Rumi-nating on a New Axis

by Derek Beres

26 February 2007

The Sufi poet formerly known as Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi is celebrating 800 years, and the entire spectrum of Persian culture is throwing a party.
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Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.
I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.
—Rumi, from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Thanks to a former University of Georgia poetry/creative writing professor with a penchant for Sufism, the name Rumi went from an esoteric otherworldly moniker to common parlance in America. Coleman Barks began studying this small sect of Islam in 1977 and has since translated thousands of the famous poet’s works into English. And considering the man formerly known as Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi is celebrating a rather special anniversary—800 years young—the entire spectrum of Persian culture is throwing a party.

Born in what is now a region in Afghanistan and passing on in Turkey, Rumi’s name alone has become synonymous with a region often looked upon with misunderstanding and scorn. Considering that major media outlets look at this area as an addendum to and co-conspirators with a country Americans are at war with, the propagation of a poet whose entire career was about the bonding forces of humanity is a timely, and important, occurrence.

Persian music is generally regarded to be in the hands of a few masters, playing more traditional modes. And indeed, much of what is imported is fantastic. Leading the pack is kamenche (spiked fiddle) player Kayhan Kalhor, whose 2006 album The Wind (ECM) is a creative exploration of regional folk alongside baglama player Erdal Erzincan. Kalhor has performed with numerous other outfits promoting Persian music globally, including the inimitable Masters of Persian Music, featuring vocalist Hossein Alizadeh; a duet with vocalist Ali Akbar Moradi; another duet featuring vocalist/sitar player Shujaat Hussein Khan called Ghazal; and his pivotal role in cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.

Few performers can touch Kalhor in importance, yet there are more regional efforts in the United States to promote the arts of Persia. Now in its second year, the Persian Arts Festival is one such gathering, created to, in the words of co-founder Mona Kayhan, “fill the void” of a lack of awareness of her cultural heritage. “I was getting slowly enraged by the bad press Iran was, and still is, receiving, and how the average person began to look at our sophisticated and deep culture as simply terrorist-driven.  In these troubled times, people are dismissing Persian culture’s wealth of art and music.”

Influenced by Rumi since youth, Kayhan and crew have created a year’s worth of festivities focused around the poet’s birthday. One recent production they lent a hand to was A Tribute to Nusrat, a January show featuring qawwali/ghazal vocalist Vishal Vaid, that indirectly paid tribute to Rumi via the work of the late, great Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. With planned poetry events for the summer, as well as informational and musical tributes spread out across the board, the organization is on the pulse of presenting these messages of harmony so essential to the wordsmith’s work.

The lasting power of Rumi’s legacy has been through his words used as lyrics for qawwali and ghazal song forms. Vaid, the voice behind Karsh Kale’s three groundbreaking albums, is exemplary of this ability to take classic poetry and weave it into new and exciting soundscapes. “When I’m singing ghazal,” he says, “sometimes, just sometimes, I’m transported back to a time that I was never a part of, like walking the streets of 13th-century Lucknow. But most of the times I’m walking down 2nd Ave., hearing the sounds of New York.” Both his work with the tabla player and on his own innovative recordings, Vaid is the modern extension of the work Ali Khan began decades ago.

Another example of this movement is setar player and vocalist Haale, who on her two latest EP releases, Paratrooper and Morning (both self-released), works the words of Rumi and Hafiz into a panoramic blend of luscious rock, heady bass, and brilliantly produced rhythms. She began feeding her lifelong love of Persian poetry by translating them from Farsi into English for magazines like Rattapallax, and continues to spread this song form to American ears.

“He’s been a sort of towering, mythical figure in my mind since I was a kid,” she says. “In the ‘90s I got to witness the Rumi explosion in America, when he really got into the mainstream via Coleman Barks’s translations and the Bill Moyers show. Suddenly he was everywhere. I started translating him myself, singing his lyrics in Persian.  Traditional Sufi music is a tool to put listeners and players into a trance state, to usher them into higher states of consciousness. This is a deep, powerful way to conceive of music.”

Probably the biggest breakthrough in America for promoting Persian music to new audiences has been Niyaz, headed by the beautiful Azam Ali. A former vocalist for the rootsier Vas, Ali joined forces with rabab/saz player Loga Ramin Torkian and producer Carmen Rizzo to push Persia into the digital world. The result, Niyaz, and her subsequent solo Elysium for the Brave (both Six Degrees), is where the future of Persia lies: a rich and fertile tapestry of past influences with modern production.

On Niyaz, Ali wove the words of Rumi into such songs as “Ghazal” and “Nahan”, two of the record’s great successes. For the vocalist, paying homage can be forward-thinking as well, if put in the proper context. “My favorite music has blended both elements,” she says. “I believe as organic as we wanted to make music, we’re still recording it on modern technology. A lot of people that are afraid of technology are really closed off to a whole realm of possibilities when it comes to making music. For me it has opened up so many opportunities in what you can do.”

Since his remarkable life began, Rumi’s influence has spread widely. The ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes, one of the main vocations of Sufis worldwide, owes its credit to a young scribe in love with life, wine, and his teacher Shams. Eight-hundred years later, he continues to inspire with messages such as this, reminding us that between perception and reality is a great distance, and if we can find it within ourselves to close that gap, an entire new world can appear.

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