The underlying themes of the following three documentaries represent some form of unity, an exploration at the foundation of indigenous cultures heading into the future with a solid understanding of what has brought them here. With any evolution, growing pains exist, and the directors and producers of these three fine films have done their best to show that while governments and popular media often present one side of a story, many others exist. The unity of Islam through musical means, the convergence of South Asian folk with modern technologies, and the plight of Saharan desert dwellers and their familial and social rites make up this trio of cinematic travels. Sit back and enjoy the ride, for there is much to be learned, and even more to be enjoyed.
Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam
“Because its bases are in every human mind already,” writes Idries Shah in his celebrated work, The Sufis, “Sufic development must inevitably find its expression everywhere.” Director Simon Broughton and host William Dalrymple explore Sufism, the “mystical” sect of Islam, in this fascinating documentary as ripe with music as it is with messages—namely, the underlying current of all spiritual faiths that bonds and unites humans. Given the diverse nature of the music covered in this brief film, one can expect Sufism to have an inherent flexibility. Indeed, it does.
Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam
Youssou N'Dour, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sain Zahoor, Mercan Dede
(EarthSync India; UK theatrical: Available as import; 2007)
Footsteps in Africa: A Nomadic Journey
(Kiahkeya Productions; 2009)
Sufism is often frowned upon by the Sunni and Shi’a sects of Islam, mostly due to the fact that they attempt to experience the divine, believing the universal energy to be attainable by everyone. Mohammed tapped into this, pointing the way for others to follow; he did not hoard that knowledge and claim that no one else could have it. We have an obvious parallel in a Christian society with followers of Jesus; recall that the Gnostics were derided for claiming God was available to all as well. Through their rituals of music and dance, the Sufis tap into the transcendent possibilities of existence.
It’s the polarization of not only Islam, but faiths in general that Broughton and Dalyrmple address, doing so beautifully in this informational and sonically rich undertaking. The music is what drives this film, which is fitting, because the Sufis believe that music is what drives us. The term “Sufi” has been well-circulated since Coleman Barks’ translations of Rumi’s richly textured verses made him the largest-selling poet in America in the 1990s—no small feat for a man who was born in Afghanistan and spent most of his life in Turkey in the 13th century.
While the faithful claim that Islam is a religion, Sufis would say that Sufism is religion; it is the elemental thread upon which the wool (which is the meaning of the word “Sufi”) is woven. Music is a devotional force in praise of Allah, and from the opening minute of this film we are embraced by Pakistan’s Sain Zahoor, spinning cyclically while fiddling his ektara and singing praiseful lyrics. His voice is heartbreaking; the ghungroos, or ankle bracelets with bells, keep rhythm while he pounces.
There are other memorable performances, including Turkey’s Mercan Dede, who although now living in Canada spreads the gospel of his homeland’s flute, the ney, combined with bottom-heavy electronica. Flautist Kudsi Erguner, a Mevlevi Sufi and one of the planet’s most renowned ney players, talks about the oppression of Sufis; it is still illegal in some countries to partake in their rituals, although that law is less enforced these days. While governmental agencies use the images and ideas of Sufism to promote tourism, hence exotifying their country for mystically inclined travelers, the reality is the opposite—it is the tale of the gypsy, remixed.
The duo then journeys into Pakistan to visit Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, nephew and successor of the great Ustad of qawwali music, as well as Abida Parveen, another of today’s great qawwals (and especially rare, given that she is female). We also travel to Fes, Morocco, for the Sacred World Music Festival, witnessing Youssou N’Dour in action. The Senegalese superstar took a break from mbalax in 2004 to record a stunning collection of Sufi devotional songs, Egypt. His intent was similar to that of the producers of Sufi Soul, the art he created just as important. While the songs during the actual film are substantial, the extras have complete performances by some of the artists, making it an even more pleasant purchase.
Despite the subtitle and popular sentiment, there is nothing “mystical” about Sufism; the discipline is aimed toward fulfilling the highest human potential: union with everything. From a political and theological standpoint, it is easier to control subjects by having them believe there exists a grand battle between good and evil, and of course that they are on the side of good. It is an old and tragic tale, one we continue to live today. The soul of Islam lives through these musicians, and others who promote the idea of going beyond good and evil to merge with life in all its facets; devotion has nothing to do with only giving thanks when things go your way. When nothing is denied, everything is complete, and we spin, like the dervishes of Sufic faith, in unblemished symmetry.
While there are many gorgeous moments on this DVD, the top two are from India. Vocalist Chinmayi Sripada offers a brief exposition on the nature of water music—that is, the songs of fishermen, which used to be timed to the row stroke. That was lost, he claimed, when motorboats took away the rhythm. (It makes one think of the chain gang song that opens the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, “Po’ Lazarus”.) The musicians then launch into “Hai La Sa”. The cinematography is unmatched. Cameras pan to the quick-fingered veena player, A.K. Devi, who literally sets fire to the piece, and to tabla player K.V. Balakrishnan, whose cadence is matched only by his smile.
Part Koyaanisqatsi, part Baraka, part Planet Earth, the filmmakers of Laya Project set out to record and present indigenous and village music of South Asia in a completely new manner. With technology on their side, they certainly succeed. The portraits of mountains, lakes, sunsets, and so on are delicious to the eyes. The real winner is the people, both those in the towns they visit, and the musicians. This returns us to India for “Ya Allah”.
When I first visited the project’s MySpace page a number of months ago, I was instantly taken by this song in particular. It has serious bottom, led by the percussive instrument, rabahna; the praiseful call-and-response hymn is heartbreaking. Indeed, that is the intent of the lyrics (translated as):
You pose the question of tomorrow and lead us every day O Allah
One day I shall come to you, give me loving care that day O Allah
I am not the one who forgets you in this living world O Allah
When sadness surrounds me, you give me comfort O Allah
Not all the songs are this powerful, not all the scenes this dramatic. There is another, though, from Indonesia. The song “Kataul Kalu” features only vocals, led by Ismail AK, and handclaps. But these are some of the loudest and most rhythmic handclaps imaginable. The performers sit in a circle, dancing and shuffling to the rhythm they create, occasionally answering a line in chorus. How long a group of friends practices such a routine, or how they even came up with such ingenious music, is beyond the knowledge of this writer; that they did, much to my pleasure.
The DVD comes boxed with two CDs that, like the DVD, range in quality and tone. Some of the programming added in the mixing process, and some of the scenes, delve a bit too much into romanticism; too many clouds, not enough fields to plow. Still, this is a heartfelt and impassioned project by the Laya team, and for the moments that take your breath away—and there are plenty—this is a must-see.
Footsteps in Africa: A Nomadic Journey
Using the philosophy that images are more powerful than words (and music more powerful than both), the team behind Footsteps in Africa set out to capture the life of the Malian Tuareg/Kel Tamashek. These names have recently come into circulation thanks to the musical efforts of bands like Tinariwen, Etran Finatawa, Tartit, and others. Tinariwen, for one, was influenced by the folk music of their roving communities, not to mention the electric six-stringing of Jimi Hendrix, creating some of the most unique African music this side of Congotronics. When the music pipes in on the screen during this documentary, it is the highlight.
The nomad part of the subtitle involves the tribes’ constant displacement by governmental interference. This is the heart of the Tuareg story, and what the documentary sacrifices by focusing on the community and spirituality of these groups is an important political component. This would not be a complaint had the spirituality been clearly presented. While the photographic efforts are simply amazing—the visual effects worked in post-production are superb—the occasional spiritual maxim on the screen detracts from the overall meaning. If you’re going to use images as the driving force in your work, let them do the talking; adding sometimes subtracts.
Still, the sights and sounds are enough to carry this film. Getting an inside view into a little-known community—their rites and rituals, their day-to-day and struggles in a harsh desert environment—makes this an important document. The insights offered by one elder, that Americans and Europeans are racing to the top of the mountain and are, therefore, “obligated to fall”, draws a timeless parallel to current economic conditions. These people are survivors, and if a world ever were to crash, it would be them, not us, who would continue pushing forward. Sometimes adding subtracts, true, but sometimes less is more. As it’s so brilliantly stated in the liner notes, “We did not know we were poor until you told us we were poor.” Their riches—in family, community, knowledge, music, dance—are what make a culture thrive, and survive.