawfully wedded partner, and not the bit-on-the-side I’ve shamefully viewed it as.

Another lurking niggle has been the whole issue of music in Islam – more specifically, the prohibition on girls singing in taverns. Having played music in various pubs and bars, I can vouch for the unpleasantness of singing out your heart and soul for a bunch of people either too woozy to take in what you’re saying, so over-enthusiastic you can’t take their reactions seriously, or busy vomiting into someone’s cleavage.

Now, I don’t generally listen to any Muslim authority figure who harangues, wags fingers or can’t remember how to smile; it flies in the face of the Prophetic example of having good manners and speaking with kindness and smiles. Yet their rhetoric can get stuck in the back of the head. Hard-line Muslims will argue that “Anything that leads to bad is bad”. I don’t even know where this statement emerged from, but just running it through some basic logic it becomes clear that at the very least, it cannot be universal.

Let’s take driving, for example. Travelling by car is the most dangerous form of transport on the planet; an estimated 1,240,000 people died last year worldwide. Killing a pedestrian, your passengers (usually your own family) and/or yourself surely qualifies as something that is ‘bad’. Yet we do it most days without thinking.

On the other hand, a good deal of ‘good’ happens as a result of vehicles travelling around the place. In fact, one ambulance alone can save over 4,000 lives every month, while in 2012 only 1,475 people died in the UK in traffic-related deaths. That’s a rather delightful ratio of potential good versus potential harm. By comparison, listening to a song doesn’t cost a penny, pollute the environment OR contribute to political instability in the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation!

From a Sufi perspective, everything has the potential to lead to good, depending on how we handle it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been manifested by the Most Compassionate. As my Yogi Tea aphorism put it today: ‘What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle.’ Thankyou, O Sweet Chai guru.

Sweet Chai guru

Sweet Chai guru

So the (somewhat tired) argument that music leads to ‘bad’ (music videos that degrade women, musicians bloated on glory and money, glorification of drug use etc. etc.) has to be balanced by the good that it can lead to (enjoyment, relaxation, healing, bringing people together, gainful employment for deserving skint people, etc. etc.).

More than any of this ideological browbeating, however, my most compelling excuse for giving up on music (albeit temporarily) was the sudden lurch from joy to despair that always seemed to happen after a concert. The thrill of being warmly received bottomed out almost immediately off stage, replaced by a deep disgust with myself, a complete loss of self-belief, and a feeling that this really wasn’t good for me overall.

But reintroducing music into the Sufilicious environment that I was introduced to it in (having started singing Andalusi and North African qasidas as a child at the dhikrs our families went to), this whole dimension of performance has been transformed for me.

Instead of feeling elevated into some kind of momentary idol and then dropped from the height of my inflated ego and smashing into smithereens, the joy I am not only feeling within but also feeling reflected back from the audience is now merely a trope for the love of (or from?) the Divine that unites us. It’s what makes me want to sing in the first place and what makes them inclined to listen. The stage and the crowd overlap, and the afterglow is real and lasting.

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Just in case anyone hasn’t got the message loud and clear, music has a tangible, cellular effect on the body. It changes us – for better or worse. I spent many, many nights alone in my attic room as a teenager, hugging the child-sized guitar that resonated against my chest and brought it out of numbness and back through pain and into joy again. The classical Islamic world was full of hospitals in which orchestras would play healing music to invalids.

Certain kinds of acoustic music, such as West African kora music or cante jondo flamenco, has a tremendous power to affect my emotions, while bopping like a lunatic to trance changes my heartrate so swiftly that the novelty quickly wears off. Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba get me dancing for joy, as does Congolese rumba. South African gospel fills me like a sail. Bulgarian choral music sends me to a strange alternative universe of harmony and dissonance.

The relationship between art and pain is so well documented it has become easy to view it as myth. You can study how to write songs or poetry, after all, and being a professional means getting the job done, not waiting for inspiration to spring out of suffering. Yet the bond is still there, indestructably. Art in whatever form will always be the artist’s favourite way to self-medicate. And it’s not just a drug to numb the symptoms while corroding the taker’s overall health: it’s medicine. Any bitter side-effects are just a sign of the cure about to occur.

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For those readers who are in London at the moment (or who can easily get there), I’ll be performing again this Saturday at South Kilburn studios as part of the Rumi’s Cave end-of-year fest. In the meantime, I have promised myself not only to write a poem at day (even if it is crap), but also to give some serious time to music, and even – inshallah! – get a satisfying amount of recording done on my new album. As Rumi said, ‘There is no grace without discipline’.

See, now I have no excuse. You have my permission to chase me up about it. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyous Christmas, complete with chestnuts roasting on an open fire – and not a double entendre in sight.