As I stepped into an incensed low lit circular performance space at the Alwan for the Arts, it quickly became apparent this was going to be a unique night of live music.
The four musicians of the TARAB Ensemble (Taoufiq Ben Amor, Ramzi Edlibi, Zafer Tawil, Johnny Farraj) began their performance with the Islamic call to prayer. Each called from different positions in the room- the result was an intoxicating cacophony of sourceless sound. As the Sufi musicians settled in the middle of the room, lead vocalist/group Taoufiq Ben Amor opened the concert proper with a chanted Koran verse: his voice is clear and almost mystical, picking up each syllable and setting it down again with a delivery that combines passionate expression with an artfully precise control of timbre. It sounded as if he was calling directly to the audience, asking us to slow down and open our senses to the experience that they were creating.
The program was divided into different suites (wasla), creating an overarching structure that allows Sufi musicians to expound on cycles of scales (maqamat) and improvisation that are essential to the style. According to the tenets of certain Sufi groups, music, like the dance of the “whirling dervish,” can bring access to the “world of true being, where they experience God as a whole.” But one does need not to be an initiate into Islamic mysticism in order to be transfixed by the environment metered by oud, riqq, and beautifully chanted Koranic verse.
Tarab (tarabu) music reflects the cosmopolitan qualities of a multiracial people with cultural influences drawn from across Africa and the Middle East; lyrics and poetic themes are not exclusively Koranic, but borrow from Eastern Bantu and Swahili in addition to Arabic. The Ensemble itself a compilation of middle eastern and north African identities and the set list was equally varied: a Tunisian song about birth of the Prophet (“It is Tunisian hip-hop!” claimed ben Amor) was played next to Peace of the Souls, a 1500 year old tune regarding Mohammed’s journey from Mecca to Medina and a most intriguing traditional turban tie.
Serving as a powerful conclusion to the Sacred Music series at Alwan, the TARAB Ensemble’s performance enveloped the audience, immersing them in the breadth of a little known musical form, and evoking the spiritual mysticism of a sound that is at once far and near, melancholic and celebratory.
To read more about Alwan for the arts, click HERE.